Thank you for joining us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.
Q: How would you define inclusion?
At the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) we believe inclusion is really about access. It means being able to move around your neighborhood and your community on your own time and at your will. Able-bodied people can do that today very easily with e-hail and subways, but that’s not the case if you’re living in poverty or if you’re disabled.
Low income areas that lack public transportation makes it harder for people to get to work and therefore perpetuates poverty. Despite our efforts to have 50% accessible cabs by 2020, we know that in reality, the majority of trips are now being done by companies like Uber, Lyft and Vias, which have almost no accessible vehicles.
NYCDOT is the largest land owner in New York City, it manages all the streets in New York City, over 6,000 lane miles. Those roadways need to work for all 8.5 million New Yorkers and visitors.
Q: So how do you build that? How do you ensure that we’re closing the inequality gaps by leveraging technology?
We’re working to close the gap by learning where people in need are located, how are they accessing our networks, and how they’re learning about the services we provide. We’re learning how people communicate with us. In London, 75% of public engagement for transport is happening through a smartphone. Those are great analytics because that tells them they should be programming for mobile platforms. If our interest is public engagement and communicating with all members of the public, then we want to know the best ways of reaching our audience.
We’re currently investing nearly 2 million dollars to redesign our website. For me, I’m excited about creating a powerful feedback portal that allows us to share projects, reach, and hear from people in all neighborhoods.
We understand that communities are different and what works in lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn will not always work in other areas. Take for example areas like Canarsie, where people are not coming to community board meetings. The neighborhood is a transit desert and has a high low-income population. So we respond to that by sending on-foot street ambassadors, because having a digital feedback portal isn’t enough to reach those members. And for community members who might not have internet in their home, we want make sure that LinkNYC totems are set up in their neighborhoods so that there’s free internet connectivity on the streets.
That’s leveling the playing field—creating a truly leveled New York City.
Access is really about giving individuals choices to make decisions on their own time. For transportation, there’s the Access-A-Ride service, but it has to be scheduled two days in advance. That’s not realistic when an able-bodied person can have a car within two minutes from wherever they are. That’s where government comes in: it’s our job to equalize opportunities when the private sector might not see an incentive to do so.
Q: The University of Cambridge talked to us about the work they’re doing with Unilever, optimizing images for the visually impaired on the desktop. Unilever realized that if they used an inclusion or accessibility framework, they’d be reaching more of the mainstream and get more customers.
The private industry has yet to learn that a disabled person’s money is as green as anyone else’s. Despite being in a wheelchair I have dispensable income that I’m going to spend where I’m welcomed and I feel my needs are being met. I’m not going to use an Uber or a Lyft that’s not accessible. I’m going to get a TLC Yellow or Green Cab that has a ramp, that I can get in with my friends and go to a bar. By providing accessible fleets for highest need demographics, all members of society are served. All New Yorkers, no matter of physical limitations, are able to hail and ride a TLC car.
Q: What should the environment look like and can you give an example?
I would like to see an environment in which everyone has access to the same level of information, received in a mode that suits their individual needs.
For example, I want visually impaired pedestrians to see everything that I see when I walk out into the streets, if not more. I just had a conversation with a doctor at NYU, who says that his mission is to have every child with a visually disability understand that their disability can also be their opportunity. This doctor’s goal is to make superpowers for visually impaired children. To augment their sight by leveraging innovations in technology and making kids with disabilities feel superhuman.
This is his vision: a blind person walks into a room and waves her arm in a specific motion. That motion activates a device that speaks into her ear via induction headphones or another communication mechanism. This device will tell her everything that’s happening in that room — how many people are there, where the trashcan is located, where there’s an empty seat for them to grab. That’s a superpower.
Actually, that’s not just leveling the playing field, that’s giving more than what we sighted folks have. I like that approach because we live in a society where very little is designed for a person with a disability.
Diversity is just an invitation to the party. Inclusion is getting asked to dance. Today, there are very few invitations to dance. We’re just now entering the conversations of diversity. I want us to be talking about what happens when the person gets in: how do they interact with the environment. How does a kid with a disability get into a playground and play? How do they engage with kids around them?
That’s a conversation I want to have. We’re talking to private companies and asking them what are they doing to help pedestrians, what are they doing to enhance the pedestrian experience for those with disabilities?
Q: What’s a project you’re working on that you’re really excited about?
New York City is one of three cities throughout the United States that was chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to test connected vehicles technology.
I own the pedestrian part of that project. Infrastructure is being set up that will sit above the traffic intersections and communicate with thousands of vehicles that are going to be outfitted with new technology. The new infrastructure will be able to tell a driver: “Don’t speed to make this light, you don’t have enough time”, or “be aware there’s a car in front of you that’s going to make a right or left turn”. And what gets me the most excited: “be aware there’s a vulnerable road user at this corner”.
More than half of traffic crashes happen when drivers make a right or lefthand turn. Motorists can’t always see all pedestrians at a corner quadrant. That becomes exponentially complicated and dangerous for a low visions or blind pedestrian.
I’m hoping to recruit a minimum of 100 low-vision or blind pedestrians so that they can have these devices (it’ll start with phones, but ultimately I want them to be some type of wearable like a watch with haptic technology) that indicate when they have the right to cross the street and notifies their whereabouts to a motorist or a truck driver who has limited view of pedestrians at the corner quadrant.
Q: What were your expectations before you started working with NY DOT and what have you learned?
I joined the DOT because I thought there were a lot of things they weren’t addressing. When I first met my commissioner, I told her I didn’t see people talking about disabilities at DOT. I didn’t see any images of persons with disabilities on their sites, I didn’t see accessibility at the forefront of their discussions. The commissioner said “Interesting, what are you going to do about it?” And that’s how I came in.
This is an administration that’s not afraid to talk about fairness and breakdown walls and gaps of inequalities. What has blown my mind is how much work for accessibility is actually happening in NYCDOT. Also the enormous amount of money and efforts that had gone unnoticed.
The missing link was that almost 99% of the team were able-bodied people. They didn’t know how to speak about disabilities in a comfortable way. They were scared of offending people, of saying the wrong things; so they didn’t put it out there at all. I bring in that comfort and introduce appropriate language to have these tough discussions both internally and with the public.
A lot of my work is PR and talking about all the things that we do. The public is usually blown away when they hear about our programs to enhance accessibility. If we don’t talk about these, then they assume we’re not doing anything.
There’s great work that was not being shared because of fear. I saw this when I worked in finance, and I also see it in academia. Accessibility isn’t discussed because of fear: people skirt around these topics so they don’t offend anyone, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to have more candid conversations about where we are, and how we’ll get to where we all want to be.
We’re talking to people with disabilities to see where they are, and what their obstacles are. I’m helping to instill a work culture where we don’t make assumptions, we don’t guess what the best solutions are. My commissioner will tell you that the best solutions, the best policies, are those that come from within communities. We need to engage with communities so we don’t spend time and money on the wrong solution, on things that people might not even care about or want.
Q: What are some innovations in inclusion or accessibility, outside transportation, that you’re happy about?
Last year I was invited to join Parson’s Open Style Lab and I believe we’re finally hacking fashion. We’re making accessible wearables that not only look good, but are user friendly to people with disabilities. Last weekend I spent my Saturday morning getting my body 3D scanned so that we could design clothing that would fit me on my wheelchair.
I can’t wait to have that be the norm. To have Gap looking at these technologies to fit the not conforming bodies that are out there. To make clothes for people with disabilities whom again have a dispensable income and care about looking good.
Q: What are some other things, outside of fashion?
I love sports, I rock climb and swim. I really love the hype built around the Paralympics and wish to see more of it in America. Here in New York City I’m rock climbing at Brooklyn Boulders. Lately I’m seeing a lot of people getting curious, interested in volunteering, and telling their friends with disabilities to try rock climbing with the Adaptive Climbing Group at BKB.
I’ve also been hand cycling a lot. It’s great. The city has purchased a couple of hand cycles to pick the public’s interest, and what better personal tester than me? I’m cycling up and down the Hudson River on the West Side Highway and love it.
Q: Are there still critics of inclusion and accessibility?
I won’t call out individuals, but there still many misconceptions. For example, the belief that enhancing accessibility is a cost, not an investment. To anyone who thinks that there’s no value in designing for accessibility, or in universal design, or investing for people with disabilities, I would tell them to look at the numbers: there are over 1 billion people with disabilities around the world; over 56 million in the United States alone, and about 11% of New York City’s population.
I spend money every day, from my rent, getting a hair-cut, to buying coffee. I travel a lot, but I won’t go to places that are not accessible. Not only that, I’m going to tell my friends not to go to those places either.
The reality is that the basis of my job is accessibility, and that goes far beyond just disability. It’s your average athlete who sprained their ankle, your everyday pedestrian who falls and has to use crutches for a couple of weeks. Every year, 130 thousand babies are born in the city: that’s 130 thousand baby carriages rolling up and down the subways, up and down the curb. Accessibility means a lot to all those people, and I work for all of them.
Aging groups, for example, are always leaving the city; but they don’t need to. New York is a great city to age in place, and we want them to stay in their communities. We tell them: “don’t go to Florida, unless you know how to swim and have a great flood insurance”. This is the place to be, and no matter what your needs are we are looking for ways to provide for you.
Q: In terms of work in accessibility, who do you admire?
I really admire companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google, who are thinking about needs that others aren’t looking at. And of course Apple, who completely changed the way that people with visual disabilities live in their environment with the iPhone.
The iPhone has been the biggest solution for the low vision and blind community in a long time. It created a pathway so they could join the dance floor. Apple isn’t just talking about corporate social responsibility: they’re showing us what it looks like.
But our advocates here in New York are the ones I look up to the most. They push us in government. They make us accountable for the work that we do. Thanks to them I can go to my higher-ups and tell them this isn’t just coming from me, in my head. I have a critical number of people emailing, calling and complaining to me everyday.
My work would be meaningless without the advocacy community in New York. I thank them every day, and I just wish more people would get on that bandwagon and become active.