In Court, at Rally, People with Disabilities Demand Subway Access

People with disabilities and their supporters gathered outside 60 Centre St. on Monday morning, prior to the hearing. At far right, in purple cap, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn (one of the plaintiffs). | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

BY JUDY L. RICHHEIMER | March 5 — when Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was due to expire — had been a signal date for anyone focused on national politics. Because two judicial rulings shut down that deadline, the day became just another Monday — on the immigration front, at least. But March 5 may yet turn out to be a watershed moment in the annals of human rights.

That morning, nearly 50 activists, many in wheelchairs and electric scooters, packed the courtroom of New York State Supreme Court Justice Shlomo S. Hagler to show support for a suit seeking 100 percent accessibility in New York City’s subways. The suit, filed last April, brought together as plaintiffs six nonprofits and three individuals, with lead plaintiff the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (

Prior to the hearing, advocates for people with disabilities held a spirited rally in front of the courthouse at 60 Centre St. Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a software engineer for Google who uses a manual wheelchair (and is a plaintiff in the suit), led what he described as a call-and-response: “What do people in wheelchairs need?” he shouted. “Elevators,” the crowd of about 20 responded. Then the group joined in a chant repeated more than a dozen times: “Let us ride!”

Oral argument for dismissal was presented by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit, and the City of New York — defendants in the suit. Their grounds were threefold. First, they asserted that as a state authority, they were not subject to local law (the suit was brought under the city’s 1965 Human Rights Act, whose requirements for accommodating the disabled were more stringent than federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements). Second, the defendants said the matter should not be decided in the courts. Finally, they noted the statute of limitations for relief from discrimination had passed.

“The judge wasn’t buying their arguments,” opined Blair-Goldensohn after the hearing.

Justice Hagler has had something of a mixed reputation among liberals — his landlord-friendly ruling last year on rent stabilization incensed tenant activists —but during this hearing, he evinced solidarity with people with disabilities. “It’s just not plain fair,” Hagler said of the city’s extreme lack of subway access for the disabled, citing that, among major cities, we come in dead last on that front.

On the other hand, the judge played “devil’s advocate,” as he described it, with the plaintiffs’ attorneys, worried about unrealistic timelines in meeting accessibility goals.

The judge called for a settlement conference, held on a date to be announced, to explore the possibility of resolving the lawsuit without going to trial. As for the March 5 hearing, Blair-Goldensohn and his attorney felt cautiously optimistic upon exiting 60 Centre St.

By the next day, Blair-Goldensohn had clarified his assessment. “You know, after sleeping on it, I’m pleased. I’m not ecstatic,” he said during a March 6 interview. But he was excited about the strong visual message sent by the presence of people in wheelchairs, both at the rally and inside the courtroom. “Someone across the street [spotting the rally] could say ‘Oh, there’s something going on here about disability. Those people are demanding their rights. They’re pissed about something and they are saying something has to change.’ ”

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