NYC: Bias & Disability Discrimination

Regina Martinez-Estela is not only ICS Co-President, she is an appointee to the New York City’s Human Rights Commission. In this article she explains the strong protections available to New Yorkers with disabilities under the City’s Human Rights law.
NYC Bias & Disability Discrimination

New York City has one of the strongest civil rights laws in the nation, which outlaws discrimination, very broadly defined. The New York City Commission on Human Rights has the job of enforcing that law, as well as educating New Yorkers about our rights. Anyone who believes they have been a victim of discrimination in New York City can file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, which will investigate and, if cause is found, take legal action.

Information on how to get help from the NYC Human Rights Commission is here.

In 2015 I was appointed to the Human Rights Commission, bringing to that service my knowledge and experience as a woman, Latino and long-time advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. I was brought on soon after Mayor De Blasio appointed Carmelyn Malalis to revitalize the agency, which had long been underfunded and understaffed. Commissioner Malalis has prioritized enforcement of the law, resulting in more complaints of discrimination being investigated and resolved.

Disability discrimination tops race and gender bias

For the past several years, the highest number of complaints the City’s Human Rights Commission has received was not for race or gender bias, but rather for discrimination against people with disabilities. Common disability-related complaints the Commission receives are:

  • People who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices being unable to gain access to housing or public accommodations due to broken elevators or lack of ramps
  • People with service animals being denied access to or service in housing and public accommodations
  • People who were fired or retaliated against by employers for taking time off to deal with a disability

Discrimination against people with disabilities has probably been around as long as people have walked the Earth. My educated guess is that the reason so many disability-related complaints are now being made is due to an increase in reporting of discriminatory acts that have been going on forever, but that more and more people are unwilling to put up with. That is a good thing; it’s exactly what needs to happen to change a culture in which people with disabilities, the nation’s largest minority group, are too often unseen and unheard. Every compliant we receive at the Commission is someone saying, in effect, discriminating against me because I have a disability is not only wrong; it’s illegal.

The Commission uses its enforcement powers in a number of ways. It can require building owners to install ramps, level doorways, or repair elevators so that people with mobility disabilities can gain access. It can impose fines to discourage future violations and require building owners to attend training to familiarize themselves with the law.

When service animals are involved, a company’s employees often need to be educated and company policies may need to be changed. For example, as part of a settlement the Commission reached involving denial of service to a customer with a service dog, the Pret A Manger food chain agreed to train all managers at its New York City locations on how to comply with the City’s Human Rights Law.

In some instances where individuals have been harmed by discriminatory actions, the Commission can also recover money to compensate them.

Violence against people with disabilities

In 2015, for the first time, ICS included self-defense workshops as part of a day-long conference for women with disabilities. We strongly encourage any ICS member who experiences violence or abuse to immediately speak with their care manager or any member of our staff and report it to the police.

People with disabilities have long enduring bullying and many other forms of abuse, and in recent years there has been an increase in public awareness of violence against people with disabilities. Again, my educated guess is that this is due to an increase in reporting, as well as an increase in media attention to longstanding behavior. It is difficult to know for certain – but the upward trend in reported incidents is clear.

According to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely as those without disabilities to be victims of violent crime, including rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault. In addition, women with disabilities experience high rates of domestic abuse, and remain in abusive situations longer than women without disabilities do.

Hate crime

Violent hate crimes are a devastating form of discrimination. New York State’s hate crimes law increases criminal penalties for any crime where the victim is selected, in whole or part, because of his or her disability. If you are the victim of a crime and believe that your disability was a factor, it is important to give this information to the police.

It is well-known that relations between police officers and people with disabilities have not always been smooth and have sometimes been tragic. There is an enormous need to increase police training and competency about interacting with people with disabilities, something the federal Justice Department and individual police forces have begun to focus on.

That said, it is essential for anyone who has been the victim of a crime report it to the police. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics I referenced above, fewer than half of all violent crimes against people with disabilities are reported to the police. Of those, in 21 percent of cases the victim said they did not believe it was important enough to report and in 19 percent of cases they said they didn’t believe the police would help them.

The problem with not reporting a crime though, is that it can help perpetuate the criminal behavior and the perception of people with disabilities as easy targets – a disservice to the crime victim and to the community as a whole.

Regina Martinez-Estela

Regina Martinez-Estela

ICS President

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