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Reflections on Roosevelt

Roosevelt Island lies in the East River between midtown Manhattan and Queens. In the early 1980’s, it was a planned development that brought together diverse communities and income levels,housing international diplomats as well as residents of its affordable housing units.The Island is about two miles long with long-term medical care facilities at each end. As a kid, Roosevelt Island was my home and its many diverse residents were simply the people in my neighborhood.

For a long time, I didn’t know that some of what I witnessed as a child was not common. I saw individuals on gurneys roll themselves down Main Street to go to the deli. My sister’s classmate had a personal care attendant who attended class and the playground and parties with her. My best friend’s stepdad, a wheelchair user, brought us to a fully accessible camp in the summer. He would drive us Upstate in his modified van and we’d scream from the backseat, “No hands! No hands!” as he drove down the hills. And outside the Island’s senior/disabled apartment building, a row of people with disabilities would sit each day and bide their time. I saw these friendly, good-natured men and women as an extension of my parent’s oversight, lamenting when I would get home and learn that my father had already been called with a report that I had crossed the street or been seen eating candy.

What I didn’t think about as a kid was the impact that disability had on my neighbors and the ways in which the neighborhood did not accommodate their needs. That the individual on the gurney could roll down the street, but couldn’t enter the deli. That our drives Upstate for accessible recreation were fun, but a rather long haul that only those with private transportation could make. Or that sitting in front of an apartment building all day speaks more to barriers to employment than to a personal choice to be my father’s spy. (Though the thought of a James Bond who uses a chair is very intriguing!)

While much has changed since the 1980’s…unfortunately…some things are still eerily the same. The unemployment rate of people with disabilities, for example, has not changed much - 74.8 percent vs. 73.6 percent. And the percent of people with disabilities living in poverty is also almost exactly the same - 28.9 percent vs. 29.2 percent.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom Roosevelt Island is named once said, “We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought.” It is equality of opportunity that shapes the work of National Disability Institute and the LEAD Center and our strategies to improve the employment and economic advancement of individuals with disabilities. For us, opportunity is not an elusive idea. It is the expectation that everyone has something to offer society. That we can support the enforcement of policies and laws enacted to eradicate barriers to participation and employment. And that we can all benefit from systems – education, workforce, financial, healthcare – universally designed to meet the diverse needs of everyone in our neighborhoods.

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