On a recent July day, Ted Finkelstein stands outside a Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side with a tape measure and slope measuring tool in hand. The restaurant has a ramp, but it’s at so steep an angle, a manual wheelchair user would have trouble making it up the incline without assistance.
As Finkelstein leans down on one knee to measure the ramp grade, he sighs and shakes his head.
“This is definitely not code compliant,” he says. “There might as well be ski lift operators at the top of this thing collecting tickets, it’s so steep. No handrails. No landing area. It’d be tough for a person in a wheelchair to get in this place without some help.”
For the past sixteen years, as director of the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ Equal Access Program, Finkelstein has hit the streets across all five boroughs, working to make sure that the more than 800,000 New Yorkers who live with disabilities have equal access to public spaces.
“New York City is a particularly inaccessible city for many reasons — the age of the buildings, a population that is aging in place so their ability to get around is so compromised, whether it’s to get into their building or the neighborhood drugstore,” says Finkelstein.
Though the city and state provide legal protections for people with disabilities, Finkelstein says nearly a third of all cases that come before the Human Rights Commission are claims of disability discrimination. A couple of years ago, many of those cases would get lost in the shuffle, as 311 calls related to inadequate disability access would often get sent to the Department of Buildings.
Nowadays, calls about inaccessibility for disabled people fall under the jurisdiction of the City Commission on Human Rights. About 90 percent of those cases are resolved by Finkelstein, with education and enforcement of the local laws, without having to go to trial.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Finkelstein earned his master’s degree in social work at Hunter College in 1980 and began his work as an advocate and helped found the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court. He also worked with tenant associations to help foster positive community relations. It was during Finkelstein’s time in housing and neighborhood improvement that he noticed a lack of accommodations provided for people with disabilities.
“I was approached by elderly people, tenants with limited mobility, and noticed there needed to be a greater degree of focus on their protections,” he says. Finkelstein started educating landlords, real estate and co-op boards, and business owners about the city’s laws, holding training sessions, making sure stores made entrances and facilities fully accessible, and taking on tenant complaints.
“There’s nothing like being able to help someone living with a disability get a ramp installed in their building, and having them say to me, ‘Finally, I’m not trapped like an animal,’ ” he says. “And you can multiply those stories by hundreds for as long as I’ve done this.”
John Turley is 86 years old, lives on West End Avenue, and uses a wheelchair. His wife, Arlene, struggled to help him use a walker to get in and out of the building. Finkelstein pushed for the building’s management company to install a new ramp and a lift.
“This was a real necessity for me,” says Turley, who also suffers from arthritis and spinal stenosis. “Having the ramp and lift have helped my pre-existing conditions and my being able to maneuver in and out with my walker.”
“I would’ve loved to be the fly on the wall to see how he was able to do what he did,” Arlene says. “He doesn’t give up.”
With thousands of residential and commercial units still inaccessible to some New Yorkers, Finkelstein says his work is far from over.
“I’m for the people who need a strong advocate, for anybody in the city that is being discriminated against, and that includes people with disabilities.”