Senior Spotlight By John Toscano
Queens lawmakers have launched a broad campaign to help the disabled get improved public transportation and facilitate access to Social Security benefits.
In Washington, Congressmember Joseph Crowley, a member of the House Committee on Ways & Means, which has jurisdiction over Social Security operations, among other areas of government, urged the agency to provide more efficient and effective assistance to disabled Americans, including many returning veterans.
Here in New York City, Councilmembers Eric Gioia and John Liu joined Council Speaker Christine Quinn and several disability advocates to address the problems associated with present public transportation services for the disabled. They proposed a set of low-cost easily implemented recommendations for improving transportation safety and access.
Crowley (D- Queens/The Bronx) issued his proposals in testimony before the Ways & Means Committee, where he was joined by Terry Moakley of the United Spinal Association, based in Jackson Heights, who also testified.
Crowley and Moakley addressed the need to eliminate backlogs in handling disability casework, as well as shortening the mandated fivemonth waiting period before disability benefits are received from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
The Elmhurst lawmaker stated: "I fear the fivemonth federally mandated waiting period leads to massive economic hardship for many of the individuals seeking assistance and their families."
At the hearing, Crowley said, an SSA official responded that the agency had not planned on reviewing the five-month waiting period, but agreed to review this limit under questioning from Crowley.
Crowley said several other witnesses, including Moakley, praised House Democrats for increasing funding for administrative programs at the SSA. The $450 million increase for 2008 will allow for a reduction in case backlogs and an expedited process for administering benefits to eligible recipients, Crowley said.
At the city council, an investigation by the Committee On Investigations, which Gioia chairs, led to the proposals for improving transportation safety and access.
Gioia (D- Long Island City) said the investigation found, that while the city public transportation system does well servicing 1.5 billion subway riders and 741 million bus riders annually, "For some New Yorkers with disabilities, getting to Europe could be more convenient than getting to a downtown doctor's appointment."
Gioia pointed out, "The city is obligated by federal law to provide reasonable options for the city's one million plus disabled citizens, but what we've heard is that all too often those options fail." Among those options, he said, are elevators, which do not often work. In addition, MTA and Access- A-Ride workers lack necessary training.
Among the recommendations made to improve service to the disabled are:
•The MTA, which operates the Access-A-Ride program, and Access-A-Ride should conduct regular customer service training for employees, with the focus on treating passengers with disabilities with respect and sensitivity.
•Bus drivers should avoid bypassing bus stops where passengers are waiting if the bus is not filled to capacity.
•Access-A-Ride drivers and dispatchers should provide passengers with the most accurate and upto date information about delayed vehicles.
•Access-A-Ride vans should display vehicle and driver identification in a conspicuous place inside the vehicle so that riders can report complaints with a greater degree of anonymity, just as taxicab riders do.
•The MTA should enforce daily bus inspection to ensure that wheelchair lifts and other accessibility components are in working order before buses leave the depots.
Liu (D- Flushing), Transportation Committee chairman, said that the MTA has "commendably committed to improvements in transit service". But, he added, "Subways and buses remain beyond the reach of most people with disabilities."
Liu added: "The MTA can and must change that, beginning with these basic and easy-to-implement recommendations. This way we can help more New Yorkers live independently, get around and lead productive and fulfilling lives."
The recommendations made by the council will be blended into other work the council is doing to ensure that the city remains accessible, not only for people with disabilities, but also for senior citizens, Gioia said.
The council and the New York Academy of Medicine recently announced the creation of an "Age Friendly New York" initiative, which will create a blueprint to help the city prepare for its growing aging population. This initiative will assess New York City's age-friendliness, focusing on issues such as transportation access, and will bring together key decisionmakers and local communities to implement policy recommendations.
SAFETY & SECURITY CONFERENCE: Queens Hospital Center has brought together experts in the field of predatory lending and financial scams for a conference on Safety and Security in the Home and Community at the hospital, 82-68 164th St., Jamaica on Wednesday, February 13 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The conference is free for seniors, service professionals and those concerned about aging issues, according to an announcement by the Queens Interagency Council on Aging (QICA) and the Queensboro Council for Social Welfare (QCSW). Advance registration is requested. Call QICA at 718-268-5959.