Alex Elegudin is an attorney, President of Wheeling Forward and The Axis Project, and a leading disability rights advocate. This spring he completed a two-year stint at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), where he worked to make yellow taxis and other for-hire vehicles more accessible to wheelchair users. We caught up with Alex to learn more about his organization and his work at the TLC.
First, a little background. Alex was born in Russia and grew up in Brooklyn, where he still resides. Fifteen years ago a deer-related car accident left him with a spinal cord injury.
“I was a biomedical engineering student at Carnegie Melon in Pittsburg at the time,” he told me, “but after I became a quad, I thought ‘biomedicine and quadriplegia are not a match made in heaven,’ so I switched over to law and became an attorney.
“For a few years I did a fellowship with a judge, which was very cool, and then I worked at a couple of law firms. But I saw a big need for advocacy in the disability community, which was calling me. I got involved in a lot of volunteer work in the community, and then Yannick Benjamin, my co-founder and I got together and started Wheeling Forward.”
For a deep dive into that story, you can read this recent profile of Alex and Yannick, who were named New Mobility Magazine’s People of the Year for 2017.
“I’ve been pretty much doing disability and accessibility work for the past seven or eight years,” Alex notes, “so I’ve moved away from being a full time practicing attorney. I still maintain all my bar admissions and once in a while I do some legal work, but for the most part I am not practicing law per se.
So, about Wheeling Forward
“Wheeling Forward was founded with a simple principle – improving life for new Yorkers with disabilities by helping them along during the different parts of their journey. Early on, we offered mentorship and advocacy to help people transition out of nursing homes to life in the community. We found this was especially important when someone first acquired a disability as an adult; people need help learning to adapt and function in new ways.
“Next, we developed a wheelchair donation program because we saw a big problem; many people just don’t have proper wheelchairs. In fact, a lot of times people don’t have wheelchairs at all if they are in a nursing home or if they are uninsured. We first observed this among friends who were quadriplegics in nursing homes. They’d be given a manual chair, which was completely useless to them, and allowed them to go exactly nowhere.
“Without having the equipment they needed to even be able to roll around the nursing home, how could they ever pursue an apartment or community living? They couldn’t. So we saw this as a big problem and that’s why the wheelchair program was born.
“Then we started a scholarship fund, in partnership with CUNY – the City University of New York. CUNY manages the scholarship program and Wheeling Forward funds it. We did this because we saw a lot of folks with disabilities who were scared to go back to school after they became disabled. And they faced a lot of barriers to trying it out.
“In order to get financial aid there are all sorts of criteria and very often one of those is that you have to be a full time student. So we realized we could help people overcome that and provide the opportunity for them to get their feet wet by targeting a scholarship to people who want to explore furthering their education, but who are not ready to go back to school full time.
Serving a diverse population
“All of Wheeling Forward’s programs are cross-disability. While Yannick and I have spinal cord injuries, we believe that across the spectrum of people with any kind of physical disability, there is more that we have in common than whatever separates us. So our programs are open to people with the gamut of physical disabilities – multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal cord injury and so on.
“I think that’s important because there’s a lot of segregation in the disability community, partly because related organizations tend to focus on specific diagnoses. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for those organizations – and funding tends to be concentrated around particular diagnoses – but at Wheeling Forward we tend to take a different approach. We tailor what we do to be open to people with all kinds of physical disabilities.
“Another thing that makes Wheeling Forward different from a lot of other organizations is that we are very hands-on. For example, when it comes to nursing home transitions, we don’t just give people information and send them on their way. We work hand-in-hand with folks. We go to look at apartments with them, we accompany them to Medicaid, to interviews for housing. We provide money for security deposits.
“If someone calls with a wheelchair problem, we either send out a tech or do an assessment. When it comes to the education scholarship, we work very closely with CUNY to keep track of how the grantees are doing and support them in being successful.
“So, we’re not really referral-based. Everything we do we got into because somebody with a disability was having a problem that showed us a gap in the system somewhere.”
Transportation and public policy
“I was the accessibility manager at the Taxi and Limousine Commission for two years, ending this spring. It was very gratifying to work on an array of accessibility initiatives that affect people with disabilities in New York City and our ability to get around. I helped the TLC further its goal of making half of all yellow taxis accessible by 2020. I also worked on the implementation of a citywide dispatch system for accessible taxies, so that today you can actually call for a wheelchair accessible taxi anywhere in New York City. That’s a big deal, because generally in New York City people have to hail a taxi out on the street, which can be challenging or impossible for a lot of wheelchair users.
“I also worked on driver training, helping to make sure that the drivers understand how to provide the accessible services and how to work with people using wheelchairs.
“The biggest project I worked on at the TLC, though, was a requirement that the for-hire vehicle industry become accessible as well. That means all the kinds of vehicles that people use like taxis but that aren’t taxis – private car service fleets as well as the independent driver fleets like Uber, Lyft and Via.
“We passed a mandate requiring that either 25 percent of all trips have to be made in a wheelchair accessible vehicle or, alternatively, there is a special pilot program that requires participating for-hire vehicle services to provide an accessible vehicle within 15 minutes. The implementation is supposed to begin now, this summer, so we should start seeing an uptick in accessible for-hire vehicle service beginning this year.
“Unfortunately, last month, the for-hire vehicle industry went to court to try to stop the new rules from taking effect. Essentially, they are arguing that the rule isn’t practical, that it will harm their business model. Meanwhile, United Spinal Association and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have filed advisory “friend of the court” briefs in the case saying that the rules actually don’t go far enough, and arguing for even bigger accessibility goals.
“So, we’ll see what happens, but I’m hopeful. I think we’ve moved the needle on a lot of things and I’m grateful for my time at the TLC – I worked with some great colleagues.
“Meanwhile, we’re continuing to expand at Wheeling Forward. We recently opened a center in Brooklyn and plan to increase programming there. And we’re stepping up our game in terms of advocacy in areas including transportation, healthcare, independent living and other things that come up.
“There’s a lot of untapped potential for political power and organizing in the disability community and it’s really important that we show up.
“I was at the Community Board hearings about the subway elevator downtown that some Wall Street area residents opposed because they thought it would make the neighborhood a terrorist target. We had a very good showing of people with disabilities and wheelchair users. Honestly, I think we overwhelmed the committee and that’s what needed to be done for the decision to come down on our side, which it did. That elevator is going to be built.
“I was also at the recent court hearing for the case where Disability Rights Advocates is suing the MTA for not having enough elevators throughout the system. Although New York City doesn’t have jurisdiction over the MTA, and that issue is now before the judge, we’re hoping to surmount that challenge. And again, that hearing was packed with people in wheelchairs, which the judge actually commented upon. He said, ‘This is obviously important. Look at all these people here.’
“So it’s really important for us to show up. I think we’re going to see that more and more now and in the future. That’s exactly what needs to happen for people with disabilities to assert and claim our rights.”