ACTIVIST Newsletter logo with ACTIVIST word displayed diagonally from bottom left to upper right
May 2006

by Beth Fertig

New York City - December 02, 2005 - WNYC Radio [Transcript of report] ó In 1984, New York City Transit agreed to make its buses and subways more accessible for people with wheelchairs. The move followed a landmark lawsuit by disability advocates. Now, a 21-year-old college student is fighting to make sure that agreement is enforced throughout the transit system. WNYCís Beth Fertig has more.

REPORTER: Almost everyone at Manhattanville College seems to know Michael Harris.

STUDENTS ON LINE: Michael, Michael Harris!

REPORTER: As he waits in life for sushi in the college cafeteria, Harris is greeted by friends and acquaintances. Heís easy to recognize. He whizzes by on a 350 pound motorized wheelchair. And he doesnít dress like your typical college student. Heís almost always wearing a suit.

MAN: Hey, how are you?

HARRIS: California please.

REPORTER: But Harris will be the first to admit his visibility is also by choice. Heís the kind of student who gets involved in almost everything, from the debate club to campus politics.

HARRIS: When I ran for freshman class president, I did not run a very discrete campaign. I spent several hundred dollars on my campaign for freshman class president and won with a very large margin. But, I mean Iíve chosen to stand out by getting actively involved in on campus activities, in student organizations, by going to on campus events.

REPORTER: Lately, Harris has been spending a lot more time organizing events OFF campus. As the founder and campaign coordinator of the Disabled Riders Coalition, Harris has been coming to every MTA monthly board meeting for almost a year. He speaks out about all kinds of issues affecting the disabled.

HARRIS: The MTA has been violating its own rule. As I have documented for the past 2 years the MTA consistently places masking tape covering the auto gates installed for the purposes of allowing disabled riders to enter and exit photo stations. As you can see by this photograph...

REPORTER: MTA Board member Barry Feinstein says some of his complaints arenít true.

Michael Harris grew up in Brooklyn and heís been using a wheelchair since he was a child. He suffers from generalized dystonia Ė a neurological disorder that causes constant, painful muscle spasms. Heís able to control the spasms with medications, two titanium rods in his spine and two pacemakers connected to his brain. And he gets around campus easily with his wheelchair.

The Disabled Riders Coalition started off as an independent study project. A professor suggested that Harris write about his frustration with the public buses near Manhattanvilleís Westchester Campus. He then attended an MTA hearing last fall about the impending fare increase and a plan to close token booths.

HARRIS: And it was just bothering me. That you had all of these elected officials talking about the disability issues. And there was nobody from the community saying anything and I felt that had to be done. And so I sort of sought out to try to figure out what I could do to give a voice to disabled riders.

REPORTER: Harris now has a website and an email list with almost 2000 names. Heís constantly taking phone calls on his earpiece and he uses a blackberry to send out press releases to the media. But despite his professional demeanor, Harris is an infamous slob. He calls his dorm room an ecological hazard. And it is. The floor is littered with trash, clothing and books.

HARRIS: I have my fax machine just sitting there in the middle of the floor.

FERTIG: How can you find anything the floor is covered with papers?

HARRIS: Yes it is but I keep the important papers in a file drawer. Those are the unimportant papers!

REPORTER: His important photographs are prominently displayed. Thereís Harris posing with John Kerry, Al Sharpton, and Ben Affleck. As the only child of two city teachers, Harris grew up in a political family. Heís extremely active with the Democratic Party. His college buddy Jonathan Reed Fallon says Harris is relentless. He recalls when Harris had brain surgery during their sophomore year Ė just as he was campaigning for Democrat Howard Dean.

FALLON: No lie. I kid you not. The surgery I think took place on a Thursday, I got the call on a Wednesday. Friday I see Michael in the wheelchair...

MICHAEL: Working.

FALLON: Yeah, in a suit in the wheelchair, and I said youíve got to be kidding me. You just had brain surgery. I said what are you doing on campus right now? And he says to me, well, I have to campaign tomorrow for Howard Dean.

HARRIS: I just donít believe in letting things get in my way. And so yeah, I had brain surgery one day. But the next day is a new day. And so my philosophy is itís a new day, Iíll start fresh and so I went to work Ė so I went to work the next day.

REPORTER: Harris still isnít slowing down. He recently sued the Transit Authority over broken elevators. He appears to have had more success with Metro North. The railroad has been working with him to make sure conductors always look for disabled passengers on the platforms, so they can bring out ramps when necessary. On a train bound for New York City, Harris says heís no longer left behind because conductors always notice him now on the platform.

HARRIS: I got the guy who saw me on the platform, came over, took out a bridgeplate put it on eliminated the gap, I got on, he came over, took my ticket, I paid my fare and Iím good to go.

REPORTER: The disabilities movement has come a long way. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed in 1990 to provide more access in public spaces. New York City got a jump start when the MTA signed a consent decree in 1984 agreeing to install wheelchair lifts in buses, and elevators in dozens of key subway stations. Jim Weissman won that lawsuit as an attorney with the United Spinal Association of New York. He sees Michael Harris Ė who was born that same year - as part of the next generation of advocacy.

WEISSMAN: Heís the constituency, heís the guy we did it for, heís the guy whoís taking public transit to school and work which just didnít exist before and people didnít think it would.

REPORTER: Harris never saw himself as an advocate. When he started college three years ago, he says, he wanted to be a lawyer or a politician. He never thought he would be an advocate for the disabled.

HARRIS: Mostly I saw this as being selfish and advocating for myself. I never really thought that I would do this as advocating for a larger community. But it ended up happening that way and Iím in a sense glad that it did.

REPORTER: Harris is already working on another project. Heís making a student documentary comparing the accessibility of Metro North trains with New York City subway cars. For WNYC Iím Beth Fertig.

Editorís Note: Michael Harrisí website is You can contact him at