Originally published from the New York Sun
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Frieda Zames, 72, Disabled Activist Urged Accessible Transportation
BY ALEXANDRA GIBSON - Special to the Sun
June 17, 2005
Frieda Zames, who died yesterday at 73, was an activist who took a leading role in forcing city businesses, agencies, and transportation boards to make their facilities accessible to the disabled.
She was determined that society should not infantilize or make invisible those who, like herself, required ramps, lifts, and other special equipment to live more normal lives. In 2001, she published
"The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation," a book often used as a textbook history of the movement.
A native of Brooklyn, Zames was struck with polio at age 2. The disease left her reliant on crutches, and later a scooter, for the rest of her life. Undaunted and supported by a determined mother who carried her books and sat with her at classes, she completed her undergraduate education at Brooklyn College.
After college, Zames worked at Met Life as an actuary and put herself through further schooling at New York University, where she eventually received a doctorate in mathematics. She taught math at the New Jersey Institute of Technology between 1966 and 1993, and was named an emeritus professor in 2000.
In the mid-1970s, Zames took her first step toward instigating political action when she joined Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York. She traded in her old crutches for an electric scooter to travel around to protests more easily.
One of her first demonstrations came in the mid-1970s when Zames and a group of DIA paraplegics surrounded an M14 bus on Third Street at Avenue A during rush hour to protest the lack of handicapped-accessible buses in the MTA's fleet. It was the opening salvo in a 20-year battle that led to all MTA buses being fitted with wheelchair lifts.
Zames became president of DIA, an office she held several times over the next three decades. At the time of her death, she was the organization's first vice president.
The bus demonstration was premised on the idea that federal funding under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 could not discriminate against the disabled. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, activists had a much more powerful weapon.
On the first workday after the ADA came into effect, Zames helped to launch a lawsuit against the Empire State Building to force the landmark to increase its accessibility.
Among the renovations eventually agreed to were automatic doors, lowered elevator control panels and areas of the tourist ticket counter, and periscopes with King Kong-shaped handles for the observation deck.
A fellow DIA member, Anne Emerman, said,
"Frieda instinctively and wisely knew that nobody voluntarily complies with any law."
Zames also initiated the
"One Step" campaign to force local businesses to install entry ramps, starting with her favorite East Village pastry shop, Veniero's. Eventually, more than 350 businesses were forced into compliance thanks to the campaign, according to a 2004 article in New Mobility magazine.
Zames was less than 5 feet tall, but had big eyes and knew how to make her voice heard. She played a prominent role in the ongoing struggle to make taxis accessible, as well as subways and other modes of transportation.
At a City Council committee hearing on making ferries more accessible to the disabled yesterday, there was talk of naming a bill for Zames.
Born October 29, 1932; died June 16 at her home while recovering from a recent appendectomy; survived by her companion, Michael Imperiale, and her sister, Doris Zames Fleischer.