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Courtesy: Village Preservation Blog

Frieda Zames: New York City disability activist pioneer and mathematician.

accessibility pioneers

Disability rights activist Frieda Zames played a key role in getting New York City's businesses, agencies, and transportation boards to make their infrastructures accessible to people with disabilities. Frieda was adamant that society would not disregard the needs of individuals like herself who required lifts, ramps, and other specialized equipment in order to access public amenities and lead regular lives.

Frieda was born in Brooklyn on October 29, 1932. She suffered from polio at a young age, which left her disabled and required her to spend years in the hospital. Consequently, she was forced to rely on clutches for the rest of her life, and later in life, used a mobility scooter. Also, she wasn't fortunate to be placed in the school system's program for students with physical disabilities because she spent a lot of her formative years in a hospital. Therefore, Zames was primarily self-taught. 

After her many efforts to obtain a formal education, she was able to earn an undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College. She was even inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Her tenacious mother was a constant source of encouragement for her. Her mother would bring Frieda's books to school and sit in her classes with her until she finished her undergraduate studies at Brooklyn College.

Soon after earning her college degree, Frieda took on the role of primary provider for her family. She worked as an actuary at MetLife until she had saved enough money to pay for her subsequent education at New York University. Her perseverance did not go unnoticed. She graduated from New York University with a doctorate in mathematics in 1965.

Frieda was employed by the New Jersey Technology Institute in Newark in 1966. From 1966 until 1993, she taught a variety of classes there, from remedial to graduate-level classes. In 2000, she took an early retirement and was given the title of associate professor of Mathematics Emeritus.

When Frieda joined Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York in the middle of the 1970s, she began to take steps towards political action. She even exchanged her clutches for a mobility scooter so she could easily protest while moving around. She participated in her first protests in the middle of the 1970s when she surrounded an M14 bus on Third Street and Avenue A with a group of paraplegics from Disabled in Action to voice their opposition to the lack of accessible buses for the disabled community.

This marked the start of a 20-year battle that resulted in the installation of wheelchair lifts on all MTA buses. Later, Zames was chosen to be the president of Disabled in Action (DIA), a position she held for the next thirty years on several occasions. She also held the position of the company's first vice president during the time of her passing on June 16, 2005. 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, which supported their bus protest. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, giving disability activists a much more potent tool to fight for their rights.

The Empire State Building was sued by Zames the day after the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect, requiring them to improve accessibility to their building. Eventually, some changes were accepted, such as lowered elevator control panels, automatic doors, and observation deck periscopes with King Kong-shaped handles.

Following the significant accomplishments that Freida was able to make, Anne Emerman, a fellow DIA member, claimed that Frieda understood that no one follows the law voluntarily. Additionally, Frieda launched the One-Step campaign, which compelled nearby companies to construct entry ramps for their structures. She began by visiting some of her favorite pastry shops in the area.

Thanks to the One-Step campaign, over 350 businesses were ultimately compelled to comply. Zames might have been under five feet tall, but her voice was strong and she had a way of getting people to pay attention and listen when she spoke. Additionally, Frieda took part in a campaign to make the school where she worked wheelchair accessible.

Indeed, Frieda was instrumental in making sure that taxis, subways, and other forms of transportation were easily accessible. She also co-authored The Disability Rights Movement, From Charity to Confrontation with her sister Zoris Zames. This historical overview is currently used as a textbook for disability rights.

Interview Link: American Disability Act w/ Dr's Doris and Frieda Zames on The Woman's Connection

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