Disability Rights New York expands Rochester presence

Disability Rights New York this week welcomed city officials and community members to the not-for-profit’s expanded downtown offices.

Disability Rights New York this week welcomed city officials and community members to the not-for-profit’s expanded downtown offices. (Photo: Velvet Spicer)
Disability Rights New York this week welcomed city officials and community members to the not-for-profit’s expanded downtown offices. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)

“We chose Rochester to expand,” DRNY Executive Director Timothy Clune said during the event. “We also chose this location so that we have the opportunity to expand more.”

DRNY also has locations in Albany and Brooklyn. The organization has a staff of 18 in Rochester and Clune said there is room for an additional 10. DRNY has 65 employees across the agency.

DRNY was born out of a 1970s expose by journalist Geraldo Rivera. Rivera had taken a camera onto the grounds of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island and uncovered horrific conditions around the care and treatment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a result, the nation’s Protection and Advocacy (P&A) system and Client Assistance Program (CAP) were instituted to oversee the care and treatment of those with disabilities.

DRNY was incorporated in 1989 under the name Disability Advocates Inc., for the sole purpose of providing P&A services. In 2013, with a staff of seven, DRNY was designated as the P&A and CAP system for New York State. The agency monitors, investigates and advocates to remedy adverse conditions in large and small and public and private facilities that care for people with disabilities.

Timothy Clune
Timothy Clune

The Rochester facility handles cases across the state, Clune said.

“It was a mandate to all of our staff in the beginning that we have a presence in all 62 counties,” he added. “It is important that people know we are a resource. The issues affecting those in Manhattan are different than those affecting Monroe County or Wyoming County or Jefferson County.”

DRNY provides direct legal and systemic advocacy service work for disabled New Yorkers “that is powerful and structurally impactful,” said DRNY board member Amy D’Amico.

“I’ve learned from personal experience that there are barriers faced by people who have physical or mental disabilities that others do not have to imagine or face in their daily lives,” D’Amico said. “DRNY is (cognizant) of these barriers and works every day for those barriers to become relics of the past. When one person gets helped, we all do.”

Amy D'Amico
Amy D’Amico

D’Amico, an attorney with a disability, said the agency helps people fight what a single person cannot fix by herself. In fact, DRNY helped her fight an agency that refused her request for life insurance because she has a disability.

“As someone who has faced my own stigma on my journey to becoming an attorney and writer who is disabled, I am so glad that DRNY’s patient, creative and persistent work continues on all our behalf,” she added.

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp., said she feels like Rochester won the lottery when DRNY chose to expand in downtown Rochester rather than elsewhere in the state.

“You had a lot of choices where to locate this facility in a way that serves all of the counties and communities in the western part of the state,” Zimmer-Meyer said.

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer
Heidi Zimmer-Meyer

Since 2015, DRNY had occupied offices on the first floor of the former Central Trust Co. building at Exchange and East Broad Street, a property purchased by James Philippone in 1999. When space on the second floor became available, DRNY renovated it for its growing staff. The agency now occupies 8,000 square feet on two floors of the building.

Since 2013, DRNY’s staff statewide has responded to nearly 18,000 service requests and 12,900 distinct clients.

“But for the commitment of the staff coming in every single day and having to deal with facilities and entities that are not very happy about us knocking on their door—they do it with professionalism, they do it with tenacity, earnestness—and the success that we’ve been able to achieve is because of the efforts of the staff,” Clune said.

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