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Using a Wheelchair in NYC Subways: Few Entrances and Sometimes No Exit

ADA Sign Depot

March 29, 2017

ADA Sign DepotUsing a Wheelchair in NYC Subways

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Using a Wheelchair in NYC Subways: Few Entrances, and Sometimes, No Exit

New York Has a Great Subway, if You’re Not in a Wheelchair

A New Yorker shows why people with disabilities avoid the train.

Nearly eight years ago, on a bright summer morning in Manhattan, I was walking through Central Park when an enormous rotted tree branch snapped and fell on my head.

What came next was a remarkable turn of events that saved my life. First, a doctor out for a morning jog saw me lying unconscious, and used a pair of jeans he dug out of my backpack to slow the bleeding until an ambulance came. I was treated at the intensive care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and underwent rehabilitation at Helen Hayes Hospital in Rockland County, where a skilled medical team worked tirelessly for more than a month treating injuries to my head, lungs and spine. And over the next six months, nonstop support from loved ones and expert rehabilitative care helped me recover much of what I had lost.

But there was one feat they could not accomplish. The accident had caused spinal cord damage, which partly paralyzed my lower body. It was clear I was going to have to use a wheelchair to get around.

Among the first challenges I faced was navigating my neighborhood in New York on wheels. With practice, I slowly increased my range, and began getting around the city independently. I took buses, taxis and eventually the subway. I returned to work as a software engineer at Google 18 months after my accident.

I felt grateful to have come back so far, but each time a broken curb tipped over my wheelchair, a taxi refused to stop for me or a stalled subway elevator left me stranded, my frustration mounted. I became increasingly aware of how large, inflexible bureaucracies with a “good enough” approach to infrastructure and services can disenfranchise citizens with disabilities, many of whom cannot bridge these gaps on their own.

Before my injury, I had felt that dealing with grittiness and unreliability were the price of entry for living in New York, and even took a smug pride in dealing with obstacles. Since my accident, I have been humbled to realize the often dire effect of civic dysfunction on the vulnerable, and have had to recognize that some of what I once took for resourcefulness was in truth enabled by privilege.

I was once like many other able-bodied New Yorkers, only vaguely aware of subway elevators, merely noting that they seemed dingy and often out of service. But now that I needed them, the reality was more stark. New York’s subway is by far the least wheelchair-friendly public transit system of any major American city, with only 92 of the system’s 425 stations accessible. That means fewer than one in four stations can be used by people in wheelchairs when elevators are working — and they frequently are not.

On average, 25 elevators a day stop working, and these breakdowns are not quickly resolved; their median duration is nearly four hours. Moreover, with a single elevator serving both directions at most stops, a breakdown means that a disabled rider exiting the train will be trapped on the platform, and one hoping to board will have to find some other way to travel to where they need to go.

Other problems make this bad situation worse: There is no sure way for riders to know when a breakdown has occurred: There are no intercom announcements, and the listings on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s website are unreliable. In the past month only two of the eight elevator failures I encountered were listed, making it likely that official statistics are an undercount.

I often wheel off a train only to discover that the sole elevator to ground level is out of service. No information on alternate routes is posted as it is for other service changes and delays — indeed, subway personnel are often unaware of the situation. So the options are to wait for the next train and continue to an accessible stop — possibly many stations away — or call the fire department to be carried up the stairs.

I’ve done both, although on occasion fellow passengers have agreed to carry me — a 170-pound stranger in a wheelchair — up to the street. And it has been heartening to find that in moments of need, people step forward to help.

But these acts by individuals cannot be accepted as a substitute for a functional system. Rather, a system that routinely leaves vulnerable riders stranded has abdicated its responsibility. The need for extraordinary goodness, like that shown by the doctor in Central Park, should be the exception, not the rule.

All of this can make an accessible subway seem impossible. But it isn’t.

When I traveled to Boston several years ago, I was amazed to discover that its subway system — as old as New York’s, though far smaller, with only 53 stations — is more than 90 percent wheelchair-accessible.

Was Boston just a nicer town? Not necessarily. The admirable accessibility was legally mandated. In 2002, wheelchair users sued Boston’s transit authority and the eventual settlement included guarantees for elevator construction, maintenance and monitoring.

So are legal challenges the only way to get equal access for the disabled? They are undoubtedly a useful tool, and sometimes a necessary one. But however change comes, accessibility advocates will have to counter the belief that devoting resources to help one group necessarily shortchanges others.

The lawyer and activist Angela Glover Blackwell shows in her study “The Curb-Cut Effect” that there are times when steps initially taken to aid one population — like people with disabilities — are ultimately good for all. As she recounts, in the early 1970s, pedestrian curb cuts were unheard-of in American cities. A group of wheelchair activists in Berkeley, Calif., frustrated about the difficulty of wheeling around their city, began pouring concrete for makeshift ramps that would ease getting on and off sidewalks.

At first, the activists were threatened with arrest, but before long the first official curb cut was made and many cities followed, as they realized what now seems obvious: The curb cuts weren’t useful only for wheelchair users. Parents with strollers, workers with handcarts and travelers with luggage all benefited. This action helped people with disabilities integrate further into economic and cultural life. When I go to work, or pick up my children from school, those curb cuts help me get there.

I owe a debt to those activists, and to others whose actions helped move us toward the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Now it is my turn to speak up, thank my fellow New Yorkers for their underrated kindness, and ask the transit authority to commit to follow their lead and work for all of us.

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