When Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, a writer and editor based in Manhattan, arrives on a subway platform, she waits with more than the usual trepidation for her train. Will it be one of the MTA’s more recent, renovated cars, or a dilapidated relic dating to the 1970s? For Sjunneson-Henry, who is in her early 30s, this isn’t just a question of aesthetics. She’s deafblind, and riding an older car is an exercise in desperately squinting at station names or asking strangers on the train where she is, because only new cars have a well-maintained speaker system that’s comprehensible through her hearing aids. “I have to hope I’m on the right kind of train,” she says.
Sjunneson-Henry is among the nearly 20 percent of Americans who are disabled. While she lives in New Jersey, she regularly finds herself in New York, and walking around New York City, she says, "is not for the faint of heart if you have low vision." The subway is a mess, and taxis and rideshares aren't always accommodating to disabled passengers.
Like most American cities, New York City has a serious accessibility problem—for some disabled people, it is an actively hostile environment. “When people think about accessibility, they automatically think of ramps and elevators,” says Robyn Powell, a disability attorney and research associate at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University. “However, most people with disabilities do not use wheelchairs. Access is so much more. It is sign language interpreters, Braille signage, lowered tables, for example," she says. "Also, it is more than just getting into an establishment; accessibility must include one’s ability to actually access what is inside. For example, as a wheelchair user, a store with a ramp is still inaccessible if I cannot get down the aisle.”
Each disabled person has unique and specific needs. Nearly 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, disabled people in New York and elsewhere are still struggling with access to things nondisabled people might consider basic. The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities is working on many of these issues with initiatives like inclusive design guidelines and mandatory Disability Service Facilitators at city agencies.
Commissioner Victor Calise is working on making New York “the most accessible city in the world,” and says that the Mayor’s Office and the city's Disability Service Facilitators program are working to promote consistent, integrated accessibility into all the city’s work, from new construction to taxis.
Part of that work includes initiatives like NYC at Work, which promotes employment opportunities for the disability community, coordinating with employers, educational institutions, and nonprofits to develop “real jobs with real pay.” Project Open House, which offers small grants to make accessibility improvements in housing, is another example of the agency’s initiatives. The agency also produces an annual report on access and inclusion.
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While dunking on the chaos that is the MTA is a popular pastime for New Yorkers, problems in the subway carry a particular sting for disabled people. (It should be noted that the MOPD has no authority over the MTA, which is managed by a state agency, though Calise says his office does work with the state to promote access considerations.) "The MTA can’t get it together to make sure that every subway line has audible stop announcements. And the brand-new touchscreen kiosk maps that contain transit information and are sponsored by some third-party company have zero accessibility," says Chancey Fleet, vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of New York State.
Fewer than a quarter of subway stations in the city have elevators, and those aren’t always working, says Eman Rimawi, a 34-year-old double amputee who works on the disability rights team at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “People have offered to carry me,” Rimawi says. For disabled people, Rimawi adds, a simple night out can turn into a snarled nightmare of trip planning. Access-A-Ride, affectionately nicknamed "Stress-A-Ride," might sound like a great way to get around if the subway doesn’t work for you, but in practice, it’s an eternal frustration for the disability community. Accessibility features should be available for everyone, at all times, because disabled people are part of the community, Sjunneson-Henry says.
Concerns about accessibility features don’t stop at transit, either. New York’s sidewalks are crowded and chaotic, tough for some disabled people to use. Talking traffic signals still aren’t ubiquitous, Sjunneson-Henry says, endangering blind and low-vision travelers. Wheelchair users and others with mobility devices may struggle to get up steps or navigate buildings with cramped interiors. Wendy Lu, a 26-year-old woman whose disability doesn’t necessitate frequent physical accommodation, is still attentive to issues of basic physical access and observes that while newer construction tends to include ADA-compliant features, “certain accessibility features can be very far away. You have to travel a really long time before you get where you need to go.”
Erin Schick, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, is painfully familiar with the challenges of getting around in the city. “The curb cuts are awful. Most are chipped and collect disgusting runoff, or are so steep/uneven that chairs get stuck. There's a newly poured sidewalk in Chelsea that inexplicably doesn't have a curb cut. I keep hoping the work is just happening in stages but it's been over a year now.” She doesn’t just worry about physical access: She’s been berated by random strangers and even harassed because she’s disabled.
Hostile or indifferent attitudes are a common problem. “Before I used a wheelchair or a walker, or became an amputee, I didn’t [care] either. So, that’s not to say that able-bodied folks don’t care. They just don’t know,” Rimawi says, adding that ignorant attitudes on the part of the general public are an access barrier, but they don’t have to be.
Powell says disability is still treated as a charity issue, rather than a civil rights one, and this affects social attitudes about access and inclusion that have a huge impact on whether disabled people are made fully welcome in public spaces. “If attitudes don’t change, places will continue to be inaccessible,” she says, adding that the MTA renovations in the wake of Sandy create an excellent opportunity to envision a new, more accessible future.
Fleet, like many disability activists and advocates, believes strongly in independence and self-determination for the disability community. So does Calise, who says the city focuses on promoting a social model of disability rooted in equality. Disabled New Yorkers are everywhere in the city; riding subways, working in the mayor’s office, attending meetings in the Flatiron.
Inaccessibility in urban environments creates a tremendous and sometimes insurmountable barrier to participation for some disabled people. Access, members of the disability community argue, doesn’t have to be an impossible puzzle: Small changes, like including disability from the start of design conception and development, could make a huge difference. As Calise puts it, “It shouldn’t be a one-off. It should be part of what the city does.”
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