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Navigating the NYC Subway in a Wheelchair Is Hell

It's 29 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, but still only a quarter of the stations are fully accessible. Here's what advocates want

by Nour Seleem and Valerie Kipnis
Jul 29 2019, 8:55pm

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NEW YORK — Sometimes it takes Sasha Blair-Goldensohn three times longer to get to work than it used to, and sometimes he’s stuck on a subway platform with no easy way to get up to street level. The 43-year-old software engineer, who’s been using a wheelchair since 2009, is one of about a million differently-abled people facing daily struggles as they navigate New York City’s aging subway system.

“You can get almost all the way to work, and that last elevator that's supposed to take you from the mezzanine section up to the pavement is out of service, and suddenly, it's 40 minutes from home, and you're a block away from work in the subway station, but there's no way out,” Blair-Goldensohn says.

This week marks 29 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has made huge improvements to correct conditions that were extremely difficult and even dangerous for people with disabilities. The MTA has made 120 stations fully accessible for all riders, but that’s still only about 24 percent of the stations in the system, and there's a host of other accessibility issues still to be addressed.

In 2018, under new MTA chief Andy Byford, the agency promised to do more: They announced the Fast Forward plan, which proposed an extensive investment plan for New York’s subway system, with the aim to improve capability and accessibility. It also pledged to make all stations fully accessible by 2034.

A key part of the plan is the MTA bringing on its first-ever accessibility chief, Alex Elegudin, a longtime disability advocate. His job is to oversee and implement the Fast Forward Plan and improve accessibility for subway and bus riders as well as paratransit services for people with disabilities such as Access-A-Ride.

“We operate a 24/7 transit system, which presents its own challenges because a lot of the work needed to make accessibility happen has to happen while trains and buses are moving,” Elegudin told VICE. “Obviously the system is very old, more than one hundred years old, and trying to rebuild the infrastructure literally means moving heaven and earth to put in elevators and make other accessibility improvements.”

Disability rights activists are pushing for more: clear signage, audio announcements, life-saving features such as raised braille, and bright paint that highlights stairs and the edge of the platform -- and elevators that work.

Blair-Goldensohn, meanwhile, has a more specific mission: As co-founder of Elevator Action Group, he’s been lobbying hard to get that key part of the system fully operational.

“Twenty five elevators go out of service a day....so a quarter of the time a station is just completely off line like cannot be entered or exited by someone in a wheelchair,” Goldensohn says. “That's not just like a bad luck. That's something that's hitting a lot of people and that violates ADA.”

This segment originally aired July 27 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

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