Two years ago, I came to the painful conclusion that New York City didn’t want me. For someone with cerebral palsy who relies on a power wheelchair, a walker or crutches to get around, the city is distinctly unfriendly. I don’t drive because of my disability, and only a quarter of NYC subway stations have elevators. Add that to the need for affordable accessible housing, and the vision I’d always had of myself — as a trendy New Yorker who would, at some point, move out of my parents’ house on Long Island and commute to a nice job in the city — evaporated into thin air.
So I packed up my life and moved to the Washington area. Every day, I take the Metro to work and marvel at the accessibility. Every single station has an elevator, so I’m never worried about whether the stop I’m going to will be accessible. Metro still has accessibility issues, including elevators that are frequently broken for weeks or months at a time (an issue I spoke about at a recent Metro board meeting), but the mere existence of elevators at every stop puts the D.C. Metro a notch above the NYC subway. It’s a truly pathetic standard, but it’s the standard we have to judge by nonetheless.
Knowing what I do about the inaccessibility of the New York subway system, I was saddened, but not surprised, when I heard about Malaysia Goodson, a 22-year-old mother who died late last month while trying to haul her 1-year-old and a stroller down the steps of a Midtown subway station. What did surprise me was the outpouring of attention the incident received, from panicked media outlets quoting parents on the need for subway elevators to politicians vowing to make the system more accessible. I can’t help but feel a little bitter that it took the death of a (presumably) able-bodied young mother for people to start paying attention to inaccessibility.
I’ve experienced the inaccessibility of the NYC transit system for as long as I can remember. Once, years ago, I was late for an event and somehow ended up at an inaccessible subway station. Rather than getting back on a train and going to an accessible station, potentially missing the event, I rolled up to the escalator, hanging onto the railings with all my might, and rode up to the street, acutely aware that loosening my grip even for a second would send me plunging to my death. On a recent visit to New York for a work event, I was forced to roll a mile and a half each way in my wheelchair because the subway station nearest to the event space was not accessible, and I was unable to get an accessible taxi in time. My older sister lives in a basement apartment in Queens. Even if I could navigate the steep steps down to her apartment, I wouldn’t be able to visit her on my own, because the closest subway station to her is not accessible.
Sometimes, as in the case of Goodson, inaccessibility can be dangerous or even deadly. Often, wheelchair users are trapped underground in stations with broken or no elevators. Even in Washington, blind and visually impaired people have repeatedly fallen between train cars, leading to announcements in the Metro asking blind passengers to “find the floor” of the train before boarding, condescending reminders that effectively blame victims for the system’s issues. One of my friends was injured when her wheelchair’s front casters got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform, leaving her stuck half in and half out of the train. Just a few months ago, a wheelchair user in Washington died after attempting to ride the escalator up at the Columbia Heights station. I know that each of these incidents could very well have happened to me.
Disability advocates have been raising concerns about public-transit accessibility for decades. In fact, the original mission of the disability rights group ADAPT, which is known for nonviolent civil disobedience activism tactics, was to advocate for accessible public transit, particularly on buses. After the Americans With Disabilities Act mandated that public transportation be accessible, ADAPT switched its focus to deinstitutionalization and community living, advocating for people with disabilities to live in their own homes in the community, not in nursing homes or other institutions. Yet, because of a decades-old agreement that gave the city until 2020 to retrofit “key stations” with elevators, New York’s system still isn’t fully accessible. Currently, the city is embroiled in two separate lawsuits with disability rights advocates over subway accessibility.
The death of Goodson is tragic, but it should not have been our wake-up call. Similar incidents have been happening for a long time, and they’re not getting any better. To nondisabled parents who are getting involved in this fight, I encourage you to listen to the stories of disabled people who continually battle New York’s inaccessibility. We have common goals. Let’s join forces and make a difference together.