The double standard of transit accessibility – What other kind of discrimination would New Yorkers tolerate?
Every day, like millions of other New Yorkers, I trudge up and down two or three flights of stairs to get to and from my train. For me, the steps are exercise, cheaper and more convenient than a gym membership. But what do they mean for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers unable to navigate stairs? Whether you are disabled, infirm or a parent with a small child, you are out of luck at most subway stations.
In 1984, United Spinal Association, then known as the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, settled a lawsuit with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on subway accessibility. The agreement called for New York to become the first U.S. city to retrofit key stations to provide wheelchair access. Also thanks to the settlement, city buses are now accessible and Access-A-Ride paratransit services was created.
New York’s elected officials did not embrace the deal; quite the opposite. They had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to provide key station access. The settlement was opposed by Mayor Ed Koch and the MTA board, which included City Council President Carol Bellamy, MTA Board Chairman Richard Ravitch and Liberal Party Chairman Stephen Berger. Also opposed was the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.
The political leadership’s indifference to the rights of New York’s disabled provided cover for other elected officials as well as everyday New Yorkers to perpetuate discrimination on the basis of a disability.
That was a different era, so surely the situation has been rectified. Right? Wrong.
Today, nearly 29 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became federal law, only 24% of the MTA’s 472 subway stations are wheelchair-accessible, compared with 71% of Boston’s and 69% of Chicago’s. And even with its inadequate number of elevators, the beleaguered MTA has struggled to keep them clean and operational.
Why is the subway still so inaccessible? Because the moral conscience of the city has not been offended by the public transit system’s indifference to the needs and rights of people with disabilities.
Back in 1984, only a handful of politicians supported transit accessibility, among them City Councilwoman Ruth Messinger, Assemblyman Alan Hevesi, state Sen. John Flynn of White Plains and eventually Gov. Mario Cuomo and state Senate Minority Leader Fred Ohrenstein.
In late January a young mother fell down the stairs at a city subway station and died. The newspapers were all over it. For a New York minute the eyes of the world were on the MTA for its stunning failure to make the subways accessible to the legions of handicapped, elderly and parents with strollers trying to navigate the system. (The medical examiner later determined that the 22-year-old mom likely did not die from the fall but from a pre-existing medical condition.)
That righteous indignation is long past due. But let’s see how long it lasts in a city that has long applied a double standard to accessibility for our most vulnerable citizens. In the state that gave us FDR, a president confined to a wheelchair, we failed and continue to snub them. Where is the moral indignation and public outcry that other forms of discrimination would have triggered?
We like to pat ourselves on the back and say, “How far we have come since the 1970s.” But that would be to take the easy way out. It wasn’t acceptable to deprive hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers access to the subway then and it’s no more acceptable today.
How is it possible, asks United Spinal Association President & CEO James Weisman, that of the world’s major transit systems, our progressive city’s subways have one of the lowest percentages of accessible stations? Countless New Yorkers must rely on inferior methods of getting around including Access-A-Ride and sluggish buses stuck in traffic or in bus-only lanes that are anything but thanks to non-existent enforcement by the NYPD.
- “How is it possible that of the world’s major transit systems, our progressive city’s subways have one of the lowest percentages of accessible stations?”