In February, many New Yorkers became aware of the MTA’s inaccessibility issue after Malaysia Goodson's fatal fall down a flight of stairs in a subway station. But for New Yorkers with disabilities, they have been living with this struggle from the inception of the subway system.
“There’s a saying that everyone gets 24 hours a day, but often with people with disabilities it’s not true,” says Shain Anderson, a community organizer for Access-A-Ride at the Center for the Independence of the Disabled New York (CIDNY). “You have to spend so many hours getting to where you need to go. It really robs you of your time. This is an addition to what we, as people with disabilities, face in general. It’s tough.”
Only 114 of MTA’s 472 subway stations are accessible, and out of those, only 100 are currently working in both directions.
In late September 2017, about a dozen people showed up to an MTA board meeting to voice their concerns – and share their stories.
“Two weeks ago, on Friday, I was on my home a lovely summer evening on West 4th Street, and I took the subway home to Brooklyn on an A train. When I got to Jay Street, the elevator was out. I only had two choices,” said Christopher Pangilinan, who is the program director of technology and rider engagement at the TransitCenter, a nonprofit that promotes improvements in public transportation.
"One, I could either take the C train to Franklin and then come back, which would take 40 minutes. Or I could ask a stranger to help me up. I did the latter because I could. But then I had to walk up the stairs, and trust a stranger with my most valuable possession, which, of course, is my wheelchair. Unfortunately, in the three years that I’ve lived in this wonderful city, I’ve encountered this problem 246-some times, including this morning.”
MTA board members didn’t allow time for a group of people with disabilities to talk at a previous board meeting, but this time they were ready with facilitators to bring the mic to those in wheelchairs, so they wouldn’t have to navigate through the packed room to the podium.
Joseph J. Lhota, the MTA Chairman, had a single response to the dozens of accessibility complaints the audience expressed. “We have a new arrangement with the Transit Workers Union,” he said. “We are now bringing in a private sector, where workers will both work on the elevators and escalators and to train our workers as well, as new technology becomes available. This basic private-public partnership between the private sector and the unions will inure to the favor of all our customers.”
In May 2017, an audit from Comptroller Scott M. Stringer revealed that the MTA “did not perform all scheduled preventive maintenance on nearly 80 percent of the sampled escalators and elevators, and that one-third of the MTA’s scheduled preventive maintenance assignments in the sample were completed late.”
“We want the MTA to post a schedule for maintaining elevators. We’d like to see improvements on the maintenance of elevators because too many of them are broken during the course of the day, so already we have a limited number of stations with elevators, and then half of those elevators are broken,” says Monica Bartley, a community outreach specialist at CIDNY and wheelchair user. “They do not inform us in real time about broken elevators. And so, it is really frustrating when we get there and realize that the elevator is broken.”
For the past two years, CIDNY has aligned with Disability Rights Advocate to file a class action lawsuit against the MTA for its failure to install elevators in all subway stations and maintain the few elevators that exist. It has been almost 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and the MTA is still not in compliance with the law and regulations.
“For the ones that have been broken for a day or two, they post a sign about the outage. But when it happens just there and then, they’re not that fast. Also, we’d want them to have a timeline for making all stations accessible. I’d like to have more stations with elevators, and a timeline for when they’re going to do that,” Bartley adds.
The alternative – Access-A-Ride – is problematic for different reasons, according to those who use it. “If you’re a major user of the mass transit and you use the bus or subway, you can just hop on a subway or train whenever,” says Anderson. “Whenever you choose, whenever you want it, 24 hours a day. But users of Access-A-Ride have to call one or two days in advance, and then wait. And we had had users who have done that and miss job interviews, appointments, plans with friends. This lack of adequate transportation is a leading cause of why we have an unemployment rate of around 29% within people with disabilities.”
MTA officials did not respond to a request for comment on accessibility issues.
“What the M.T.A. seems to be saying is, people who ride Access-A-Ride, they don’t need to be anyplace on time,” Joseph G. Rappaport, the executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled told The New York Times. “This has made their ability to get around the city harder, much less predictable and much more frustrating.”
According to Jess Powers, the director of communication and education at CIDNY, story collection is a crucial part of pushing policy changes. “We work with people to tell their stories and share them with us. Story collection is what we do and that really helps us to see a pattern to move forward with litigation.”
But for now, using the MTA “is a struggle in the best of the times,” said Anderson. “But when it’s that much more difficult, it’s just that much more difficult. Simply to get around takes perseverance, courage, forward-thinking, and a lot of fair amount of braveness just to cross the street. You really need to commit.”
Quite a few useful points can be found in this article. For example, as stated in the article, in the case of the New York MTA, users with special needs are advised to leave home early. Frequently getting from one place to another usually takes a very long time. This eats at your transport time, but in most cases users just sigh and get used to the fact. The article says “…[this] lack of adequate transportation is a leading cause of why we have an unemployment rate of around 29% within people with disabilities.”
This is not ideal. After all, aren’t people with special needs humans too? They should have an equal right to public transport systems as well. Instead, users with special needs of public transport systems – as in the case of the New York MTA or the Hong Kong MTR – have simply resigned themselves to that fact.
Take the situation of handicapped people in Hong Kong, for instance. Hong Kong is already a moderately affluent city, and as such, should be relatively more tolerant of people with special needs. However, whenever you leave your home, chances are that you will need to ride on the MTR – the primary transit system in Hong Kong – and it can be something of a hassle.
Let’s say that you are taking the MTR from Station A to Station B, for example. The MTR has already done a pretty good job of creating a public transport system that is accessible to all, but a few problems remain. However, God forbid if a certain piece of accessibility equipment (such as a lift or a ramp) is out of order – you’d have a serious problem.
This serves to highlight the importance of our work. Hopefully, if we work hard and persevere, public transport operators in different countries (the MTA in New York, the MTR in Hong Kong) will eventually become aware of these problems, and then repair them more quickly. Then and only then, will public transport systems in different countries become accessible to all.