New York City, the Pedestrian Dream, Is an Accessibility Nightmare

Last March you might have run across the video where Zach Anner goes on a quest for a rainbow bagel and shows the vast inaccessibility of New York City. I was blown away as I figured cities were pretty great for people with disabilities. When I arrived in New York City at the end of May, the video fell to the back of my mind as my able body quickly mastered the subway and learned how to be a pedestrian in Manhattan. It wasn’t until I befriended a wheelchair user and explored the city alongside her that I really understood how inaccessible New York City is for people with disabilities.

So what makes it so bad?

The Metro Sucks

Anyone in New York will agree that the MTA needs a lot of improvements. But that’s nothing compared to how terrible the metro’s wheelchair accessible options are. First off, most elevators smell like porta potties as the stuffy, slow-moving metal boxes are undoubtedly the choice fee-less bathroom. Finding a nice smelling elevator in New York feels like winning the lottery. Then there’s the fact that not all stations are accessible, so sometimes you have to go to the closest accessible stop and walk the rest of the way. Not to mention how the platform and subway car aren’t at the same height so forget about wheeling yourself on or off being a piece of cake.

Of course, you also can’t discount when THE ONLY ELEVATOR at a subway station isn’t working and you have to take an accessible taxi instead.

Obstacles

Pretty much everything on a sidewalk is an obstacle: other pedestrians, litter, light poles. The mid-to-late afternoon time of days seems to be when most pedestrians lose their self`awareness and just randomly stand on sidewalks to chat or check their phones. Their loss of awareness is so intense that no amount of “excuse me” or other warning shouts will get them to move. If you get hit by a person using a wheelchair, it’s probably because you were being an idiot.

Doors

I don’t know who’s in charge of making doors automatic, but they’re doing a terrible job. From our dorm’s automatic doors that only opened automatically when the security officer pressed the button behind their desk, to stores where only one set of doors was automatic to non-automatic doors outside of elevators. It doesn’t even seem gold-star-you-tried worthy. It feels half-assed and random like they hit their quota of automatic doors and gave up.

There’s also the issue of walking through a regular door and not looking behind you to see if the person behind you could really benefit from you holding the door open for them. I have witnessed someone walk through the door ahead of my friend only to later realize (usually after a friend or relative berates them for being a totally oblivious toolshed) they just let a door swing shut in front of my friend. Not that it’s impossible to open a door, it’s just hard when you also need your hands to push your wheelchair through said doorway.

Even regular doors can be a challenge: It can be a pretty cumbersome dance of figuring out who’s holding what door open when.

But honestly, this wouldn’t be an issue if every building had automatic doors. Is it really that hard?

Building Design

Fact: Any beautiful building is most likely designed to inconvenience people with disabilities as much as possible. The Oculus near the 9/11 Memorial does not have a single elevator that goes to all the floors. The standard journey from entrance to the subway involves three elevators and walking from one end of the building to the other between one of those elevator rides. But hey, aesthetics, right?

Or the beautiful, historic Woolworth Building where the NYU Summer Publishing Institute held our classes –my friend had to call security every time she wanted to use the elevator as she had to be escorted since it was a partially residential building.

Even grocery stores are a feat in the city where smaller aisles and multiple floors are the norm. It really makes you appreciate the suburban sprawl.

Curb Ramps

Curb ramps are a necessity when it comes to accessibility, yet sometimes they just aren’t there, or some people are standing on one having a conversation. Or a car is parked in front of it. Hell, sometimes they’re as elusive as Bigfoot.

Accessible Entrances

Similar to curb ramps, accessible entrances can be pretty elusive. I never realized how many steps and flights of stairs were in Manhattan until they were off limits during our adventuring. Even a single step up into a store is a pain and usually avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Some businesses have tried to offer up entrances accessible by ramp, but the grade of the incline is steeper than a West Virginian interstate. You’d need the muscles and stamina of Paralympian to ascend the ramp without help, which isn’t a possibility for many manual wheelchair users.

On that same note, Central Park’s ramps are definitely designed for parents pushing strollers as the paths are too skinny for two wheelchairs to pass. They’re also incredibly steep.

Businesses also do not advertise that there’s an accessible entrance around the side. Most accessible entrances you find on your own because there’s rarely any signage to indicate it exists. And honestly, stores should be better about this considering we walk right by if no accessible entrance is blatantly apparent.

Navigation Apps

While Google Maps, City Mapper, and New York Subway became my lifelines while exploring the city (and its New Jersey suburbs), New York Subway is the only app that offers up any indication of what routes are accessible. So a lot of navigation relies on your smarts and an encyclopedic memory of accessible platforms and lines to find your way. You’d think by now there’d be a filter option to only show the accessible routes, but you’d be wrong.

Apartment Hunting

New York City is too expensive and inaccessible for the average wheelchair user working an entry-level job. Just go on apartments.com (it’s one of the few sites with a filter for “wheelchair accessible”) and see how many reasonably priced apartments that are wheelchair accessible and have elevators exist.

Not a whole lot.

That’s why my friend and I have set our sights on New Jersey. Their public transit and affordable apartments are way more accessible physically and financially. It’s not perfect as there are some incredibly steep sidewalks that we had the unfortunate displeasure of climbing. But after New York’s inaccessibility, New Jersey’s relatively better accessibility is an absolute dream.

New York City has a long way to go as far as accessibility is concerned and that’s just considering the difficulties wheelchair users face. I know this article won’t fix the issue as this has a lot to do with city planning and infrastructure, but seriously, how hard is it to put a ramp at your entrance? But maybe the next time you’re out and about you’ll be more aware of your surroundings and hold a door open for someone or not stop in the middle of the sidewalk to chat. Or you’ll look up at the subway map on your train and count how many stops are marked as being accessible. Because nothing’s going to begin to change until everyone’s a little more aware of the problems and how prevalent they are.

Maggie Stough

Maggie Stough

Maggie is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and is currently trying to make the most out of post grad life (read: figuring out what she’s supposed to be doing on this planet). When she’s not having an existential crisis, you can find her working on a novel, having a cuppa, petting a dog, reading a YA novel, coloring, getting her cardio in at a concert, or quilting.
Maggie Stough
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