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Wheelchair Dancer Wheelchair Dancer | 06:24 UK time, Tuesday, 4 September 2007

We're back in New York.

Every time I come back here, I get this feeling of tremendous privilege. I live here, but I still feel the excitement rising as we land. By the time I am crossing the road to the taxi stand, I am definitely hyper. I bounce around; I urbanwheel -- ride at the people, watch them flee. The culture, the food, the shopping. And, oh! The inaccessibility.

This trip, Wizard surprised me. I thought we were sneaking away for a quiet weekend in the city; he planned a jaunt that included two friends. They've just recently moved to San Francisco from Amsterdam, so this was their first trip to New York. And we got to see the city through their eyes. They are accustomed to looking for disability issues and in San Francisco, you get used to everything JUST being accessible: public transport, restaurants, shops, bathrooms, theaters, cinemas and, for the most part, attitudes. But in New York, it's a whole different ball game. Several times in the day, I could just see the shock in their eyes.

How is NYC inaccessible? Well, let me count the ways. This is just going on the question of wheelchair use for getting around-- never mind important questions of housing, health care, or employment. And it is only my experience; other people might know better and/or worse.

• Curb cuts. The city is supposed to be finished by 2008 with the curb cut programme (lawsuit terms). But they so aren't going to be done. In my neighborhood, there is often only one cut per block, and many blocks have non-regulation cuts. Some don't have cuts; they've heaped some tarmac up to the pavement .... The New York Times claims (in an inaccessible subscribers only piece) that in the greater New York area (the five boroughs), 97,664 cuts have been completed, but it doesn't say how many more they have to do. Manhattan alone has 20,000; it is one of the smaller boroughs at 22.7 square miles.

• Taxis. Of the city's 13,000 yellow cabs, only 81 are wheelchair-accessible. And there's no Braille signage or anything else useful. Thanks, DNNYC (Disabilities Network of NYC). NYC doesn't have the system where you telephone for a taxi, you have to hail a cab on the street. You can try to hail a cab, but they don't always stop. Too much hassle -- I ask someone else to do it for me and then sneak in or I wait until the light turns red and muscle in right in front of the driver and argue. Some drivers will stop for you, but won't get out to put the chair in the boot if it's raining, their backs hurt, they have junk in the trunk, or if they are bloody-minded. Powerchair/scooter user? Tough luck.

Many of the drivers of accessible cabs moonlight; they will hand out cards with their phone numbers. You can call about an hour in advance, but they aren't reliable. The issue has been brought to the mayor's attention, but .... well. Not yet. Livery vehicles (you can order these by phone) are accessible if you can transfer and if you can pay (they are more expensive). Yay, London (for the moment)!

• Buses. The buses are accessible, unless there are more than 2 wheelies. They often don't have good service in the parts of town where PWD live -- not that there are designated parts, it's more a question of less expensive neighborhoods and public housing -- and you often have to take more than two buses per trip. There are occasionally flare ups about disabled people being too slow for express buses.

OMG. Disability activists have spent years of their lives trying to educate drivers about where it is safe to ask a wheelchair user to disembark. You can't just plunk down the ramp anywhere. The bus driver on Saturday was not going to break any rules. We were stuck in traffic. He let everyone off the bus, but me and my friends. It wasn't a legitimate stop so he was not going to let me off. I cajoled. Nothing. I explained that I could pop off the bus side easily -- even more easily if he was going to let the kneeling part of the bus kneel. No such bloody luck. I argued. I decided just to go for it; he grabbed me. We were stuck on that bus for 30 **** minutes.

• Subway. Approx 24 of approximately 450 stations are accessible (but not clear by what standard). That rises to 75 if you count the commuter rail. Mostly, this means there's the odd sign in Braille, people yell over PA systems, and there's an elevator. Practically, however, this still doesn't take care of the gap, the non-functioning, pee-filled elevators, the lack of information about the elevators (you're supposed to be able to call, but getting someone to give you accurate info/answer the phone is a laugh and the website isn't uptodate). There's the gap, the moving platforms, the raised gap. .... (people are regularly injured from this on the Long Island Railroad). The narrow walkways from parts of the platforms -- so narrow that you have less than a foot of clearance between the wall and the edge.

Have I told you the one about the Starbucks cup?

• Places. Big stores are generally accessible. Boutiquey places are all too often not. Chain restaurants are generally accessible; far too many little places are not. Big supermarkets are; little corner stores are not. This weekend, so far, we have been to two inaccessible restaurants, one inaccessible coffee house, one partially accessible theater, one wholly inaccessible theater (I didn't go along) ... you get the picture.

I love the city, nonetheless. I know that in winter, the level of frustration rises as they plough the cuts under. I know it can be bitterly hot and cold. That people can be really rude (they can also be incredibly kind). I'd live here all the time, but Wizard is a West Coast type and West Coast is based on, well, the West Coast. I do think, however, that being under the kind of long term stress that not being able to do anything easily causes would exhaust me. I notice that disabled people here are very protective of their time, efforts, and energy. And I see why. This is not an easy place to live. And it is the only place I have ever passionately wanted to live. I will be back in New York in just over a week. I'm counting the moments.

• Visit the citified Wheelchair Dancer


Accesswise NY is similar to London. Our only upshot is that we have accessible taxis.

When I went though, I found inaccessible public transport not to be an issue for me. Manhattan is so small I just pushed everywhere I went. Not possible in London.

I do however have a recollection of drunkenly falling off an uncut curb and landing on my chin one night. I was trying to find my youth hostel.

  • 2.
  • At 12:42 PM on 04 Sep 2007, Chris Page wrote:

I could never do Manhattan because I hate the feeling of being dwarfed by huge buildings. London is bad enough for that. And I've been warned about the taxis. It's West Coast for me if I ever muster the courage to fly transatlantic.

  • 3.
  • At 02:17 PM on 04 Sep 2007, Penelope wrote:

I spent most of my summer living by Union Square. I was lucky in that I found that things were mostly accessible. That said, while hanging around Times Square before a show one day, I discovered that the Virgin Megastore there didn't have a working lift. And apparently didn't have any plans to fix theirs (which they said had been broken for "a while"). So much for that. I mentioned the ADA. They looked at me like I was nuts and making such legislation up. No one even offered to help me find out if they had what I was looking for.

As someone who hasn't been further west than Michigan since becoming a wheelchair user, there are reasons why I always talk about the UK being better in a lot of ways about access than the US. I'd rather try my luck getting around London than NYC any day.

  • 4.
  • At 10:42 PM on 04 Sep 2007, wheelchairdancer wrote:

I dunno. In London, I felt free to use a taxi whenever I needed it. But I don't know if I would feel good about doing that every day. It would add up.

London v NYC? A hard call.

  • 5.
  • At 07:48 PM on 13 Sep 2007, Geoff Lee wrote:

I have been lobbying the D.O.T. on behalf of a friend in a wheelchair for curb cut installation on several corners in Chinatown where I live for a year now. The D.O.T. says they cannot install curb cuts on some Chinatown corners because of underground vaults underneath those corners. Anyone know how this obstacle is overcome in other parts of the City?

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