Traveling around New York City by subway can be stressful for anyone, even at the best of times. Now just imagine using the subway in a wheelchair. I was at a subway station in Manhattan last week when I saw a depressing sight — a man with an amputated leg, using his hands to prop himself down the stairs, as there was no other means to reach the platform. Over 1.1 million New Yorkers have a form of ambulatory disability, but the majority of this city’s subway stations remain inaccessible to them. This is a blight that must be addressed urgently.
Disabled access on the subway has always been an issue for New York City. The system has never been truly updated since it was designed in the late 1800s, and it never factored in disabled access requirements. When refurbishments have taken place during times fraught by budgetary concerns, the first item to be cut is usually disabled access. Last month, case in point, a $32 million renovation of Brooklyn’s Smith and Ninth Street station was completed. For a station, which has the honor of being the highest station in the world at 88 feet above street level, it would have made sense to make this station accessible to disabled users. However, because of budgetary constraints, Smith and Ninth Street remains inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Other cities around the world — ranging from London to Seattle — have upgraded their facilities to make traversing the subway far easier for disabled riders. New York has lagged behind and, at other times, simply neglected to factor disabled access into the equation. A wheelchair user, recognizing the need for a centralized system for navigating the city by wheelchair, began to develop the app “Wheel New York”, using the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter to finance the app’s coding. The goal of the app was simple — to create a “mobile app that will allow the disabled and elderly to safely navigate and enjoy New York City.” Unfortunately, it never achieved the funding goal, stymying its development. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should sponsor its creation.
When we’re judged as a society by future generations, one of the key aspects I believe we will be assessed on is our treatment of people with disabilities. In New York, we are failing. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards humanity and justice. Let us honor that creed. There have been minor improvements to the subway system over the years, but they are few and far between. It requires the political impetus and clamor of New Yorkers to achieve it. We owe it to our co-workers, family and friends who are mobility impaired to hasten their access to the subway.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 16 print edition. Harry Brown is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]