Disabled subway riders deserve better

Only about a quarter of New York City subway stations are accessible to disabled residents. Despite this, the MTA spends taxpayer dollars fighting accessibility lawsuits instead of paying for more accessible stations.

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By Asha Ramachandran, Deputy Opinion Editor

Only about 25% of New York City’s subway stations are accessible for disabled people, whether that’s through wheelchairs, ramps or elevator access. Of those accessible stations in NYC, most of them are located in Manhattan, while other boroughs lag further behind. Even with that dismal number reflecting the city’s lackluster commitment to disabled riders, many of the accessible stations themselves are only somewhat accessible, with multiple train platforms not meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA requires wheelchair accessibility on public transportation vehicles, which is extremely limited in New York City subways. New York City has failed to meet this requirement, despite multiple renovations in 2013 to the Smith-9th St. station in Brooklyn, in 2017 in Astoria and in 2014 in the Bronx, where they were sued two years later. 

These pushbacks have led to some victories, as the case pursued in response to the 2014 renovations in the Bronx was won by disability rights groups. However, these minor victories are not enough. With the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s recent requests for billions of dollars in federal funding, it would make sense that a significant portion of that money would go towards making stations accessible. Instead, the MTA is evading its responsibilities and misappropriating funds for unrelated projects.

Despite the $4.5 billion the MTA received, they have failed to deliver on promises of station accessibility renovations. Instead, they have directed these funds toward non-accessibility related projects such as modernization, reconstruction of tracks and updating communications systems. Other projects have long been prioritized over the safety and accessibility of subway stations for disabled people, who are entitled to better conditions under the ADA. 

The MTA’s failure to prioritize disabled riders has disproportionate implications for other groups as well. Substantial research has illustrated the correlation between disability and poverty, with disabled people being twice as likely to be living in poverty as opposed to non-disabled people. Disabled people have higher unemployment rates and make less money than their non-disabled counterparts. This discrepancy persists despite the ADA having been passed almost three decades ago. Data also shows that low-income New Yorkers are more likely to take the subway, because they have limited job flexibility. Impoverished disabled people are increasingly stranded with limited transportation options and a system that is doing everything to skirt its responsibility to provide for them. 

The MTA had a capital plan to create 70 new accessible stations by 2024 and ensure 100% accessibility by 2034 —  already an unrealistic promise. That plan has been put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, making a bleak situation much worse for disabled subway riders. Disability advocacy groups who challenge MTA practices legally have been met with legal resistance and lack of transparency. 

Recently, the MTA denied a request from multiple disability rights groups asking for data. The group — led by Joe Rappaport of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID) — wanted to know the amount of taxpayer dollars the MTA spent fighting discrimination lawsuits filed by disability advocates. 

Refusing to be transparent about the amount of taxpayer dollars spent challenging these lawsuits clearly shows where the MTA’s priorities lie — and it’s not with disabled riders. Despite the MTA’s practices, the lawsuits raised by these disability advocates ask for a commitment to accessibility on a specific timeline. They do not even request a monetary settlement, despite the outrageousness of the MTA’s practices, and only ask for a dedication to accessibility. The MTA cannot even live up to this request.

The MTA’s secrecy further illustrates its issues with accountability to the government and the public who it is meant to serve. It is time for transparency, accountability and a clear commitment to making subway stations fully accessible and compliant with the ADA. Disabled New Yorkers deserve respect from the MTA and a clear commitment to making subway stations fully accessible.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]