Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Traveling While Disabled // New York City

My husband's greatest dream is to live in New York City. He travels there often for work, and takes great pleasure in wandering the neighborhoods, block after block, with no real plan when his meetings are through. He'd love to live there someday "in a third-floor, walk-up apartment." Sadly, his disabled wife derails this plan for the "true New York experience."

He's not wrong: walking up the stairs and everywhere else you need to go is the true New York experience. Last week when my own plans took me to New York, he got to see New York through the disabled lens when we had some evenings free to "wander" the city together, which consisted of me on my crutches at a snail's pace, and him walking somewhat patiently behind me. Even my Sheldon Cooper-like husband knows that to express his impatience would be socially unacceptable. But I let him have a moment.

"This is annoying the shit out of you, isn't it?" I asked, sweat dripping down my face. Between the humidity, the crowds, and the constant shooting pain in my right leg, I felt like Mama June in a marathon.

"...yup." He replied somewhat sheepishly, but mostly with the candor I've come to know and love/hate about him. Beyond this, he doesn't complain. In part knowing better, and in part knowing I'd have something to say about it if he did. This is the real picture of marriage: standing by your partner, but wishing you could walk at your own pace...fifty blocks ahead. Since he is familiar with the "in sickness" part of the vows on a daily basis, I'd say he's entitled to it. After all, who was carrying my shopping bags?

Bite Beauty Lipstick Lab, my crutches, and a door with no stairs.
The one place that got it right was the Bite Beauty Lip Lab. Coincidence? I think not.
This was my third trip to New York, and I'm in worse condition than I ever have been. I am now walking with crutches permanently, dealing with pain daily, and I'm in some sort of purgatory between crutches and a wheelchair. I would have chosen the wheelchair option, but my previous trips to New York were a clue as to how accessible the city is. (Read: it isn't.) Instead, I opted to walk through the pain as best as possible, because there might not be a "next time" that I can get into that rooftop bar with no elevator.

It is extremely frustrating that New York is regarded by some as the greatest city in the world, yet it is so far behind in terms of accessibility. Nowhere was this truer for me than in the subway system, the most inaccessible part of my trip. Despite my need to prove myself, my body could only stand to take the subway twice. During the second trip my husband and friend had to call a cab after we emerged from the subway station because the trip up the stairs had left me unable to go on. Though I traveled to/from major parts of the city (Times Square and Soho), I only found ONE elevator and I couldn't even use it because it was on the wrong side of the platform. My friend surmised that because it was beneath Barclay's, they likely paid for it. And the city isn't entirely to blame, he noted, as the subway system is chartered by the state of New York.

Is me taking the subway twice a representative sample of the system at large? It would seem so. After hearing my frustration about my trip, this morning a friend of mine posted this article discussing New York's pubic transportation system. Only 21% of their subway system is accessible. This handy map gives a physical representation of that 21%, and notes that barely more than 100 stations out of 490 are accessible. (Not necessarily fully accessible, though.) And while many are quick to point out that the bus system is entirely accessible, the site also points out that it is hardly a sustainable method of controlling commuter patterns.

Cobblestone street hell.
Beyond that, why am I, on the 25th anniversary of the ADA, still having choose to sacrifice my health, or make alternate route plans? With a Master's degree in policy, I understand that change does not occur overnight. However, to be nearly 3 decades after the ADA and only 21% of the way in "the greatest city in the world" is not only a shame, it gives people like me little hope for an accessible New York in my lifetime. In a world where phone apps put out updates faster than the moon's orbit of the earth, I wonder how accepting of the status quo we would be if "the system is over 100 years old" was an excuse for the technology we use daily. Only, it is a choice to use technology. I, unfortunately, did not have a say in choosing my body's operating system.

As I clambered up the stairs to exit the subway, my husband pointed out a sign about ADA access improvements being made to the system. Ironic placement for such a sign, considering I was halfway up the stairs on a landing. In looking at the Capital Plan online, MTA states: "NYC Transit is on pace to make 100 stations fully accessible in accordance with ADA standards by 2020. With investments made through 2014, full ADA accessibility at 89 Key Stations will be complete or in progress." The Capital Plan seeks to make ADA compliant the final 11 stations, including a handful of others. This means that in five years, on the 30th anniversary of the ADA, the subway system will be about 22% compliant with ADA standards for those of its 10%+ disabled residents. 

And while you may argue that 10% may include people who are disabled, but not mobility impaired, the Capital Plan also mentions ADA compliance in terms of Braille signage and platform edge warning strips. Furthermore, as the NPR article I cited above mentions, this doesn't even take into account the scores of people who don't choose to identify themselves as disabled but have an impairment, those who are temporarily impaired, or senior citizens, nor does it take into account travelers with disabilities (in a city that sought $70 billion in tourist dollars), all of whom could benefit from an ADA compliant system. It was also brilliant of NPR to mention how the elevators in accessible stations were utilized by those carrying luggage and strollers, i.e., those most likely to take their abilities for granted. It painted a clear picture of the plague that is New York's able-bodied privilege: those with full ability taking advantage of the path laid for them by their disabled counterparts. Thank the Lord that elevator is there for your Bugaboo. At least, in 21% of your stations.

When people are in good health, it is so easy to take it for granted. Amazingly enough, for all I have been through medically, my current space is one I never even imagined I could be in. Just five years ago during my first trip to NYC, I could get up the subway stairs using the railing with just a bit more effort than the average person. It was a hit to my pride to see how much of my ability has slipped through my fingers. I grew up disabled, so I adapted to the challenges presented to me because my body didn't know any differently. To be in a state of regression is foreign and frightening. It is difficult to be kind to yourself when you feel your independence slipping away. To make myself walk up the stairs wasn't simply "foolish", it might very well have been the last time. I can at least walk away knowing that my body gave up, but I didn't. Until your own gives up, you can't fully comprehend that feeling of accomplishment.

As a person who loves and lives to travel, though this is immensely frustrating (and painful), I remain undeterred. Though my trip left me with a swollen shin and a possible need for X-rays, I refuse to stay away. It is a place near to my husband's heart, and I love to see his face light up in New York the way mine does on the west coast. But more than that, for me to return and to put my physical self in the space of an inaccessible world makes me an example. I hope that by making bar managers scramble to take me up the "easier" back set of stairs or the maĆ®tre d' get me a chair, I can make at least one person think about their "grandfathered in" space. It's a little easier to make people give a damn when you're in their face. Beyond the long shot of making people think, my words are a farther reaching and more permanent representation of what it is like to be a disabled traveler in New York.  It is difficult....but then again, so am I.

Pamela Barsky bag that reads "sure new york is difficult but then again so am i".

1 comment:

Jema said...

WOW! That is so eye opening. Thank you for sharing how this city is not so attainable for everyone. I wanted to just lift you up and carry you halfway through your post. Keep writing and sharing your view. I forget to see the world through someone else's eyes. Your words give people perspective and through that make changes for everyone and access to all.