Have you ever realized that something integral is missing from New York City? When most people look around the streets, they note subway stations, cycling lanes or any other public facilities that the majority of residents can enjoy. However, something absent from that list is disabled New Yorkers in wheelchairs and wheelchair amenities. Since my first day in Manhattan, I have counted fewer people in wheelchairs than the number of fingers on my hand. If you have not noticed this, I do not blame you. Sometimes our own comfort blinds us from the realities of others. The reality for people with disabilities and senior citizens in wheelchairs is that New York City is a difficult place to live in.
Let us start with public transportation. Given New York City’s design, the majority of residents — and the majority of disabled New Yorkers — use public transportation. It is remarkable that virtually all MTA buses are fully equipped to carry a standard wheelchair. However, the situation changes when we look at the subway: while 41.8 percent of non-disabled people use the subway, only 30.5 percent of people with mobility disabilities ride it. This is because New York City’s subway system is highly unfit, or in more honest terms, insensitive to people in wheelchairs. 117 out of 472 subway stations are accessible by wheelchair, not factoring in elevators out of service. On average, 25 subway elevators break down a day and take a median of four hours to be repaired. This means that people in wheelchairs are not only limited to certain stops but also may get stuck there once they arrive. With less than a quarter of our subway stations being fully accessible, we lag far behind of cities such as Barcelona, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Washington D.C, that have greater percentages of wheelchair accessible subway stations.
Even if New Yorkers in wheelchairs decide to commute by themselves on the street, this will be a challenge. Aside from reckless drivers who are a threat even to those who can walk, there are multiple inaccessible curb cuts, cracks on the sidewalks and potholes on the road that are unsafe for wheelchair navigation.
Transportation is a complicated issue, but accessibility in commercial areas is even more complex. How many restaurants in the East Village have restrooms that are suitable for wheelchairs? How many buildings in Tribeca have automatic door instead of just revolving doors? How many convenience stores in Chinatown require customers to climb a few steps in order to enter? We may not pay attention to these small details, but they make a difference.
In 1990, President George W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in order to protect disabled men and women against discrimination. More than 20 years have passed since then, but New York City, in spite of making some progress, has failed to fully comply with this honorable intention. It is unacceptable that this city still treats an important segment of its population as second-class citizens. As members of the NYU community, we must acknowledge that our university’s aim is to offer equal opportunities for students with disabilities. However, there are still many steps to climb. It is our civic duty to stand up for those who, unfortunately, cannot.
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