No Way Out

Text, photos and video by COLEEN JOSE
April 2013

Edith Prentiss is a long-time resident of Washington Heights. One day in March, Prentiss travelled nine miles from her apartment to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s downtown headquarters.

She weaved through crowds in Grand Central Station and the walkway tunnels beneath Times Square, repeating ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’ to pedestrians, navigating narrow platforms, entrances and exits with her wheelchair. She was going to a meeting of Disabled in Action, an advocacy organization of which she is vice president for legislative affairs.

The wide gaps between the platform and a subway car can catch or break wheels, recalled Prentiss. Many passageways between a train and platform are too narrow while an ill-timed maneuver or heavy flow of pedestrian traffic could mean falling off of the edge and onto the tracks. A few seconds of response can be the determining factor between safety and a fatal accident. Two young men once pulled her and her wheelchair out from being stuck in a gap, seconds before the train departed.

Prentiss, 61, grew up in Long Island. Her investigative and detailed sense of the subway system’s issues with accessibility grew from more than three decades of being in a wheelchair and as a frequent user of public transportation. Multiple surgeries to her legs aimed to correct tissue and nerve damage from an accident. She’s had multiple operations on her right shoulder because of gradual dislocation from lifting herself up over the gap by holding on to a pole inside the train car.

She gives a forensic account of the mass transit system as informed by her daily commute and engagement in disability rights advocacy. Her heavy New York accent is distinguishable from the numerous languages heard in the density of city life.

“There’s a lot to learn about things,” Prentiss said during one of our subway rides down to Lower Manhattan in the middle of winter. She was on her way to a MTA meeting that addressed plans to accommodate an increase in ridership. “The whole way of jumping, of grabbing, of pulling yourself to get on and off of the train. I call it flopping. Flop onto the platform.”

Of the 468 subway stations, less than a fourth are accessible for people with visual, hearing and mobility disabilities. Many lack features that follow guidelines from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ramps are too steep while some ticket offices are inaccessible by wheelchair. While the city’s transportation planners move to add taxis that are equipped with the technology to provide accessibility, numerous residents ponder its cost and if improvements can be made elsewhere.

“My chair is 28 inches wide, if that,” said Prentiss after leading the first meeting of Disabled in Action. After giving advice to members on their way out of the auditorium space of VISIONS at Selis Manor, Prentiss settled to rest at a remaining table in the room.

“I can usually get through a single door where there are double doors,” she said. “By law, if you’ve got double doors and they’re narrower, you’ve go to have both of them open.” In locations, such as the narrow entrance and exits in Grand Central Station, manual double doors are closed.

In New York City, the grid design of streets and mass transit lines directs the flow of life, infusing creative industries and a global economy.

Historians applauded the sense of order created by the grid plan. In their book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the authors Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace wrote about the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. The grid design, observed the historians, encapsulated the “republican predilection for balance and distrust of nature.”

Although revolutionary in the art of architecture and urban planning, the city’s built environment is one of barriers. Residents who are physically disabled navigate through an urban setting that is centuries weathered and outdated for a modern, increasingly populated city.

Ann Fox, a scholar on disability studies and professor at Davidson College observed how architecture is a practice of active forgetting. Architectural design that does not accommodate everyone can reflect our ambivalence about sensory and physical disabilities, said Fox. It reflects privilege for those who do not grow up in a world full of social and physical barriers.

Universal design was a term coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace. He was stricken with polio at age nine and became a wheelchair user. Mace was carried up and down the stairs of North Carolina State University for him to attend class. In his pioneering work, he believed that good design should accommodate everyone, regardless of the person’s age or physical ability.

The concept of universal design entered public policy in the early 1970s, helping make Washington landmarks like the U.S. Capitol and the Kennedy Center accessible for individuals with sensory or physical handicaps. Universal design merely frames the built environment of many developed urban locations. Transportation, according to Prentiss, is the next frontier for accessibility.

In addition to buses, taxis and subway stations that are accessible for wheelchair users and people with developmental disabilities, a service called Access-A-Ride offers an option. The van, reserved a day or two in advance, is a round trip service that picks up a person from a specified location to arrive at a destination.

An appointment with Access-A-Ride, according to Brooklyn resident, Jean Ryan, has often added three to six hours to her trips. Ryan, 78, uses the service to travel from her home in Bay Ridge to appointments with medical specialists in Manhattan.

For many, using Access-A-Ride and the subway system means spending a lot of time on the transit lines. It is also a maze of an experience when elevators are broken or the rush hour brings a flood of people onto the transit lines.

Ryan is advocating accessibility in the business community. Along with friends and fellow activists, she visits movie theatres, public spaces and restaurants that do not follow ADA guidelines and files lawsuits to change their practice. Yet, the emerging efforts are being focused on transportation and the role of a mayor that will replace Michael Bloomberg in the upcoming election.

“The need for all yellow taxis and all car services to be wheelchair accessible cannot be understated,” she said. The natural light began to dim inside Ryan’s living room. Outside, recent snowfall had melted from a mid-winter storm. She was finally able to leave her home and navigate around frozen blankets of ice and shoveled piles of snow.

“While vehicles are not necessarily part of the infrastructure, they are a very important form of transportation for everyone. Everyone but people in wheelchairs, that is. It is just plain segregation. The 13,006 inaccessible cabs might as well have big signs on them saying, ‘Keep out, people in wheelchairs.’ We can’t go places in cabs and car services. If something comes up that we have to go to quickly, we can’t go. If we miss the bus, we can’t grab a cab. If our family member dies or has to go to the hospital quickly, we can’t get there often for a day or two. This is no way that anyone would choose to live.”

Ryan, a black belt in karate, ran marathons, traveled the country with her two children and was an active member of her Brooklyn community before needing a wheelchair. In 1982, she started feeling fatigued after short walks for exercise. Ryan struggled to lift her legs and began to feel sharp pain that shot up and down, from her knees to toes. Doctors have yet to pinpoint the cause of the nerve-based pain and provide alleviating medication.

“There are more and more of us with disabilities,” said Ryan, “but I have to admit, that I can’t fight all the battles I come across, and sometimes I have to let something go. If I’m hungry, I just want food, not a two-year battle to make a place accessible.”

Ryan acknowledged the daily persistence that is necessary to overcome incessant physical pain. Physical and psychological barriers frame every experience and hinder the effort to become a part of her quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Ryan and Prentiss hold memories of being able-bodied, using it to empower their advocacy. Milagros Franco, a resident of the Gramercy area of Manhattan, has experienced her disability since birth. “If someone were to give me a magical pill that could cure it all, I wouldn’t take it,” said Franco. “I never knew the other side of the coin, walking. It’s who I am. People are quick to stereotype. They don’t see the person, they see the chair first. Don’t get me wrong, but there are some days when I wished I knew what it would be like to jump rope.”

Franco’s mother smoked cigarettes during he pregnancy. She suffered a hemorrhage while attempting to move furniture and prematurely gave birth to her youngest daughter, Milagros.

In her upbringing, Franco struggled to be accepted in her home. “My mother could never accept that I was different and disabled. She was always opting for surgeries because she thought that she could fix me. I had eighteen surgeries before I was 18 years old — all orthopedic related. They were all, quote on quote, to help me walk. Even though it was my body, I had no say over it. I lost more ability than I gained with every surgery.”

Franco considers her disability a fortune because it helped her stay in school while her older sisters took jobs in restaurants and did not pursue college. She is currently completing a degree in social work while working as a project coordinator at the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled.

She helps individuals navigate medical aid, housing and a career path. When the weather is pleasant, she crosses the Brooklyn Bridge after taking a bus and the subway from her apartment. “If it doesn’t affect the walking population, it doesn’t get noticed,” said Franco, “it’s more of an attitude barrier than anything else.”

In a weekly meeting of the MTA where Prentiss is a permanent member to the advisory committee, she recalled an experience of waiting more than an hour for a bus because she could not access the subway due to a broken elevator. “Where are my rights as a taxpayer,” asked Prentiss. Officials acknowledged the hardship and immediately moved on to the next topic.

In addition to current issues of delays or lack of resources, the city’s recent experience from Hurricane Sandy exposed dire shortcomings in accessibility for emergency response and transportation. Franco relied on a friend to bring her food and water for two weeks after a ConEdison electrical transformer rendered the lower half of Manhattan without electricity. She could not charge her electrical chair nor use the elevator. More than two weeks after the storm made landfall, Franco finally crawled down eight flights of stairs to use a manual wheelchair that her friend brought.

“I really freaked out people from FEMA when I told them that if you’re not going to rescue my chair, don’t rescue me,” recalled Prentiss during her experience, “because without my chair, I’m not going anywhere.” She stayed in her apartment in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and waited for a cleanup of debris from the streets and reopening of the flooded subway tunnels.

In mid-April, after nearly 100 days without a permanent chairman, Governor Andrew Cuomo named the former head of New York City Transit, Thomas F. Prendergast as the new MTA Chairman.

His appointment was well received by MTA workers and officials, although some point to his past experiences. During the blizzard of 2010, the transportation authority failed while under Prendergast’s leadership. Transportation officials estimated that 650 buses remained stuck in snow and hundreds of passengers were stranded inside subways overnight.

Prentiss has organized her group to attend hearings of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to bring accessibility to the forefront and into the agendas of the newly appointed Prendergast and mayoral candidates. After the MTA meeting, frustration and resolve was palatable in her voice.

“The disability community is suing the mayor and the OEM,” Prentiss said, “for their failure to include people with disabilities in the planning process, people with disabilities in the shelter process, people with disabilities in the transportation process.”


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