Transit advocates held a demonstration on West 72nd Street May 7, 2018 to protest the MTA’s failure to install elevators as part of a station improvement project. Photo: Michael Garofalo
New York’s disabled wage legal battles to improve subway and sidewalk access
By Meredith Kurz
Dustin Jones got off the subway at Union Station, rolled onto the platform and discovered that the elevator that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) claimed was in service was out of order. He was stuck, several flights of stairs underground. Catching the next train would take him far beyond his destination, and there was a strong chance the elevator at that station would also be inoperable.
There is an average of 25 elevator outages per day in the New York subway system. The median outage is 4 hours, but many last months. Signs or audio announcements about the outages are rare. While the MTA provides bus service during extensive station issues, they don’t or can’t provide alternative accommodations to people who rely on their elevators. And as a recent lawsuit stated, “Even when functioning, subway elevators are often unclean, odiferous, and littered with trash, urine, or feces.” If you’ve ever taken one, this is not news.
Since the American Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, many cities have improved their public transportation accessibility. New York City has not. We’re one of the worst, ranked 130 of 150 cities. Only 20 percent of our stations have elevators, which are often and erratically malfunctioning, and only 20 percent of our sidewalks have curb cuts. We are far behind ADA standards.
If you live in one of the many neighborhoods without these essentials, you face a life of limited possibilities in a city of infinite ones.
The lack of mobility leads to high unemployment and above average poverty among our disabled residents. Ironically, according to the Disability Quality Index, a created by a group made up of business leaders and policymakers, companies who hire more people with disabilities enjoy 28 percent higher revenue, double net income, 30 percent higher economic profit margins and have twice the likelihood of financially outperforming their peers. Yet residents with disabilities in New York City have an unemployment rate of over 65 percent, compared to the city’s 4.3 percent average.
This is a war of law, protest and persuasion. Lawsuits resolve ADA violations, explained Susan Dooha, Executive Director of The Center for Independence of the Disabled (CIDNY), one of several organizations fighting to force the city to comply with the ADA. “Victories are a fundamental piece of independence,” Dooha said. “Sometimes you need a legal right and a legal remedy.”
CIDNY, a nonprofit, advocates for the disabled and provides services and counseling, in addition to its legal activity on behalf of the disabled. “It’s the testimony of those affected by the dismal state of city transportation that has added credibility to the cause,” said Dooha. “For the dignity of the community and self-empowerment, it’s critical to be able to describe their experience, to link it with the actual changes that are required.”
Serving on the frontlnes in the ongoing battles for accessibility are attorneys like Daniel Brown. His first case, filed in 1998, challenged the policies of the New York Road Runners. His brother was one of the eight plaintiffs, and when the case settled the New York City Marathon’s first official wheelchair division was created. Brown continues to work on cases fighting what he calls “egregious civil rights violations”.
Currently there are two ongoing elevator-related lawsuits citing the MTA’s “failure to make the subway system accessible for persons whose mobility ... restrict them from using stairs.” Brown says there will “most likely be a trial in early 2019.”
A separate suit about sidewalk curb cuts alleges that the city is in violation of federal disability civil rights laws. A lack of curb cuts, and poorly maintained curb cuts, costs lives. A friend of Dooha’s was struck and killed by a truck when there was no curb cut and she was forced to roll her wheelchair in the street. The City attempted to have the suit dismissed, Brown said, but that motion was denied.
“We believe we’re close to reaching a settlement, which [disability] rights advocates and the city will present to the court shortly,” said Brown. “That settlement will commit the city to make a plan to have all the sidewalks accessible.”
In yet a third lawsuit, this one about taxi accessibility, the city complied in part, reducing biennial renewal fees by two thirds as an incentive to owners of medallion taxis that are ADA-accessible.
The MTA has a major proposal, called Fast Forward, which addresses many flaws in the system. The budget for the program will be hammered out beginning in January, with the state legislature’s first 2019 session. Fast Forward includes the MTA’s “Accelerate Accessibility” program. The plans include “increasing the rate at which elevators are being installed at stations to make them accessible, from 19 in the current five-year Capital Program to more than 50 in the next 5 year program, with the goal of achieving maximum possible accessibility in 15 years.” According to the MTA, the improvements will ensure that, within five years, all subway customers are no more than two stations away from an accessible station.
Fortunately for Dustin Jones, who was stuck many flights of stairs underground in the subway, he had the upper body strength to reach the street. While a good Samaritan carried his wheelchair, Jones, in a sitting position, used his arms to lift himself up, stair by filthy stair. He was late to his CIDNY board meeting, but he didn’t give up. He couldn’t give up.