August 17, 2019

New York, New York: Not Such a Wonderful Town for People with Disabilities

We just spent three great days in New York City celebrating our daughter’s graduation from NYU, which included a ceremony in Radio City, an outdoor grad fair in Washington Square Park and the huge full-university pageant in the new Yankee Stadium. 

With our teenage son, Danny along for the festivities, we got a small glimpse into daily life in the Big Apple for residents and guests with physical disabilities, and although there’s been a major effort to make the island more accessible, it's still very challenging. Due to his disabilities, Danny can walk for short distances using his walker or holding hands, but needs a large stroller or a wheelchair for longer distances.  He can also walk up and down on stairs but moves slowly and needs a hand for balance. We brought along his folding large stroller, which quickly collapses.

Paying for a disabled subway rider is a hassle, which involved having to talk to the staff person behind the booth and getting him/her to buzz us in through the emergency exit. And, although some of the subway stations have been retrofitted with elevators, the disabled signage was small and confusing, sometimes leading us to an exit when we were trying to find the right platform. On the brighter side, we found that although New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude and abrupt, we found that many strangers offered to help us out and one nice businessman carried the folded-up stroller up three flights of stairs at the end of a long sweaty day.

Finding the accessible entrance to Penn Station was the hardest puzzle of all. All we could find were stairs or escalators, with no disabled sign anywhere in sight. Well-meaning strangers gave us conflicting information, and as the rush hour crowd swelled, we couldn’t figure out how we would ever get in. Finally, we found a NYPD officer and he told us to walk two blocks the other way, stroller and suitcases in tow. Standing in line for the elevator, we met adults with disabilities who use scooter wheelchairs, telling us that quite often, the elevators at Penn Station are out of order. Lucky for us, it worked when it was our turn.

I was most surprised that the cosmopolitan, sophisticated locals on the Upper West Side stared at us walking on the street and in Central Park. Here we were, in the ultimate melting pot with a wide diversity of people and every possible language spoken yet people were staring at us like we had just landed from Mars.  But we didn’t let that bother us—there were too many good meals to be eaten, too many sunsets to enjoy as the golden light reflected off the skyscrapers on the other side of the reservoir and too many good reasons to say Mazel Tov!