Trouble on the Streets of New York City

Good luck trying to negotiate this intersection in New York City.

Good luck trying to negotiate this intersection in New York City.

Last time I visited New York City, I was frustratingly reminded how tough the place is for wheelers. Besides the millions of walking people packing streets and crosswalks, Manhattan’s curb cuts are either nonexistent or in terrible shape. (If you’re lucky, there’s one useable curb cut at a major intersection.) Sidewalks are ragged and bumpy, and accessible public transportation is, well, spotty at best. (At least there will be more wheelchair taxis after years of litigation.) If you’re in the Big Apple to see a show, good luck getting accessible seating, and don’t expect to use the restroom at some of the theaters. Same goes at many of the city’s hotels, where “accessibility” is defined in some rather bizarre ways.

With New York’s many access problems, it’s not surprising there’s a strong advocacy movement. A recent example is the lawsuit filed in federal court alleging that the city violates disability civil rights laws by failing to make its sidewalks and pedestrian routes accessible to people who use wheelchairs or are blind.

The suit, filed for the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, charges that for nearly three decades, the city has ignored its obligations to provide curb ramps and accessible pedestrian routes whenever it resurfaces streets or alters its street and sidewalks.

There are “more than 400,000 New Yorkers with ambulatory disabilities and more than 200,000 people with vision disabilities [who] continue to be excluded from the pedestrian culture that is so critical to community life in New York City, because nearly all of the city’s sidewalks and pedestrian routes are dangerous and difficult for persons with disabilities,” said a press release from the group Disability Rights Advocates.

Remember, this is the same state that’s remaking the access sign. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’s up for reelection this fall, signed the bill that removes the word “handicapped” from those familiar blue signs and updates the standard wheelchair symbol with a more active “accessibility logo.” Whether that will change attitudes remains to be seen, but tinkering with a sign is a heck of a lot easier than fixing Manhattan’s dangerous streets.

Still, NYC has held a soft spot in my heart ever since my crutches were stolen in a hotel banquet room there. How can you not love a place where thieves walk off with a pair of well-used, dented, wooden crutches in broad daylight?

Word to the wise: never leave your wheelchair unattended if you venture into the Big Apple.

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