27 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act passes, advocates push MTA for change



People with disabilities and their allies carried these signs into the MTA board meeting on September 27th. Photo: Sarah Kim.

“There’s a saying that everyone gets 24 hours a day, but often with people with disabilities it’s not true,” says Shain Anderson, community organizer for Access-A-Ride at the Center for the Independence of the Disabled New York (CIDNY). “You have to spend so many hours getting to where you need to go. It really robs you of your time. This is an addition to what we as people with disabilities face in general. It’s tough.”

Only 112 of MTA’s 472 subway stations are accessible, and out of those, services at 100 currently work in both directions.

A dozen people showed up at an MTA board meeting in late September to voice their concerns – and share their stories.

“Two weeks ago on Friday, I was on my way home on a lovely summer evening on West 4th Street and I took the subway home to Brooklyn on an A train. When I got to Jay Street, the elevator was out. I only had two choices,” said Christopher Pangilinan, who is the program director of technology and rider engagement at the TransitCenter, a nonprofit that promotes improvements in public transportation. “One, I could either take the C train to Franklin and then come back, which would take 40 minutes. Or I could ask a stranger to help me up. I did the latter because I could. But then I had to walk up the stairs, and trust a stranger with my most valuable possession, which, of course, is my wheelchair. Unfortunately, in the three years I’ve  lived in this wonderful city, I’ve encountered this problem 246-some times, including this morning,”

MTA board members didn’t allot time for a group of people with disabilities to talk at a July board meeting, but this time they were ready with facilitators to bring the mic to those in wheelchairs, so they wouldn’t have to navigate through the packed room to the podium.

Joseph J. Lhota, the chairman of MTA, had a single response to the dozens of accessibility complaints the audience expressed. “We have a new arrangement with the Transit Workers Union,” he said. “We are now bringing in the private sector, where workers will both work on the elevators and escalators and train our workers as well, as new technology becomes available. This basic private-public partnership between the private sector and the unions will inure to the favor of all our customers.”

Last May, an audit from City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer revealed that MTA “did not perform all scheduled preventive maintenance on nearly 80 percent of the sampled escalators and elevators, and that one-third of the MTA’s scheduled preventive maintenance assignments in the sample were completed late.”

The People’s MTA was created this summer by the members of the Workers World Party, a socialist group that advocates for the working class. Its leader, John Bohn, says that their primary mission is to improve the working conditions of train conductors and to make public transit free for all – but since he saw people with disabilities struggling at July 26th MTA board meeting, the organization added the accessibility issue to its platform.

“I hope that they’ll install elevators in every single subway [station]. But they just came out with their new action plan, you can find it online at mta.info, and they do not mention elevators,” said 72-year-old Brooklynite Mary Kaessinger, a member of The People’s MTA.

“We want the MTA to post a schedule for maintaining elevators. We’d like to see improvements on the maintenance of elevators because too many of them are broken during the course of the day, so already we have a limited number of stations with elevators, and then half of those elevators are broken,” said Monica Bartley, community outreach specialist at CIDNY, who uses a wheelchair. “They do not inform us in real time about broken elevators. And so it is really frustrating when we get there and realize that the elevator is broken.”

On April 25, CIDNY teamed up with Disability Rights Advocate to file a class action lawsuit against the MTA for its failure to install elevators in all subway stations and to ,to maintain the few elevators that exist. It has been 27 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, and the MTA is still not in compliance with the law and regulations.

“For the ones that have been broken for a day or two, they post a sign about the outage. But when it happens just there and then, they’re not that fast,” said Bartley. “I’d like to have more stations with elevators, and a timeline for when they’re going to do that.”

The alternative – Access-A-Ride – is problematic for different reasons, according to those who use it. “If you’re a major user of the mass transit and you use the bus or subway, you can just hop on a subway or train whenever,” said Anderson. “Whenever you choose, whenever you want it, 24 hours a day. But users of Access-A-Ride have to call one or two days in advance, and then wait. And we had had users who have done that and miss job interviews, appointments, plans with friends. This lack of adequate transportation is a leading cause why we have an unemployment rate of around 29% within people with disabilities.”

MTA officials did not respond to a request for comment on accessibility issues.

According to Jess Powers, the director of communication and education at CIDNY, story collection is a crucial part of pushing policy changes. “We work with people to tell their stories and share them with us. Story collection is what we do and that really helps us to see a pattern to move forward with litigation.”

For  now, using the MTA “is a struggle in the best of the times,” said Anderson. “But when it’s that much more difficult, it’s just that much more difficult. Simply to get around takes perseverance, courage, forward-thinking, and a lot of fair amount of braveness just to cross the street. You really need to commit.”