People with Disabilities and Allies Advocate for Universal Subway Access

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn takes screenshots of the MTA elevator outage website “at the same time as the outage, to document the fact that outages are often not listed. Said non-listing helps the MTA ‘get away’ with it, because it creates an underestimate of outages, and overestimate of elevator availability.” | Photo courtesy of Sasha Blair-Goldensohn

Screenshot courtesy of Sasha Blair-Goldensohn

BY JUDY L. RICHHEIMER | On March 1, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), a public forum was held to consider the parlous state of transportation in our city. A panel of experts, both erudite and enraged, discussed, among other topics, snail-paced traffic, the inflated cost of subway construction, and buses that have gone MIA.

One topic not mentioned throughout the presentation was the right of the disabled to travel by subway — and why that right, according to advocates for the disabled, is denied systematically. Eventually, during the brief audience period of Q&A , Chelsea Now was able to raise the issue. Of the seven participants, just one, Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board member, Polly Trottenberg, chose to respond. Then the panel quickly moved back to the more general failures of the MTA.

“That makes me incensed,” Miriam Fisher, of The People’s MTA (on Twitter, @ThePeoplesMTA) and Auto-Free New York! (, vehemently stated after the event. “It’s not on the agenda, it’s not on the radar. This is the time when subways are in the spotlight, in the news daily, and billion-dollar renovations are happening. But accessibility is not being highlighted.”

There are signs, however, that change is underway. The public is becoming slowly aware of the challenges of the 500,000-plus New Yorkers with disabilities who are being denied full access to the subway system.

At last week’s budget hearing, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the council’s Committee on Transportation, acknowledged, “Our outdated system is keeping hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities from fully participating in our economy.” Councilmember Mark Levine announced a rally that was ultimately held on March 12, at the 163rd St. E train station, due for complete overhaul, to protest the absence of elevators in the renovation plan. And at the panel, Trottenberg said that she and fellow MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool had attempted (unsuccessfully) to persuade other members to reject the billion-dollar “enhanced station initiative” because it did not include access for people with disabilities.

On March 13, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of NY became a powerful ally to the Bronx Independent Living Services, when it joined that nonprofit in their lawsuit against the MTA, filed in 2016. At that time, the Bronx Independent Living Services charged that the MTA failed to live up to its legal obligation when it rehabilitated the Middletown Road Station in the Bronx — but failed to include elevators in the project. According to the lawsuit, that decision violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which required that rehabilitation of subway stations must include accessibility for people in wheelchairs.

But there has always been an out. The act reads, “When the cost of alterations necessary… is disproportionate to the cost of the overall alteration,” then the MTA is exempt from that requirement. Advocates for the disabled claim that the MTA has been far too liberal in awarding itself that exemption, and that, in the case of Middletown Road, the agency was clearly violating the law. (Transit activist Mary Kaessinger attended a hearing on the Middletown renovation. She reported: “The MTA lawyers engaged in circular reasoning. They argued there was no need for an elevator there because no wheelchair rider had ever tried to use that station.”)

This month has seen an even more remarkable development in the fight for universal access to NYC subways. On March 5, New York State Supreme Court Justice Shlomo S. Hagler allowed a suit to go forward demanding that mobility-impaired individuals enjoy “full and equal access on equal terms and conditions,” in the words of Maia Goodell, senior staff attorney for the nonprofit law firm Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), representing nine plaintiffs suing the MTA, New York City Transit, and the City of New York. Justice Hagler will preside over a settlement conference on May 10 (likely not open to the public).

Maia Goodell, of Disability Rights Advocates, noted of the recent move to a larger office, “The need for more attorneys here would mean that there is more discrimination against the disabled.” | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

On the day after the March 5 hearing, Chelsea Now met with Goodell and her associate Emily Seelenfreund in their new office space. Two days prior they had moved from across the avenue to these larger quarters at 655 Third Ave., in expectation of growing their staff. “I can’t decide whether I should feel optimistic or pessimistic; the need for more attorneys here would mean that there is more discrimination against the disabled,” Goodell observed.

Goodell stated that the DRA and its clients had attempted to avoid litigation — the scope of this case is enormous, involving more than 350 stations that lack elevators — but, without judicial intervention, the two sides could not settle. The MTA has gone on record stating 117 stations are ADA-accessible; 25 more stations are being made ADA-accessible under funding already approved.

It is important to note that the suit does not stem from requirements set down by the ADA, which made scant demands on our transit system. Although the federal law required that accessibility be included in plans for renovating stations, it specified that just one quarter of stations not otherwise slated for renovation must be retrofitted with elevators. So, DRA drew on the 1965 New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability, pertaining to public accommodations (among other areas of life). That sweeping dictate could deftly apply to subway travel.

Goodell and Seelenfreund were polite, but chary of discussions on specific legal strategy. However, Chelsea-based civil rights attorney, Ron Kuby, provided us with context, noting that the DRA’s use of the human rights law was “creative lawyering” of a kind employed by “the civil rights bar as a whole, which thinks outside of traditional actions” when faced with an intractable government entity.

A second federal suit, also handled by DRA, is based on ADA law, and addresses the epidemic of broken elevators in the system. (That suit is currently at discovery stage.) Seelenfreund uses a wheelchair, and has chosen a manual one, in part for the built-in “cardio,” but also because it is light, thus allowing fellow passengers to more easily carry her and the chair up subway stairs when a station’s elevator is broken down.

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a Google software engineer — he spoke with us at the fabled everything-here-is-free-and-healthy-and-delicious Google employee-cafeteria — and a plaintiff in the state suit, is, like Seelenfreund, young and fit enough to use a manual chair. (He can do wheelies to hoist himself over and across the gap between the platform and the train.) Blair-Goldensohn regularly takes subways and is never surprised when the elevator is broken. Furthermore, he states that MTA notifications are often not up to date: “I’m not saying like one in ten. I’m saying like half the time that I’ve encountered an elevator that’s out, it’s not listed on the MTA site.”

In addition, according to Blair-Goldensohn, MTA personnel can be indifferent. “When I leave a station where the elevator’s not working, I’ll pass by the service booth and say to the agent, ‘Hey, the elevator’s out and it’s not listed online.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, really? Are you sure? Well, isn’t there another elevator in the back?’ There’s no awareness that this is their responsibility. If you told them that the entrance was blocked off or the track is on fire, they’d say, ‘Oh, crap, we have to get on that.’ But the idea that, for some segment of the population, there are people potentially stuck, unable to get home, is not even in their consciousness.”

Monica Bartley, a community outreach organizer with the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY, has been conducting tours for politicians to illustrate the extent of outage on subway elevators. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

Monica Bartley, a community outreach organizer for the multi-faceted Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY), which is lead plaintiff on both suits, has been conducting tours for politicians to illustrate to them the extent of outage on subway elevators. Her “tourists” have learned first-hand how a person in a wheelchair can often feel like the Flying Dutchman, going almost endlessly from station-to-station, trying to find an elevator that works — just to get out of a station and find another, more reliable, form of transportation. (Unlike Seelenfreund and Blair-Goldensohn, Bartley uses an electric chair, which weighs 400 pounds; her options for being carried are sharply limited.)

Typically, a suit of this kind connects the loss of a civil right to the particularities of a plaintiff’s life, demonstrating the legal principle of “harm.” Blair-Goldensohn is an athlete who plays what is known as “adaptive” tennis (Seelenfreund is a rock climber), and drives himself to that activity, though he would much prefer mass transit. But the closest subway, the Mets-Willets Point station on the 7 line, is not accessible, which he describes as “one of the most offensive [instances of inaccessibility] because the Mets’ stadium [Citi Field] was rebuilt for a billion dollars, which was two-thirds public money.” Further, “…that station could be accessible; they built a ramp there for millions of dollars, which they only have open for Mets home games [and other stadium events].”

Blair-Goldensohn’s observations sounded a theme often voiced by other activists — the MTA can seem wasteful as well as heartless. After all, on days when Blair-Goldensohn goes to play tennis, they lose out on his fare, which could be an indicator of the many other fares that they are forfeiting.

Susan Dooha, executive director for CIDNY, expanded on the issue of MTA waste and connected it to a broad social view.

First, Dooha explained that transportation has been a key reason that the disabled have remained underemployed, with just 30 percent employed fulltime. “So, instead of looking at public policy in silos — subways alone, housing alone — it’s all interrelated. When people cannot work… they become mired in poverty. There are just endless ramifications, you could call them externalities, to not funding accessibility in the subways.” In other words, according to Dooha, if you take the holistic view, subway elevator installation could, in the long run, pay for itself.

Susan Dooha, executive director, Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY, noted that subway installation could, in the long run, pay for itself by the income generated from those currently denied access. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

Meanwhile, Dooha, like many in the accessibility movement, chafes at the MTA’s apparent priorities when rehabbing stations: “Believe me, I totally love the murals. I like to see beauty,” evidenced by her office collection of delicate, Asian art. But she wonders why we can embrace subway art, station Wi-Fi, and other such improvements, but not have money to install and maintain elevators.

At the panel, Trottenberg provided something of an answer: the cost of subway elevator installation in the subway is astronomical. “Putting two elevators in the Union Street Station on the R line in Brooklyn, and doing some staircase improvement there, would cost 100 million dollars and counting,” she claimed. “And that’s not even a particularly complicated station.” Activists insist that, before figures like those are set in stone, outside engineers must be called in to evaluate costs.

The disability rights movement, though, is not monolithic as to how and where to allocate funds. Edith Prentiss, the newly elected president of Disabled in Action (DIA), which meets in W. 23rd St.’s Selis Manor (a residence for the blind and visually impaired) and is a plaintiff on the current suit, brings a somewhat different perspective to that issue. “Well, we all want an elevator in our subway,” she noted. “But we have huge areas in the city that are transportation deserts, when it comes to elevator installation. So it would behoove me as a person with a social conscience not to demand an elevator in my own neighborhood.”

It should be pointed out that DIA is considered a giant in the ongoing fight for disability rights. In the mid-1970s, DIA members went so far as to chain themselves to buses lacking wheelchair lifts. Later on, in the early 2000s, Prentiss participated a taxi sit-in, which took place in front of Penn Station. “We pulled up to taxis, opened the door and sat there ‘expecting’ a lift to appear, knowing full it wouldn’t. The taxi starter was apologizing to the people on line. I said to the summer tourists if we had accessible taxis we’d all be riding now, no one would be upset.”

Blair-Goldensohn weighed in on Prentiss’ statement: “That reflects to me that Edith is a good person. And also, that we are used to being last in line. You sort of take it into yourself and begin to believe that you are not as valuable. ‘Oh, my station doesn’t have to have an elevator, it’s OK.’ No, it’s not OK!” he pronounced. Blair-Goldensohn believes that all stations in the system must be made accessible, and if after a “feasibility study,” it proves that certain stations cannot be retrofitted, those stations should simply be shut down.

No matter how the lawsuits play out, the movement for subway access — like all civil rights movements — needs ardent support, not just from sympathetic politicians, but the larger public. Nearly everyone Chelsea Now spoke to from the disability rights community identified the natural allies in their quest for subway elevators: parents with strollers, shoppers with shopping bags, and travelers with luggage — and, Blair-Goldensohn added, “MTA workers. Sometimes I can’t get into the elevator because there are two MTA handcarts in there already.”

But an encounter outside the DRA office might indicate that, when seeking support, the movement need not think only in practical terms.

A maintenance worker was curious about the new tenants. “Do they do taxes?” he wanted to know. When told about DRA’s work and particularly the accessibility lawsuits, his eyes widened, and he interrupted his task to make a strong statement: “I spend a lot of time in Toronto. There they have elevators in their subways and escalators and everything works.” This very fit-looking man went on: “They care about grandmas and people with canes. They have heart. We have money. But where is our heart?”

Emily Seelenfreund, a Wolinsky Fellowship Attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, uses a manual wheelchair for the cardio benefits, but also because it is light, thus allowing fellow passengers to assist when a station’s elevator is broken down. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

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