Wheeling NY City

By Laurence Parent.

It Happened Today

I am meeting my friend Beth in front of the New York City Public Library at 1 pm.

The MTA website gives me three options. One would take me 18 minutes, if it were accessible. The second one is also an 18-minute trip, and also not accessible. I’m left with option number 3, which is supposed to take 22 minutes. This is 4 minutes more than normate time. I could also take the bus, which is safer in the sense that there is no chance of encountering broken elevators, but it would take me 40 minutes. Too long.

I “choose” the third option and leave my apartment to go to Canal Street station. It is 12:27 pm.

Disabled people always have to factor more time in for travel by public transportation. This is particularly true in cities such as New York City, where less than 25% of subway stations are “accessible.” Even then, a broken elevator can mean a 35-minute detour just to get to the nearest accessible station. And then in some parts of the city, accessible stations are so far apart from each other that not being able to get into one can mean having to give up on your plans entirely.

I am very aware of that. Montréal has been trying to turn me into someone who always plans tons of extra time in order to compensate for the city’s ableist public transit system.

Montréal has failed. I refuse to become that person.

I have the privilege to resist – most of the time. I don’t have a 9-to-5 job and I don’t work for an ableist employer. For years, being on time for my classes was a constant source of stress, but now that I am working on my thesis, I have a much more flexible schedule.

Everywhere I go, I think about how long it would have taken me to get there if I had access to public transit. People who live like this live on normate time. My time is different. My time is not mine. It is structured by ableist practices. I have a vague idea of how much extra time I need if I use paratransit or public buses (I never use the métro in Montréal; only 4 of the 65 stations are accessible). Sometimes it’s 20 minutes. Sometimes it’s an hour.

I take pleasure in seeing how much I can shave off that time. I take pleasure in cripping the time – in trying to control it. I am able to do that in Montréal because I know exactly which bus routes to take, which sidewalks to wheel on to avoid walkie traffic, and when to book a paratransit trip to maximize my chances to have the vehicle on time the following day. Developing these strategies takes time. And passion. Or maybe survival instinct. I don’t really know.

On my way to Canal Street station, I check the MTA elevators status website, which says all the Canal Street station elevators are working.

Three minutes later, I get to the elevator and I see the door half open. Canal Street Elevator door half open

It’s stuck. It is finally happening: I get to experience what disabled New Yorkers fear every time they dare to ride the subway.

I take the time to snap a picture and soon I’m on my way to Broadway-Lafayette station. It is one kilometre away, so I’ll be there in about 8 or 9 minutes.

I have the privilege of having motorized wheels, which is obviously not the case for all disabled people. Also, I am by myself. It usually takes me longer to get places if I’m wheeling alongside a walkie.

I text Beth the picture of the elevator to let her know that I might be running late. It is my first time on the 6 line at Broadway-Lafayette. I don’t know where the elevators are located.

It is a beautiful day in New York. I sometimes take the sidewalk and sometimes the bike path, depending on the curbcuts and the walkie traffic. I make it to the station in 9 minutes and follow the directions to the Uptown/Bronx-bound 6 line.

As usual, I have to ask someone to open the gate for me. It is locked and can only be opened by someone coming out of the station. As usual, the alarm goes off. This is standard procedure. It happens every time.

I am familiar with the first elevator. Outside the elevator there is a sign indicating that it goes to the Uptown/Bronx 6 line, but in the elevator, it says that it goes to the downtown 6 line.

When I get out of the second elevator, there is a sign indicating that the elevator for the trains to Uptown/Bronx is at the end of the platform. So I wheel to the end of the platform to find… no elevator. I wheel back on the crowded platform. At some points, the space between the wall and the edge of the platform is so narrow that there is almost no margin for error for people using mobility aids or with visual impairments. As I approach the elevator I just came out of, I notice that there is another one a few meters behind it. I assumed that the end of the platform was… the end of the platform towards which the sign was pointing. It was not.

A few minutes later, I am on my way to Grand Central-42 Street station. I have never been there. Finding the elevators might turn out to be just as complicated. I end up lucking out and instinctively going in the right direction. The elevators work, but there are so many people taking them that I have to wait quite a bit to get into each one of them.

Outside, the sidewalks are extremely busy. The area is overpopulated with tourists. I wonder how New Yorkers can navigate this area and feel like they are at home.

There are so many people that when I’m crossing a street, I can’t never see if there is a curbcut waiting for me on the other side. Every street corner is a surprise.

I finally get to the New York Public Library at 1:17pm, 50 minutes after I left the apartment. Clearly, the MTA trip planner is set to normate time.

Two days before, I had a meeting at the City University of New York, not very far from the New York Public Library. It took me less than 30 minutes to get there. For that trip, I didn’t encounter any broken elevators and it was easy to find my way, as I went to subway stations that were familiar to me. Cripping the time was much easier then.


8pm. I get off at Chambers Street station after a great afternoon with Beth. We went to the American Museum of Natural History for a screening of Invitation to Dance, a film by Simi Linton and Christian Von Tippelskirch about Linton’s very personal experience as a disabled woman. Linton got involved in the U.S. disability rights movement in the 1970s. As a wheelchair user who’s spent most of her life in NYC, she tells the story of how NYC’s ableist architecture has – and hasn’t – changed in the past four decades.

As I wheel home, I decide to pass by the elevator that was broken at Canal Street station earlier today. Something has changed. Canal Street elevator out of service
The elevator is still broken, but now there is a note and tape indicating that it is out of order. An improvement, I guess. I check the MTA elevator status webpage. Nothing for Canal Street station. All elevators are in service.

What is the use of an elevators status webpage if the information on it is not accurate? You may think that I was just out of luck, and that information is usually up-to-date. The reality is that every disabled New Yorker I have talked to so far told me that the subway is not a mode of transportation they can trust. It is filled with uncertainty, and uncertainty is not something that is easy to deal with when you’re cripping the time. But it is definitely part of it.


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2 Responses to “It Happened Today”

  1. Ah, this brings me back to my first attempt with the subway. I was attempting to go from Penn Station to Lincoln Center and discovered that the elevator was broken while stuck down on a platform playing creepy music that had no train service. I’ve since conquered the subway, but it’s the bane of my existence. I actually wrote a piece with tips on navigating it: http://www.wheelchairtraveling.com/accessibility-of-the-new-york-ny-subway-system-wheelchairs-seniors/

    I really appreciated reading this from the perspective of someone visiting NYC. Shows just how problematic the subway system is. Thanks for writing it.

    • Laurence

      Thank your for sharing your piece. Navigating the subway is quite an adventure. I love it!
      I am working a short video on how to use the subway for people visiting NYC. It is only 25 easy steps to follow! haha.


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