October 21, 2014
As a researcher, I want do everything I can to accommodate the people who generously agree to give me a bit of their time to share some of their lived experiences with me. What this means is that I want to meet them where and when it is more convenient for them. Plus, an important component of my research is interviewing people in the spaces that they navigate.
For the next few weeks, I will be interviewing disabled people living in New York. While some of them will probably wheel like me, others will have access to places where I can’t go.
How is this going to work out?
In Montréal, I would tell the participants that we should first meet at a wheelchair-accessible place. Accessible spaces are scarce so I have a habit of always being very specific when I meet someone I have never met. The situation is different in NYC. It seems like there are more wheelchair-accessible places. I don’t worry about access as much as I do in Montréal.
Last week, a woman emailed to let me know that she wanted to participate in my research. She is blind. She can go to places she is familiar with. I offered to meet her in Queens, her neighbourhood.
She sent me an email about the directions to get to our meeting place.
“If you can hop on an E o F somewhere in Manhattan heading towards Queens (let me know what you are going to try and I will let you know if it has problems that I know), once they are in Queens the E and F trains are very fast. Leave the Forest Hills stop by taking the stairs to the SOUTH side of Queens Blvd. Obviously, if you somehow end up on the North side (the side without the new elevator), you will need to cross the boulevard (it is nicknamed the “Boulevard of Death”) to the SOUTH side (if you ask someone, ask for the side with Austin Street — everyone knows that street of shops). Walk in the direction of the traffic closest to you on that South side (a few short blocks), passing the Chase bank on the corner of 71st and Continental), passing the movie theater and Banter Irish cafe on the next corner, then you should see a block away a large Catholic church with Rose windows, which should be the 72nd Rd on which you turn right and the Boulangerie is down on the right (opposite the Catholic church-convent-monastery) under the scaffolding, not dreadfully obvious but very much there! There are a few steps up to the door.”
All of a sudden I realize that I didn’t mention I use a wheelchair. Oops! The good news is that the nearest station is wheelchair-accessible. But La Boulangerie isn’t.
I sent her an email to tell her that I use a motorized wheelchair and that stairs don’t work for me. She said she would call La Boulangerie the following morning to check if they have a wheelchair-accessible entrance.
She got back to me the next day to tell me that there was not an accessible entrance. She was extremely disappointed that one of her favourite places was not accessible. She offered to come to Manhattan but I told her that I was still willing to come to her neighbourhood. She wrote back saying it would be fun to try to find an accessible place together. She said she knows a place that has an elevator, but the elevator buttons are not accessible to her because there is no braille.
We are meeting this afternoon and I am excited to meet her. If the emails we’ve exchanged so far are any indication, this is going to be a great interview.
I hope that the elevators at Forest Hills-71 Ave station work. I have been lucky so far. The only time I encountered an out-of-service elevator, I was able to find another elevator in perfect working order. I guess it is only about time before I can’t exit a station because of an out-of-service elevator. Yesterday, a Brooklyn-based wheelchair user told me that she uses the subway regularly and often has to deal with broken elevators. Beth Haller, a friend of mine who is a disability and media scholar, sent me this picture she took in NYC a few years ago.
If the elevators don’t work at Forest Hills- 71 Ave station, I should be able to get out two stops further. I checked on the map and that station is 0,9 mile from Forest Hills-71 Ave
Station. I can quite easily wheel a distance like that.
Isn’t it fascinating how something as simple as planning my first interview has engaged the participant and me in a conversation about the accessibility of NYC?
I guess I have NYC’s ableist architecture to thank.