by Kaycee Marshall
The Ins and Outs of Accessibility
I had dreamed of this moment ever since I was a little girl. I had just graduated with a degree in fashion design and was off to New York City to pursue my career. When the big day arrived, my parents and I packed up my dad’s old pickup truck and drove the twelve hours from my small town in Indiana to New York City. As we approached the city, I was immediately captivated by the skyline. Bold and majestic, it represented all the big dreams ahead of me…
Within a few days, I was settled in and excited to start my new adventures. I knew if I was going to live in New York City full-time I would have to learn how to use the subway system, because $40 Ubers were not exactly plausible on this recent graduate’s budget. When I spent a semester of college studying in midtown, I avoided the subway, not knowing how to use it as a wheelchair user. Luckily, both my school and internship were within walking distance. But now I was up in Harlem with friends all over the city and a job interview the following week in Midtown. As much as I wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw jumping in and out of yellow taxis, I could not avoid public transportation forever.
A few months back when I was in New York for fashion week, I had lunch with a friend who has been navigating the subway system as a wheelchair user for years. She told me what apps to download, how to know what stations had elevators, and if those elevators were working. It was time to put her advice to use and head down to the Target store in Herald Square for some apartment shopping. Several hours later, my parents and I found ourselves drinking white zinfandel listening to a Prince tribute band in the East Village. We never made it to Target. Instead, our trip downtown had been one obstacle after another, starting with the fact that I needed a separate, doctor-approved metro card just to get onto the subway. From litter-strewn or out-of-service elevators to impossible subway gaps, I found myself feeling trapped and vulnerable as a result of the subway system’s lack of accessibility.
I was angry. It was 2020. Thirty years had passed since the Americans with Disabilities Act and yet here I was being denied equal access to public transportation. I understood now why the woman at the Help Desk told me my fare would be reduced. It’s because the system is barely functional for people with disabilities.
Being New York tough seemed even more important if I wanted to make it as a disabled woman in the city. New York City could be challenging for anyone, even without the accessibility issues. Although the MTA seemed like a roadblock in the pursuit of my dreams, I was determined to overcome this obstacle and find a way to navigate my new city. Luckily that weekend, Lucy of Wheel New Yorkers reached out to me about a self-defense class for women who use wheelchairs. Lucy was starting a social group for New Yorkers who use wheelchairs. In the coming months, she connected me with women all over the city who use wheelchairs.
They were just as ambitious and determined to thrive in this crazy place as I was. Within the first meeting at our self-defense class, I shared my struggle and anxiety with taking the subway. They planned a “subway adventure” that started in Harlem and ended with meeting up with a group of other wheelchair users for brunch on the Upper West Side.
It was amazing to be surrounded by confident women who were aware and used to the accessibility struggles of living in New York City. Because of their help and willingness to take me under their wings, I gained confidence in navigating the subway. I was so excited to text them my victory of taking the subway from East Village to Harlem by myself for the first time with no major hang-ups. I learned that the bus system was much more reliable for wheelchair users and can be handy when the elevators go out in the subway stations. And when I did run into problems or wasn’t sure what route to take, my new friends were just a text away. Moving to New York City was everything that I hoped it would be and even though it came with new challenges and obstacles, I was grateful to be in a place that inspires my creativity and provides endless opportunities. The city connected me to some amazing people and through my community I felt confident I could make it there.
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