by La Toya Tooles
It was after 10 p.m. when Gabriela Amari left midtown Manhattan for her apartment in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Hours later, the F train finally arrived at Church Avenue station. She exits the train and gets in the brand new elevator.
It doesn’t work.
And now, she is stranded in the subway station, just a few blocks from her apartment. Most people would just take the stairs, but she can’t. She’s in a wheelchair.
An hour later, a G train operator, who is turning his train around, graciously offers to let her on so she can use the other side of the platform to use the working elevator.
Amari’s experience is not uncommon to New York’s disabled.
New York’s subway system is the oldest in the country and very difficult to make wheelchair accessible.
Of the 268 subway stops, only 57 of them are wheelchair accessible, according to MTA’s website. Not many wheelchair users opt to take the subway in efforts to avoid disasters that leave them frightened or stranded.
“It happens, you know?” Amari said. “Every time I know I’m traveling by train I’m praying it doesn’t happen again.”
The city’s solution has always been the bus system, which is universally wheelchair accessible. This summer, however, MTA enacted several cost saving measures to help deal with an approximately $800 million budget deficit. The cuts meant discontinuing several bus lines, laying off thousands of workers, reducing overtime and scaling back their accessible van program. The vans, which used to be door-to-door, will now only take some passengers to the nearest bus route. MTA has also decreased the number of people eligible for the service.
Three individuals and two disabled advocacy groups filed suit against MTA in response to the cuts, saying they disproportionately affect the quality of life for the mobility impaired.
“We think it is against the law for MTA to cut these bus lines and the access-a-ride system,” said Jane Greengold Stevens, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the suit. “People with mobility impairments have less access to public transportation than those of us that are currently not users of wheelchairs.”
The suit, filed in federal court on August 17, claims that the MTA is in violation of
The ADA states that people with disabilities cannot be denied the same services provided to people without disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against a protected class by any program that receives federal assistance. MTA received money in the stimulus package from the government last year.
Stevens, lawyers from South Brooklyn Legal Services and a private law firm met recently with MTA lawyers to initiate the discovery phase of the federal civil suit.
Trials of this magnitude can take several years, said Stevens. At an October 1 hearing, plaintiffs’ lawyers urged that MTA bring back the B51 and B59 buses and restore the cuts made to Access-A-Ride during the rest of the trial. MTA said they were unable to meet these demands, according to Stevens. MTA declined to comment on the lawsuit.
According to a press release from South Brooklyn Legal services, one of the plaintiffs, Anthony Trocchia, uses the bus and Access-a-Ride because his chair gets stuck in the gaps between the subway and the platform.
Amari has also had her chair wheels stuck, which left her legs half on the platform, half on the train. Before passengers helped her, Amari said she felt panic stricken.
“I was scared that the conductor was going to close the doors and start to move. I could have been killed,” she said. “You can’t move, you can’t get out. What am I gonna do?”
Trocchia, like the other plaintiffs RueZalia Watkins, Clara Reiss and the advocacy groups Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled and Disabled in Action are concerned that cutting borough bus routes that go through multiple boroughs and Access-A-Ride leave them with little options for travel.
“Elimination of any bus route tells wheelchair users to become shut-ins,” he said.
“We are trying to move as quickly as possible to get information from them giving us the facts that we need to prove that we are entitled to this interim relief,” she said. “We are hoping to make such a motion within the next several months.”
This is not the only case that MTA has faced in recent months.
State Senator Martin J. Golden and City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile appeared in court last month regarding a State Supreme Court lawsuit against the MTA in response to the cuts enacted June and the impact they have on the seniors and disabled of Brooklyn. The lawsuit states that MTA is in violation of ADA and New York State Humans Rights Law because removing the B27, X37 and X38 leaves the disabled and elderly travelers without enough transportation options.
Neither suit is expected to be resolved quickly.
*This story reflects a correction made on November 17, 2010.