Accessibility Watch: The Kindness of Strangers

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I use forearm crutches and I find it a bit tricky to open doors coming in from the street. Over the years, I have been gratified by the number of pedestrians who swoop in front of me and open the door; once I’m inside they scoot off on their journey, always at a very rapid pace. Who says New Yorkers are not concerned about the plight of the needy? I am always surprised and bolstered with a great sense of optimism after these encounters. There are other examples: Once a police sergeant helped me cross a two-lane street so that I could more easily get into a car. Some restaurants send their staff out to hold the outside doors.

The average citizen and even the police are attuned and helpful to the handicapped, but what about property owners, good-government groups, and the city governing agencies and legislative bodies? They are not. Maybe the difference is an issue of abstraction. The handicapped are not real to them because someone needing help is not in front of them.

There is also the “talk the talk, walk the walk” issue. One example is elevators in subways. There are some. However, one never knows when they are working. In New York, an MTA spokesperson can say there is no problem, we have elevators. But they are unreliable and no one should have to go out of his way to use one and commonly find that it is out of order. I am told that Pennsylvania Railroad Station announces the track for outgoing trains just six minutes before departure, almost guaranteeing that a handicapped person will miss the train. The station’s personnel are not allowed to make exceptions.

Another example is accessible bathrooms. Yes, there are many, but as a commenter recently noted, their whereabouts is not commonly known. The commenter’s 25-year-old son is confined to a wheelchair, and has a hard time finding public-access toilets that he can use. Sure, the city council passes laws mandating access and to publicize them, but they almost always fail to provide funding. There is the talk and a different walk. Do these politicians advocate some kind of misguided Darwinism–survival of the fittest?

We have an aging population and, as a result, these issues will become more and more visible. And remember that anyone reading this can at any time be struck with limited mobility and forced to use a crutch, a walker, or a wheelchair. Is it fair to be stuck at home or unable to go to a favorite restaurant because it is inaccessible?

I look forward to your additional comments on these accessibility and wayfinding issues.

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