Accessibility Watch

Following my recent post on the clash between historic preservation and universal design, we’ve decided to undertake a regular blog column on accessibility in buildings and cities. We hope to discuss examples from all over the world, but at first our focus will be where we are, New York City. I walk with a cane or, recently, with forearm crutches, and I find it difficult to go up or down steps or stairs. I often wonder what folks in wheelchairs do. Those of us with mobility impairments cannot easily use the subway system because there are so few elevators, and those that exist seldom are working. The bus systems are not much better, and only 239 of the city’s taxis have the necessary wheelchair lifts and ramps. (Admittedly, New York still has the largest fleet of fully-accessible taxis of any city in the nation.)

Metropolis has followed the story of handicap access since the Americans for Disability Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. The ADA was to be an enabling act to enhance and create innovative solutions. It was passed during a Republican administration. Metropolis worked with the Industrial Designers Society of America on an important conference and produced a white paper that was bound in our November 1992 issue. The conference received many awards.

Unfortunately, the administrators that wrote the regulations for the law treated the ADA as a national building code, which restricted creative and sensitive solutions. In fact, the Supreme Court later emasculated the law in a series of decisions. In 2008, Congress passed a revision of the law changing the portions that had been ruled unconstitutional. The net effect is that handicap access is limited except in new buildings. (The Fair Housing Act stipulates that new buildings with four or more dwelling units must be made accessible; there is no such provision for limited renovations in older buildings.) In New York City, with its extensive collection of historic structures and brownstones, there is no easy way to enter many of these buildings unless four able-bodied men come out and carry you in.

Some restaurants that lack elevators, or that have stairs without proper hand rails, train their staff to look out for the handicapped and help them enter. But, in my experience, most do not. I know of many clubs in wonderful older buildings, often ones that are landmarked, that have little or no access for any level of the disabled. I wonder if the general feeling is that a landmarked building is exempt from the ADA.

We are looking for comments and examples of accessibility issues from all who visit our site. Please remember that at any hour of any day, any of you could join us handicapped—temporarily, I hope—due to a sprained ankle, a bike injury, or other chance accident. Leave your public comments using the form below, or e-mail your examples to

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