Photo by Derek Key

 

New York City has the least wheelchair accessible subway system in the nation, according to a pair of class action lawsuits filed against the Metropolitan Transit Authority on April 25. The complaints were filed in both federal and state courts in Manhattan by the nonprofit legal group Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of a coalition of disability groups and three individuals. They allege that only 112 of the city’s 472 subway stations are wheelchair accessible and that MTA discriminates against those with disabilities by failing to maintain the many elevators and electric lifts across the city’s aging subway system.

The state suit challenges a chronic problem: the fact that over 350 New York City subway stations are unusable to people who cannot navigate stairs, citing that it is “a flagrant violation of the New York City human rights law.” While many lawsuits have targeted inaccessible subway stations, the plaintiffs say the state lawsuit is the first to contest system wide inaccessibility.

“Around 6 million people who use wheelchairs, and others who can’t traverse stairs, are essentially blocked from its use because there are not enough elevators. And those that do exist break down to frequently,” says Michelle Caiola, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates. “This is a major violation of the right to equal access. As everyone in NYC knows, the subway is crucial to everyday life and provides the most efficient, economical mode of transportation in town.”

The federal lawsuit alleges that the failure to maintain operable elevators and lifts at stations violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Court papers cite that the MTA experienced 9,019 elevator breakdowns in 2015, 4,117 which were unplanned.

“The lack of elevators doubles my commute time, at best, says plaintiff Sasha Blair-Goldensohn. “And if just one elevator is out of service, I’m stuck. I never know when I’ll have to ask strangers to carry me up the stairs in my wheelchair. It’s nerve-wracking, dangerous and degrading.”

Breakdowns often leave disabled riders stranded on platforms unless fellow passengers or staff are willing to help them to street level, which MTA employees are “unwilling” to do, one complaint said.

The MTA will not comment on the lawsuits, but Beth DeFalco, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement that it was “committed to serving the needs of disabled customers.”