(photo: Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority)
Although accessibility is a hot topic of late, is government truly willing to partner in the multifaceted effort required to increase positive outcomes and general quality of life for our city’s residents and visitors with disabilities?
People seem to enjoy theorizing about its necessity and how long overdue universal design has been, but once the discussion reaches implementation, the ideals suddenly are not as indispensable as they once were.
I am a Brooklyn-based blind New Yorker who has been using Access-A-Ride since 2003. In 2017 I applied for and was selected to participate in the On-Demand E-Hail Pilot Program with Access-A-Ride and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. In total, there are 1,200 users in the program who were all selected from a waiting list.
As the pilot program is now set to be severely restricted in the coming months, I am concerned with the future of Access-A-Ride service and the rights of our city’s residents with disabilities who cannot ride the subways and/or buses.
This program has greatly enhanced my level of independence and productivity as a professional person who is blind and juggles two jobs. Putting a cap on the number of rides I can utilize with on-demand service is the equivalent of putting a cap on my potential success as a blind person.
Traditional Access-A-Ride service does not give an individual with a disability the same level of autonomy and access to opportunity that straphangers typically enjoy. Having to schedule trips before 5 p.m. a day or two in advance, enduring the number of late pickups and the often-circuitous rides of the five boroughs made it very frustrating to use at best.
Traditional carriers have been making an exorbitant amount of money at over $80 per trip. In comparison, the on-demand e-hail trips average $36 per trip for a superior service at less than half the cost, allowing disabled citizens to live our lives with some autonomy and dignity. Despite multiple audits, exposed inefficiencies, and ties to unsavory crime elements over the years, the MTA still thinks it viable to utilize traditional Access-A-Ride carriers who are more than willing to overcharge to provide horrendous service for people with no other means of transport.
Although all of these issues were solved in one fell swoop with the inception of the e-hail program, the MTA has announced that due to the increased ridership (based on a biased user sample) use of on-demand service will be restricted to 16 rides per month with a subsidized cap of $15 per ride. I wonder if MTA Board members, Access-A-Ride management, and Governor Cuomo, who effectively runs the MTA, understand that disabled folks are not porcelain dolls, just living our lives on a glass shelf somewhere. Paratransit costs are projected to surpass $600 million this year; is that massive sum being invested wisely? Is there any awareness as to why this amount of taxpayer dollars is being invested in a necessary resource that is supposed to level the playing field? Or to some at the MTA, might the paratransit discussion be analogous to an unpleasant mundane task such as figuring out trash removal?
Plans for more elevators, improved wayfinding, and tactile navigation strips in the subway are all welcomed enhancements when they do arrive, but Access-A-Ride service must evolve as well.
We must all better understand a difficult and frustrating situation and identify and pursue the steps to fix it. We need to raise awareness, arrive at equitable solutions, and hold the MTA accountable. If we are properly enabled, those of us with blindness and other disabilities can and will contribute so much more to our city.
Access-A-Ride must be a key piece of the equation. The MTA claims increasing ridership makes the on-demand pilot unsustainable, but that is a sign of success and we should embrace the fact that this service is needed, and that it allows New Yorkers with disabilities to live fuller lives and contribute to our city’s fabric in so many ways. Not only do individuals with disabilities contribute socially, helping to raise awareness and promoting tolerant and inclusive attitudes, we are making economic contributions as viable workers and consumers.
The Access-A-Ride pilot program has been life-changing for many of us who contend with a disability. It has enabled me to accept a promotion as an itinerant supervisor of teachers of the blind/visually impaired. My main office is in Manhattan, while I supervise teachers in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. Without the autonomy and flexibility that on-demand Access-A-Ride service facilitates, I would not be able to competently perform my job at the highly proficient and efficient level that allows me to professionally compete with my non-disabled colleagues, as traditional Access-A-Ride service makes it impossible to move around in a reasonably efficient and timely manner.
Governor Cuomo and MTA Chair/CEO Foye, I ask you to consider how you would compensate if you had newly found autonomy and mobility and then they were going to be restricted; how would you deal with all the issues that I am now confronted with?
My fellow taxpayers, this is a civil rights issue, as our governor and the MTA have clearly decided that disabled citizens who need to utilize Access-A-Ride are not entitled to the same rights, autonomy, and access to opportunity as non-disabled citizens. And the reason? Because they’ve deemed e-hail is too expensive after it showed success? Is it equitable or ethical that a person who needs to use Access-A-Ride has to live their life in such a predetermined and scheduled fashion, allowing for no spontaneity or flexibility? This does not sound like a level playing field to me, nor is it the right investment of over 600 million of our tax dollars.
Governor Cuomo, you should never mistake disability for inability. Disabled or not, it’s about time that all people are treated fairly. Let’s invest in true equal access, improving outcomes for all. Let’s enable disabled New Yorkers, helping people to live the lives they want and deserve, facilitating more contributing taxpayers and thriving New Yorkers throughout our great city.
Gian Carlo Pedulla is a member of the MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility and a supervisor for Educational Vision Services at the New York City Department of Education (all opinions here are his own and do not represent the ACTA or DOE).