Sunday, September 25, 2016

Short-takes: Four Essays About Living with a Disability in New York City

As I roll across the streets of New York City each day, I pass many people and see quite a few folks with disabilities. All of them are going about their business or just walking on a pleasant Fall day in September.

Web photo, 56th and First Ave.
I've drawn inspiration in NYC to write about the people I see with disabilities and others, particularly on one recent Sunday morning.

I was going across 56th Street and First Avenue with my wife, Maggie, to buy coffee from Dunkin' Donuts. She got an iced coffee, French Vanilla flavor, and I had my first cup of the Pumpkin Spice coffee of the season, which I try to buy every year - - and drink it as often as I can. Of course, it's decaffeinated.

As I waited outside for Maggie, my back was turned to the street. I was reading a menu on the window of the Sutton Diner. While looking at the breakfast menu, I noted the reasonable prices for omelettes and other tasty meals for a Sunday morning. We'll see if we can get over there some time.

When I finished reading, I turned to my right and headed to the front of the Dunkin' Donuts establishment on the corner. I turned to face the street, I saw an elderly woman walking across First Avenue, which heads north on the east side of Manhattan.

The woman was pushing a walker with three wheels. She was leaning on the walker quite a bit and from what I can tell, based on her white hair, glasses and slow gait, she was at least 70 maybe 75 years old.

She got to the center of the avenue just as the light changed.  Instead of waiting and letting her pass safely to my side of the street, drivers began moving in front of her and behind her. Not one driver stopped their car to let her pass.

In an instant, a courageous man wearing a tee-shirt and track shorts dodged across the street and stood by her side - - facing oncoming traffic as a police officer would - - holding his hands up in front of him to "magically" stop the vehicles.

Cars on the West side of the street continued to speed away behind the couple as the man escorted the woman across the avenue slowly toward the East corner where I was sitting and watching.

Yes, I felt useless and and not much of a man because I couldn't help the heroic man and that elderly woman. But, I had to tuck that thought away for another time, where I place other "what if?" scenarios in times of a crisis or emergency.  

Then, miraculously, the best of human behavior prevailed.

As the couple moved slowly toward safety, a yellow taxicab slowed down and the driver stuck his arm out of his window to slow the cars around him. And, the cars stopped.

The man and the woman, pushing the three-wheeled walker, continued slowly to the curb. As they cleared their part of the street, drivers sped on their way behind them.

The man escorted the woman to a well-crafted curb cut and she continued to push her walker onto the sidewalk. I watched her as she headed North to where I was just  minutes before, reading a breakfast menu.

The man turned and quickly ran back to the West side of the street. I then realized he wasn't even crossing at the same time the woman was. He just ran to her aid when he saw her in danger. To me, he was a hero, and so was the cab driver.

Compassion on NYC Streets

Later in the week I was walking to our apartment from work after a down pour of rain. It was the first time during the summer that my service dog Veronica and I got caught in the rain.

As you know, hailing a taxi cab in New York City, in the pouring rain, is as unlikely as a "healing" of my spinal cord injury after being struck by lightening.

The rain slowed, and I began my nine-block trek to my apartment. The distance is about a half mile,or a 15-minute walk.

Veronica: the best service dog!
When I got to 53rd Street and Third Avenue, the rain began to fall more rapidly and I was getting soaked, so was Veronica.
As I crossed the street on 53rd street, a man called out to me and said,"Sir, sir....take this."  I looked up at him and then at his hand. "Take it," he said. "You're getting wet, I don't need it." 

The man was giving me his umbrella as he was also getting wet by the falling rain.  "Thank you sir," I replied, "I'm just a block away from home, but I appreciate your offer."

We parted ways, but his kindness touched me. I wasn't invisible to him, and he wasn't afraid to speak to me. That's progress.

Another US Open Tennis Adventure

Yes my wife and I went back to another session at the US Open on Wednesday, September 7. We took another accessible taxi cab and we still had trouble finding a ride back to the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

You can call me crazy, but I do have my own accessible van, but I wanted to see if anything would change as we were attending the day session, rather than the evening session at the Open.
Web: Kei Nishikori

The difference this time was that a lovely Canadian couple sat right next to us in the section provided for people with disabilities. The gentleman, Mike, told me that he and his wife Mercy, had saved their money for a year or so to make this trip to United States. Mike was also C-5/C-6 quadriplegic paralyzed for 40 years.

Invacare logo,web
If you're wondering, yes, disabled people do compare notes and share their experiences about their injuries. In fact, Mike was sitting in a power Invacare wheelchair like I was. His chair, however, was cleaner than mine and was only about two years old. He was a big man in terms of height and he said he did have some trouble getting under certain tables and other structures.

As we were watching the match, he told me he canceled his reservation for an accessible taxi to pick him up at 3 p.m. because he wasn't aware that
Web: Andy Murray
two matches were played - -  one for women and one for men. He and his wife wanted to see the match featuring Andy Murray from Great Britain and Kei Nishikori from Japan.

He then asked if the subways were accessible. I told him some were and I knew that the U.S. Open subway station would allow him to take a train into Manhattan, however, it wasn't a direct trip. He would have to transfer trains in the borough of Queens before heading into the accessible station in Manhattan.

I also told him that I was trying to arrange for an accessible ride back to Manhattan. This was "Déjà Vu all over again."

Despite some assurances when we attended the previous match and some planning, the result was the same. You cannot call the dispatch service that you use in the borough of Manhattan to get a ride back into Manhattan - - from Queens or any other borough.

Back to the Future

So with help from my colleagues at work and some clarification from staff at the US Open, we had two drivers from Uber pick us up at about 7 p.m. This was a big difference from the 2 a.m. fiasco my wife and I had a week earlier.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but I was "stress-testing the system."  As you may have suspected, the yellow cab system had not changed in one week. You know the joke, "If you do the same thing over and over again, why expect a different result?"

We eventually got home at a decent hour and so did Mike and Mercy from Canada. They had no idea what to do and would've gone through what Maggie and I experienced the last time we were stranded.

Mike later texted my iPhone and told me they were heading back to Canada, and had a great time at the US Open.

Opinion: Airline Travel for People with Disabilities - - Still Horrible for Three Decades

I have traveled on airplanes as a wheelchair rider since 1982 -- more than 30 years. Last week was the first time I traveled on an airline in two or three years. I was happy to travel again, as part of my job, to a business conference, USBLN, focused on employing people with disabilities..

As usual, I travel with two companions, my wife and an assistant. Both help me get on and off the plane, along with airline personnel.

I must do at least four transfers per trip: wheelchair to airline provided aisle chair to enter the plane; then aisle chair to airline seat. The process is reversed as I "deplane." That means I am lifted four times per plane ride.   
Web, U-Tube. Lift into airline seat.
If you count getting into the chair each morning and getting to bed in the evening, that's six transfers during a trip. By the way, transfers are one of the most difficult and dangerous maneuvers facing wheelchair riders.

With the right help from the airline, transfers go relatively well. But sometimes other things go wrong, such as damage to a chair, losing a chair temporarily or other things.

I had a chair damaged a few years ago during a business trip to Scotland, causing $2,000.00 in damage. The airline reimbursed me, but my trip was crippled.

On this recent trip (Sept. 22, 2016), my chair was misplaced for 45 minutes. I sat in an uncomfortable airline-provided aisle chair waiting for personnel to locate it. In the past I've written letters to the Federal Aviation Administration, and spoken to former members of the United States Access Board. The result: basically there's been no change in how wheelchair riders have to travel. We still have to transfer from our wheelchairs. (Please, someone tell me it's not so.)
JFK Airport: Has anyone seen my wheelchair?

What I'd like to see happen

I'd like to see people with disabilities board a plane with their wheelchair and lock it into the plane. With planning, modifications and standards, we've been able to do this for cars, buses, trains and taxi cabs. Why not airlines?

After three decades and the enactment of the ADA, airline manufacturers should be able to get this done in a humane way.

What's the difference between wheelchair riders and luggage? There is none when it comes to airline travel.



Saturday, September 3, 2016

Accessible taxi cabs a bust in outer boroughs; N.Y.C. Cabbies Star at U.S. Open

R. Nadal [web photo]
My wife and I went to the U.S. Open on Wednesday, August 31, to watch an evening match featuring Rafael Nadal and Andrew Seppi. Over the years, Maggie and I have purchased "disabled seating tickets" to the event, as we did this year, in Queens, where the
 U.S. Open Tennis Center is located.

But as some of the readers know, I am now living in Manhattan, New York.

A. Seppi [web photo]
When I can’t walk to work, which is about nine blocks, or half a mile away from our apartment, I use the new accessible taxicabs, and order a car through Accessible Dispatch, via the WOW taxi app on my Apple iphone, which as their website mentions, is part of MetroTaxi.

I love the service and it has been reliable in the borough of Manhattan. In addition, a cab will even drop me off in any of the five boroughs, such as Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.

But there's an exception, which I missed, and is not readily apparent, even to my disability advocacy-leaning mind.


The Exception Comes to Light - - at My Expense


An accessible taxicab picked us up in Manhattan and drove us to the U.S. Open. But after the terrific match, at about midnight, Accessible Dispatchers [at least three different people] said they could not pick us up in Queens, even though taxis were available in Manhattan. "We do not pick up in the boroughs," I was told.

So, our ability to get back into Manhattan together seemed hopeless. The Accessible Dispatch website, question and answer section, posts the following:

“Passenger pickups will occur in Manhattan only for any destinations in the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester and Nassau counties, and Newark Airport served by NYC taxis.

Accessible trips returning to Manhattan from the other four boroughs will require an accessible livery vehicle. 

Wheelchair-accessible livery vehicles are available in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, but these trips are not handled by Accessible Dispatch.”

My problem was that when I called for a pickup to go home, the dispatcher gave us four phone numbers to call after the tennis match ended, near midnight, but accessible taxis were not available in Queens or had a two-hour plus waiting period.

Learning this, I asked for a supervisor or an executive of the company - - the answers I received were silence and "I don't have that information." (I now know who they are.)

I didn’t know how we would get home, and it was midnight. We just felt as if we were on another planet, not in the "Big Apple"

We walked over to a U.S. Open representative who directed us to a "taxi stand." Ironically, the pickup area was behind the former N.Y. World’s Fair globe, where Maggie photographed me earlier. (Note my victory pose - - happy to be at the Open.)
Earlier in the day at the Open.

When Maggie and I arrived at the taxi stand, we found police officers and taxi drivers, but no accessible taxis. We could not get home. and  I had no backup plan.

Maggie and I tried to use the Uber service app, but we didn't know how to specify or request an accessible taxi. Other taxi drivers waiting for passengers offered to lift me out of the wheelchair and place me in a “town car” and put my power wheelchair in the trunk.

I politely refused the offer, as that posed a risk of being injured during a "lift" to me or my helpers. But I appreciated their consideration. After all, they were trying to work with us.

As Maggie was talking to police officers and cabbies, I was "pacing" in my chair, searching my mind for a solution. It was 1:30 in the morning.

I told Maggie that at worst-case, she should take a cab back to Manhattan and get our accessible van, or, come back in an accessible taxicab - - then we'd do a round-trip back to Manhattan. By the way, that would cost us about $250.00, with tip, including the $47.00 fee we already paid to get to the tennis center.

NY Cabbies to the rescue

We talked to the police about this, and they suggested we try to call a van service. Other drivers offered solutions but only one, "Gagan," made a call to a friend. Luckily for us, Gagan's friend was just signing off from work and agreed to come and pick us up at the Open.

Web Photo
The driver, "Pawan," was a prince. He loaded me into the rear of the accessible van and agreed to take us into Manhattan. It was two in the morning. We got home safely, had a pleasant ride, and took the driver's name and number as we plan to use him again. Pawan, by the way, was a member of the Accessible Dispatch network, mentioned above.

My mistake for sure, but the NYC accessible taxi model is flawed

The current accessible taxi model is short-sighted. How can you drop off disabled patrons at a destination in New York City and not, or shall I say, refuse, to pick them up? It defies logic.

Before my spinal cord injury on New Year's Eve in 1980, I drove a yellow "Checker Cab" during my breaks from college at Colgate University.  I earned school money for books and clothes driving throughout the five boroughs of New York
Checker Cab, Web photo

I never refused a passenger (fare), although I was cautioned to be careful, as Cabbies were being robbed at gunpoint during that era. My garage was in The Bronx, and when I picked up a fare in Manhattan for a trip to LaGuardia or Kennedy airports, I'd look for a fare on the way back to my home territory.  In other words, I dropped off and picked up fares throughout the city.

You'd think with technological dispatch services, this issue would be easier, not more complicated.

Maggie and I basically would’ve been stranded if not for the good Samaritan taxi drivers who came to our aid. We spent about $120.00 on cab rides that night. But, it was well worth our safety, sanity and well-being.

Once again disabled patrons are shortchanged “by half a loaf” or “rotten apple car service.” It just doesn’t make sense.

Now, I have to obtain a phone number for each borough I visit and be home before dinner -- I feel like I'm 14 years old again!

Time to get back to common sense

Let’s begin to use common sense and a create "seamless service" for the disabled patrons. Why hearken back to the days in 1955 when Montgomery, Alabama had bus transportation rules for one race and a different set of practices for another? Do we do the same for water fountains again?  So why do we have these rules or practices for riders with disabilities?  Change the rules!

Those so called "solutions" didn't work then, and don't work now.

Disabled people go out, we socialize, we spend money, we
Web graphic
do everything able-bodied people do, but we do it differently.

If not for two compassionate cab drivers, who took action and found a solution, my wife and would still be at the U.S. Open – waiting.