Friday, March 20, 2020

Things I Never Knew Until I Was Confined To A Wheelchair

This isn't really an advertising story, but I thought I would publish this story for my friends and colleagues.

New York City is probably the world’s most accessible city.  And yet, even Manhattan has huge issues for people in wheelchairs and people who are limited by their use.

It has now been four and a half years since I was hit by a taxi.  Initially I had no use of either my hands or legs.  My hands and toes came back within a few weeks.  But ever since I have gone through extensive physical therapy (PT) to get back the use of my legs.  And although I can use a walker and get around my apartment and terrace.  But for going out, I have an electric wheelchair (actually, I have two; one is only 60 pounds which I use for travelling).

The first thing I noticed is how bad our sidewalks are.  Slabs are misaligned, crooked and cracked.  This makes pushing a manual chair difficult.  And because electric wheelchairs have no shock absorbers (why not?), rides can be slow and bumpy.  The sidewalk cuts, which are supposed to be on every street corner are often not there or are difficult to use – too steep to easily get up or down (some are so vertical that I worry about my chair tipping over).  Where the sidewalk cuts meet the street, the paving is often cracked, pot-holed and collects water which makes them undesirable.

In heavily congested areas, cars pull up into the “box” so tightly as to make it impossible for wheelchairs to cross the street.  Wheelchair confined people are not as tall as pedestrians, so every time I cross the street I have to worry about being hit by a car making a turn and not paying attention or even running a light.  Out-of-towners do not know that New York City prevents right turns on red, except as designated.  It scares the shit out of me.

Socializing is difficult.  I tried once to go to a protest, but there were just too many people for either me or them to be safe.  The first time I went to a party with friends, I realized that it was very difficult for me, even with people I know.  They are high and I am low, meaning they talk over me, literally. I know some people are awkward around disabled people, but in comparing notes with other wheelchair users, we have all had the same experience, many people, even our friends, tend to talk to each other, leaving us “low lifes” (literally) out of the conversation. In New York City, most apartments are small and crowded, making it dangerous for me to visit them in a wheelchair.  Suburbanites often have stairs leading to their homes.

It is surprising how many retailers and restaurants are not accessible.  Where there are two doors, one is often locked closed and the other is too narrow to easily get the chair through.  Many establishments have a step or two to get into.  People in manual chairs can often get in because someone helps and can pull the chair up (or down).  Motorized chairs are usually too heavy so they are not easily pulled or pushed.  Many, many restaurants do not have ramps.  Even some that do have a ramp, have employees who make it clear that they are unhappy having to go out of their way to put down a ramp.  On the other hand, because I am in a wheelchair, many restauranteurs know me and make me feel very welcome.

When there is a heavy building door and no one to help, using the joy stick which controls the chair and holding the door open while I maneuver to get in is a real chore. On a positive note, there is almost always someone willing to hold a door for me.  In fact, people go out of their way to help.
Pedestrians a huge problem, especially those who have ear buds or ear phones or who are busy texting or otherwise using their phones.  First, they are not paying attention to the world around them.  They don’t hear me when I say excuse me when they block the way. I often have to scream for them to move which gets me lots of dirty looks..  People who are walking together often stop at the corner by the top of the sidewalk cut to talk, blocking passage, leaving me half in the street, People with toddlers and small children often don’t pay attention to their kids and they tend to dart out in front of me.  People leaving buildings are so immersed in their phones that the walk right into me (it has happened many times). As a result of all this, I worry about hitting people, even while rolling slowly – my chair weighs about 300 pounds.

While my wheelchair has a horn, it is absurdly inaudible.  I tried using a bell and a horn, but pedestrians pay no attention to the sound, I think largely because they are unaccustomed to hearing them in the city.

All the busses are accessible, thank goodness.  Most bus drivers are considerate and very helpful.  However, a few, when they see me, pass by without stopping.

The subways are a different story.  One never knows if the stop they want has an elevator.  And even if the stop does have a lift, you never know if it is working.  That totally precludes using the subways.  And where there are elevators in both directions, the trains often stop six or eight inches from the platform, making wheelchair access almost impossible.  Crowds also preclude the use of chairs.

The city does have Access-A-Ride, which is $2.50 for two people; it is a wonderful service, but it is very flawed. The problem is that they are totally unreliable, often either too early or too late.  AAR has to be called a day ahead, which precludes spur-of-the-moment use.  And, on top of that, a round trip has to be booked ahead of time and the second trip must be at least an hour after the arrival time.  This leaves doctors and shopping out.

Fortunately, I can afford to take an accessible taxi.  They can be hailed or called.  Unfortunately, too many of the drivers have no idea as to how to use their built in ramps (no kidding) or they do not have the two front and two back chair restraints.  Often they only want to attach either front or back, leaving the chair rider bumping around and tilting.

There is a bright light to all these issues.  I am happy to be alive and go through all these hassles.  Life is great.  And the wheelchair offers a dimension of freedom which is good for my mental health and well-being.

P.S.  Thanks Bill Crandall for encouraging me to write this.


  1. As we have discussed, you need to get Google to start a review of curb cuts in New York City. I never realized what an issue this was until I found myself pushing a 250 pound friend in a wheel chair from 57th Street and Park Avenue to 54th Street and Fifth Avenue. How did his wife manage to get him there. Oy. And now that I've been paying attention, each curb cut is different. And now that I've noticed, I see how many people are moving from place to place in wheelchairs.....manual and battery powered. What to do?

    1. I actually wrote twice to my city Councilman, Ben Kallos. He never responded. I volunteered to go to every sidewalk cut in his district and to grade them.

  2. Paul,

    Inspirational, especially at a time when some inspiration (and reflection on how good we have it) is sorely needed.


  3. Pauly … Thanks for your post script shout-out (h/t) and, you’re welcome. Your heartfelt recovery story is just what the doctor ordered for those who don’t fully appreciate the trials and tribulations of being disabled or how lucky we are just to be alive and healthy. Making the most, as best we can, of every new day we are given by God. Glad to see you back in the saddle at “View from Madison Avenue”. Keep on truckin’, my friend. Your favorite “Doo-Dah-Man”, Bill

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