A mother carrying her child should not meet her death because of a subway staircase. But on Jan. 28, Malaysia Goodson, struggling to carry her baby’s stroller into the New York City subway, fell and lost her life. The city’s medical examiner still hasn’t determined the cause of her death. Regardless, her death has shaken people across the country who question how it could have happened.
One group who has not expressed surprise has been the disabled community. Because, while Goodson’s death was entirely preventable, we are familiar with the reality of inaccessibility in transport and in society as a whole.
As a disabled person who uses SEPTA to get to work, I regularly confront inaccessibility. Each morning, I wonder how my day might be derailed by the dangers of a world that isn’t designed for me. Winter is especially rough. There’s ice and condensation everywhere, and, because a majority of nondisabled people do not use accessible infrastructure, those ramps and entrances are often neglected and remain dangerous for people like me. Getting to the train I take to work is only half the battle (I actually take a train that is nearly five miles away because the one half a mile from me is inaccessible).
Trains along the regional rail lack consistency in accessible seating. Elevators break or are shut down for maintenance. Buses are at the mercy of other drivers blocking their ability to kneel at the curb for wheelchair users, and not every station or stop is accessible. Para transit isn’t any better. Transport services designed specifically for disabled passengers are overloaded and can run slowly, leading disabled people to miss important appointments and meetings.
These problems are systemic. But the way we think about accessibility needs to change as well. Accessibility isn’t charity, it is the law, outlined in the American Disabilities Act (ADA) signed in 1990. Not following it costs lives. But we, as a nation, have spent so much time debating semantics and marginalizing disabled people’s needs as “special” that many nondisabled folk do not realize they have many of the same needs. The ADA is meant to ensure that disabled people have a right to a safe and accommodating environment — an environment that benefits everyone. In fact, the modern disability rights movement began over protests highlighting broad transit inaccessibility.
Change is still needed. We can find it in universal design as the future of infrastructure. The core tenet of universal design is thinking about everyone’s needs from the start — not as an add-on later. A comic illustrates the point best: It shows a crowd waiting for a man to clear snow from the stairs to a building. A disabled person in a wheelchair is told they have to wait until the stairs are cleared before the man gets to the ramp, because more people want the stairs. The person responds that if the man clears the ramp first, everyone can get into the building.
Many people see accessible infrastructure as “not for them” — or worse, beneath them. But everyone can use ramps, elevators, grab bars, and nonslip surfaces. Malaysia Goodson’s life would not have been under threat had there been an elevator to use in that station. With an aging population and rates of disability on the rise, these are urgent needs. More of our citizens will depend on these accommodations.
Such an accommodating future is still far off, though, as many structures are legally exempt from the ADA or can be made so. Churches and religious facilities are exempt. And a 2010 update to the law said that some proprietors would not have to make accessibility changes if they could prove it would be cost prohibitive or logistically impossible to do so.
To make progress, conversations about infrastructure need to center disabled people’s voices, and those outside the community must listen. This will likely take a long time. To SEPTA’s credit, more than a third of its regional rail stations are accessible and only around 35 percent of its Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines are not. They train staff and potential riders on accessibility and offer call lines to report elevator outages and learn more about accessibility options.
But more could be done. Clear bus lanes and stops need to be enforced, as does the rule requiring nondisabled riders to move from accessible spots for wheelchair users. And we need widespread education on why accessibility means safety for everyone.
Imani Barbarin is the communications director for Disability Rights Pennsylvania. In her free time, she writes the blog CrutchesAndSpice.com on the many intersections of disability rights and representation.