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Pioneering lawsuit hopes to force MTA to put elevators in the subway

HOST INTRO: New York City has the largest subway system in the country. It’s also the least accessible to people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, but few improvements have been made since then. So a pioneering lawsuit is trying a new approach and uniting people around the cause in the process. Madeleine Thompson reports.  

(SOUND: “you have to put your hood on,” talking, fade under THOMPSON 1)

THOMPSON 1: Robert Acevedo is sitting by his apartment door in his wheelchair. His husband Michael drapes a huge blue poncho over him. The snow is really coming down outside, and the two are preparing for a slushy journey to a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side.

(SOUND comes back up: “covering your legs a little bit,” fade out under THOMPSON 2)

(SOUND: slushy streets, under THOMPSON 2)

THOMPSON 2: Once they’ve wrapped up, the Acevedos head out into the street towards Herald Square station. Deep puddles at the curb cuts block them from getting up on the sidewalk, so Michael pushes Robert in the bike lane. They take the elevator down, hop on a train just as it’s arriving, and get off at Lexington Avenue/63rd Street. There, MIchael takes a moment to appreciate the three shiny new elevators.

MICHAEL 3: They really thought of the disabled when they were doing this stop.

THOMPSON 3: This is how it’s supposed to work. But Robert says traversing New York in a wheelchair is rarely this easy.

ROBERT 2: In the subway? Nah. You’re on your own. You’re on your own.

THOMPSON 4: Just 108 of the 472 subway stations are accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to help fix this, but because of how it’s written, elevators are only required in new stations and some key stations — like Herald Square. Only five new stations have opened since 1990. Emily Seelenfreund is an attorney from Disability Rights Advocates, She says the money is there, but it’s going to different priorities.  

SEELENFREUND 1: You know right now the MTA is putting wifi into a lot of stations, and that’s jumping on the rights of people who literally can’t access the system.

THOMPSON 5: James Weisman, president of the United Spinal Association, agrees. He’s been fighting for more inclusive transit for 40 years.

WEISMAN 1: If government makes things a priority, problems get solved. Until they do, they don’t.  

THOMPSON 6: So Seelenfreund’s legal team filed a lawsuit that, instead of the Americans with Disabililies Act, uses the New York City Human Rights Law. They claim, under this stricter local law, that the MTA is discriminating against people with disabilities by not making every single subway stop accessible.

SEELENFREUND 2: It hasn’t been used in this- quite in this context before. But, you know, it says on its face that all places of public accommodation need to provide equal access and equal terms and conditions to people with disabilities.

THOMPSON 7: On March 5, Seelenfreund’s team and the MTA appeared in court to argue the merits of the case. Outside the courthouse that day, about 30 advocates and people with disabilities showed up to lend their support.

(SOUND: rally chanting, fade under THOMPSON 8)

THOMPSON 8: Robert Acevedo was there. He was holding a sign that read “fund elevators now.” He told me he’d had trouble getting to the rally at all.

ROBERT 3: I couldn’t come here by subway. I had to take the bus, the M55 bus here. There are many, many other disabled people that would’ve loved to have come here, but they couldn’t because it’s not accessible.

THOMPSON 9: Later that day, the protesters packed the courtroom. The judge even thanked them for appearing. Attorney Jim Weisman says a case like this gives people with disabilities a chance to have their voices entered into the record. He also thinks, eventually, they’ll prevail.  

WEISMAN 2: If you make the same arguments over and over again and there’s not a logical counterargument, eventually people adopt your argument. I’ve lived long enough to figure that out.

THOMPSON 10: The next step in the case is a negotiation meeting between the MTA and the disability advocates. It’s scheduled for May 10. Madeleine Thompson, Columbia Radio News.  


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