By Stanley Wlodyka
You’ve seen her. Just as you lift your hand to grab her attention and offer help, she swoops down like an Olympic weightlifter and picks up the stroller, baby and all. She turns around, impatiently blows at a strand of hair that’s fallen out of place, and looks right through you. “Come on!”
She doesn’t react. She simply turns and climbs up the subway stairs almost two at a time. The toddler keeps his distance, expressing his freedom by jauntily wobbling behind her. You’ve still got your hand up, dumbfounded, witnessing a definitive answer to the question of which is the stronger of the two sexes.
Though mothers everywhere have adapted to the absence of elevators at subway stations, riders with disabilities face a much more difficult time. A child in a wheelchair on his way to school, for example, might have to ride past his stop to an accessible station then take a bus back to class; this significantly prolongs his trip. That was the case that Mary Kessinger made at the Open House that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) hosted at Our Lady of Guadalupe on 14th Street on February 14th.
Kessinger, an activist with The People’s MTA, wanted to make sure that accessibility was a topic of discussion at the event dedicated to the 15-month closure of the L Train, starting in April of 2019. In the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, parishioners duly prayed with black smudges on their foreheads, confirmations of their faith on Ash Wednesday. In the community room, where the Open House was held, the ambience suited more the other holiday taking place that evening—Valentine’s Day. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed representatives of the MTA smiled generously at visitors and eagerly explained the exciting details of the closure. Kessinger was having none of it as she wheeled herself through the crowd and distributed yellow leaflets.
Andy Byford, President of New York City Transit Authority, was also in attendance. The MTA snatched the Brit up from the clutches of the Toronto Transit Commission in November of 2017. He was happy at the turnout and was looking forward “to listen to what people say. Their suggestions. Maybe there’s [a] better way of doing things.”
Under this guise, Kessinger planted her mobility device in front of Byford, who on his first day on the job professed a passion for accessibility, naming it a priority. However, they didn’t see eye-to-eye. Kessinger hoped the MTA would take advantage of the L Train closure to retrofit more of the affected stations so they would be wheelchair accessible. As of now, there are plans to add elevators to only two of the L Train stations and Byford doesn’t believe it is possible to expand that reach.
“I get the principle but there are budgetary and logistical limitations on what we can do while […] also doing this huge alternate transit exercise. It’s something I’m aware of. I’m having a look at it, but certainly right now I think we’re at the limit of what can be done in terms of disruption while we move 50,000 people a day.”
That opens up a whole new can of worms for people with disabilities. “It’s just too many people. It’s too crowded. If you’re in a wheelchair, you get overwhelmed […] You can’t get through it. If the bus loads up, it’s just absolutely packed. There’s no way to maneuver your vehicle inside the buses,” Kessinger said.