On January 28, 2019, Malaysia Goodson, 22, visited New York City with her one-year-old daughter from Connecticut. When she got to the Seventh Avenue–53rd Street station, she discovered that it did not have any elevators. To get to the platform, she, like thousands of commuters before her, had to carry her daughter down the stairs in her stroller. And she tried. But she didn’t make the train. Instead, she fell down to the platform and died. Her daughter was found still strapped into her stroller, conscious and unhurt, reported NBC New York at the time.
The medical examiner determined the cause of death was natural causes, the result of “cardiac arrhythmia complicating hyperthyroidism with cardiac hypertrophy.” In simpler terms, Goodson had hyperthyroidism and heart problems which flared up while she was walking down the stairs.
Whether the fall had anything to do with Goodson’s death isn’t completely clear, but her death was a wake-up call for many in the city who had never put much thought into subway accessibility or who imagined it only as an issue for people in wheelchairs. The young mother became a face of the argument for accessibility in a system where roughly one out of every four stations (119 of the total 472) has an elevator.
In the year since her death, the transit authority responded by increasing the goal for station upgrades in their 2020-2024 Capital Plan, the comprehensive outline of all projects to be undertaken in the next five years. The plan, which went into action in the new year, allocates $5.1 billion for accessibility upgrades to 70 stations, 63 of which are in the New York City subway and the remaining seven divided between the Long Island Rail Road and the Staten Island Railway. These upgrades range from expensive new elevator installations to minor improvements to accommodate a range of disabilities, including more accurate station announcements and countdown timers alerting the hearing impaired of arriving trains. But advocates aren’t convinced the MTA has gone far enough.
“We’ve been fighting for subway accessibility for 36 years,” said Susan Dooha, executive director of the the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY, a plaintiff in a couple of lawsuits filed against the MTA. “Promises are not enough.”
On the one year anniversary of Goodson’s death, a couple dozen activists and supporters stood at the base of the New York State Supreme Court Building at 9 a.m., bundled against the frigid breeze. They chanted about the MTA ignoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, the watershed legislation that required station upgrades in key locations. They then said a few words about the Goodson family being unable to attend due to family illness and held a moment of silence.
But the protest was not just about Goodson. It was also a time to vent frustration about the MTA’s reluctance to expand accessibility for everyone who has difficulty walking up and down the stairs.
Proponents have even filed lawsuits to make their point and get changes. At 10 a.m. on the same day of the protest, Judge Shlomo Hagler was scheduled to hold a hearing for one of them—a class action lawsuit filed in 2017 that alleges the transit authority violates New York City human rights law by providing only 25 percent accessibility to the subway.
“Disability rights are human rights,” shouted one of the protesters, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, 43, a wheelchair user who was paralyzed below the waist after a tree branch fell on his head in Central Park. He works as a Google software engineer and is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. “When you protect us, you protect a lot of people.”
The MTA said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Many of the protesters added that they had no faith in the MTA to stick to promises it has made, especially in light of the announced resignation of Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit (the part of the MTA that handles the subway and buses).
“Until we have a legally binding agreement, we can’t trust the MTA,” said Jessica Murray, one of the organizers, at the demonstration.
A week after the demonstration, Open House New York, a nonprofit that hosts events aimed at increasing social awareness, held a panel to discuss accessibility in transit. Alex Elegudin, the senior advisor for systemwide accessibility for the MTA, spoke at the event to provide a different perspective on the MTA’s efforts beyond the commitment to expand the number of elevators. Specifically, he focused on advances that may go unnoticed by the majority of riders, including the installation of upgraded public address systems, more reliable information on the electronic signs and the addition of tactile walkways—strips of tile laid out on the floor with raised domes intended to aid the blind or visually impaired.
“I’ve really found it to be incredibly beneficial in my role to go out and tell a positive story about accessibility and talk about all the things that we’re doing,” said Elegudin, a wheelchair user himself because of a spinal injury.
Jaqi Cohen, director of the transportation advocacy group, the Straphangers Campaign, who also spoke as part of the panel, said afterward that she was hopeful the MTA would continue efforts to make the subway more accessible. She said this was even more crucial with the transition of power to Byford’s unnamed successor.
“There’s still a huge commitment toward station accessibility included in the next capital plan,” she said. But “I think it’s more important than ever that riders hold their political leaders, including the governor, accountable to delivering on those projects.”
In a potential step forward for the transit authority, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday the nomination of Victor Calise to the MTA board. Calise works within the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and, if approved, would become the first person with a disability with a seat on the board.
“To be the only person with a self-disclosed disability currently on the MTA Board is an important responsibility that I will not take lightly,” Calise said in a press statement, adding his “pledge to advocate for a transit system that works well for everyone—including the millions of New Yorkers and visitors who have intellectual/developmental, vision, hearing or physical disabilities.”
Advocacy groups including the Elevator Action Group had been pressuring Mayor de Blasio to appoint someone with a disability to the board for some time. He appears to have listened, but organizers within the group still expressed reservations.
“This is something Rise and Resist has been pushing for for a long time, so I think it is great to have that representation on the board,” said Jessica Murray, an organizer with the Elevator Action Group. She commented on the Mayor’s appointees having less clout than Governor Cuomo’s, but she added, “I hope he will be an outspoken advocate for the community.”
There is a lot of uncertainty about the future of the MTA. Andy Byford was a fierce proponent of fixing the system and restoring it to former glory days. He wanted it to be something riders could be proud of. But with his departure, the ongoing lawsuits against the MTA in federal and state courts and the appointment of Calise to the board, there are many open issues ahead—and until they’re resolved, members of groups like the Elevator Action Group or the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY won’t give up.
“MTA officials will come and go, but we will continue to be here,” said Susan Dooha, the center’s executive director.