A Day in the Life (Part 1)

Wheelchairs in the city

The following is part one a first-hand account of an able bodied person spending two days and nights in New York City with a disabled woman. * Names have been changed to protect the identity of anyone involved.

New York City is not easy. You know that going in. A town famous for its toughness and rudeness, Manhattan stands as a cold reminder of how rough this world can be. It’s hard enough for an able bodied person to tackle the traffic, shoving, stairs, subways and crowding not to mention someone using a wheelchair. I watch Pam* being lifted from a black SUV in midtown and gently lowered into her wheelchair. She was invited to New York as part of a promotion for the TV show, Push Girls, which she is on and is being put up in a well-known hotel by the network. However, no one at the network fully understands what it’s like to be disabled in the city and this is evident right from the start.

“It’s OK, I’m used to this” Pam says as she adjusts herself in her wheelchair. She frowns for a moment as she toggles with the chair wheels. On the flight from Los Angeles a brake was damaged during baggage handling. Pam is no stranger to chair malfunctions and says she’ll take a look at it when she gets to her room. She is used to having to “repair” her chair after flights. “If your chair is your only mode of transportation, you can’t afford to wait for the airlines to fix it,” she explained when I asked her why she did not have the airline fix it.

I look at the large SUV and wonder why anyone would suggest such a vehicle for someone in a wheelchair. Don’t they know it’s too high off the ground for someone to get into or out of their chair by themselves without the driver having to provide a lift? Ricky, the driver, was wonderful, thank goodness and easily lifts her in and out of the SUV.  As I was to find out, this was just one of many inconveniences I would become aware of while spending time with Pam.

Despite the rough flight and landing in the city, Pam is excited for the show promotion and wheels excitedly up to the hotel entrance. The doorman looks down and nods but his eyes widen a bit.

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll be able to enter this way,” he says kindly despite his embarrassment.

Pam stops and looks up. “This hotel is listed as ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliant.” She says matter-of-factly. “I just want to check in before dinner.”

The doorman glances inside at the 12 steps as well as a short escalator that both lead up to the lobby. He thinks for a moment and tells us to wait. I had just spent an hour waiting for Pam in this well-maintained and upscale lobby of this very nice hotel. But I never thought about how she would get into the hotel?  There is no ramp or obvious way for a wheelchair to get to the lobby.

After a few minutes the doorman returns and suggests that we go to dinner and then register so we don’t have to make two trips. He tells us that there is a side entrance we can use that has an elevator that will take us to the lobby. “Just push the buzzer and someone will come to escort you”, the doorman says. So we go off to a pleasant dinner. When Ricky brings us back to the hotel, he pulls over to the side street the doorman indicated. He lifts Pam out of the SUV and into the chair and tells us he will go to the front and get the luggage up to the lobby for us. Before I can respond, Pam is halfway down the street looking for the buzzer.

At the side entrance we are welcomed by a locked door and a pile of trash bags. After pushing the buzzer several times and waiting, Pam calls the hotel on her cell phone. She calmly explains that she is a guest and was instructed to use the side entrance to enter the hotel but it is locked and no one has come. She hangs up. We wait a few minutes and a security guard who works for the hotel sticks his head out a door about 10 feet beyond where we are. He explained the buzzer was disconnected during some recent construction.

We make our way inside and find the room we are in is used for trash compacting. It smells and the floor is covered in grime. The guard apologizes for the inconvenience and tells us to follow him. Pam reaches in her bag and pulls out a pair of gloves. Turning her wheels on this surface is going to get dirty. We proceed to a service elevator and I cover my nose due to the smell of the trash. We get in the elevator and can only go up one flight. We find ourselves in another basement and the guard leads us across it to another elevator. We reach a second basement. We cross it and then take another elevator. Is he serious? That one leads to the lobby. I’m beginning to wonder how many other guests are asked to endure this just to access the lobby.

I did ask the guard whether or not we would have to use this path every time we wanted to exit or enter the hotel. Yes, he says, the hotel is constructing a new side entrance, but for now, this is the only way in or out for wheelchair bound guests, “Just call the front desk and they will arrange for someone to escort us – just give them 10 to 15 minutes notice”. Later I am told a guest filed a complaint under ADA that forced the hotel to do something about its lack of accessibility, hence the construction.

As we ascend to the lobby Pam takes off her now dirty gloves and claps them together. Her patience is remarkable. Any other guest would be ready to blaze through when the elevator doors open but she is calm and composed when we finally enter the lobby after 3 basements and 3 elevator rides and about 10 minutes to go a distance equal to 12 feet up. I’m ready to do battle with the hotel personnel over this treatment, but Pam says she will handle it. And she does.

But this “accomplishment” of being able to get to the lobby to register is just the beginning of our stay in New York.

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