Dynamic struggle for transit accessibility gains ground

By Tony Murphy
March 19, 2019

A series of positive rulings have been won in court recently on the issue of public transportation accessibility. They have come as the class forces demanding elevators in the subway have broadened, now including parents with young children in strollers together with disability rights advocates.

On March 5, U.S. District Court Judge Edgardo Ramos ruled that New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority must install elevators in any New York subway station that is being renovated.

This has been called a sweeping decision in terms of its impact. The ruling came after a lawsuit was filed because the MTA had renovated the Bronx Middletown subway station and replaced its stairs in 2013 — but left the station inaccessible.

Then on March 13, New York State Judge Shlomo Hagler ordered the MTA back to the table to meet with disability rights groups and come up with a court-enforceable plan to install elevators in all New York subway stations.

The Hagler ruling was important for a few reasons. It kept alive a case that had seemed in danger of being dismissed. Also, it was strongly influenced by the Ramos ruling.

A year ago, Hagler had responded to the MTA’s motion to dismiss the case by ordering the two sides to talk and come to a settlement.

After almost a year, the MTA walked away from the talks. This put the MTA’s motion to dismiss the entire case back into play. Hagler could simply have ruled on that motion. If he had ruled in the MTA’s favor, the case would have effectively ended in defeat for the plaintiffs.

In explaining why he was keeping the case alive, Hagler lectured the MTA that it is “just plain right” that the New York subway system be accessible. Its notorious inaccessibility, he said, is “just not fair.”

He rejected the notion that installing elevators is too expensive, saying not spending money for accessibility “makes no sense, with billions of dollars spent on other things.”

“The time has come,” Hagler said, for a serious plan. He told the authority that he was giving them “one last opportunity to get it right” — or he will make his own ruling when the case convenes again on May 7.

Hagler referred several times to the Bronx station ruling. Its impact was clearly felt in his courtroom, having reverberated throughout the legal world the week before. Hagler referred specifically to coverage in the New York Law Journal.

Impact of mother’s death

There was also another presence in that courtroom: Malaysia Goodson.

At a courthouse rally before Hagler’s hearing, expectant mother Christine Coleman spoke, supporting the case and joining 25 people who showed up to pack the court. Coleman was moved to join the fight for transit accessibility after reading about Goodson’s untimely death.

Goodson was a 22-year-old African-American mother who in January fell to her death on New York subway stairs.

Carrying a stroller as well as her 1-year-old daughter down the stairs — in a station with no elevators and two escalators that only go up — Goodson fell but managed to protect her child, who miraculously survived.

In response to Goodson’s shocking death, the MTA — located steps from Wall Street, the home of the world’s richest banks and investment firms — announced it was cutting back its plan to install elevators in subway stations because it didn’t have enough money.

The response of the movement for transit accessibility was different. Less than 48 hours after Goodson’s death, accessibility rights leaders held a protest and vigil at the subway station where Goodson had died, re-emphasizing the demand for elevators and ramps while laying flowers at the spot in a makeshift memorial.

While the MTA made sure that the media coverage of that protest included the city medical examiner’s declaration that Goodson died of a “pre-existing medical condition,” the street mobilization began an increased level of solidarity between the forces calling for true subway accessibility.

For months, MTA board meetings had included delegations of wheelchair users and other leaders of the accessibility rights movement, making the argument over and over that elevators in the subway are a necessity.

On Feb. 25 — the first MTA board meeting after Goodson’s death — mothers affected by her untimely death took the microphone to make the same demand.

Holding her baby, who grabbed for the mic as she spoke, Christine Yearwood said, to applause, “Why is accessibility something that [MTA] planners decide is acceptable to cut? The fact that this is predicted to happen after Malaysia Goodson just died on the subway stairs is disgraceful.”

Christine Coleman also spoke at that board meeting, referring to Goodson’s death: “I see parents struggle with this all the time, trying to get up and down the stairs. And it’s just unacceptable that we don’t have a working elevator in every station.”

The federal lawyers who joined the Bronx subway case issued a statement after it was decided, announcing triumphantly, “The Court’s decision marks the end of the MTA treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens.” Whether that is true remains to be seen. The MTA has a high-paid legal staff, which it can use to delay justice for years.

At the March 17 commemoration of International Working Women’s Day, a rally was held at New York’s Penn Station. Protesters saluted women in rebellion around the world — migrants, trans women, Muslims and others who are fighting oppression on all fronts. Included was the demand for transit accessibility, both for people who are mobility-impaired and for parents with strollers. Mary Kaessinger of The People’s MTA spoke at the street rally, followed by a roundtable discussion, where a video of women speaking at the MTA hearing was shown.

As the demand for elevators makes its way through the courts, the people’s movement for transit accessibility is expanding — and pushing upward on it.