An Honest Guide To Wheelchair Accessibility In New York City (A Tourist Take)

Last week, I published a post where I wrote about the constant fear and anxiety that I felt prior to embarking on my big American trip. It was a post that forced me to be pretty open about the vulnerabilities and limitations that I may face when going out and about on a daily basis, not to mention, in a foreign and unfamiliar country. ‘How accessible is New York City?’ was the one question I had on my mind constantly – as constant as the ticking clock. It was in many ways a simple question and yet all I could find on the internet were conflicting reviews and opinions or downright articles that made me wish I hadn’t gone searching at all.
Because of this, I promised I’d write the blog post I wish I could have read on the current situation in terms of accessibility in the big city before embarking on the trip. So, buckle up cause it’s a little complicated.

Rachy in Central Park
Rachy smiling in Central park
Rachy sat in wheelchair in central park New York

After having spent a few days there, I fully comprehend exactly why all the information I stumbled upon were inconsistent and opposing one another, to say the least. Some days, I would be roaming around the city without a care in the world, whilst others, I was being told to return back to the subway platforms to get off at another stop as the lift headed up to the roads was due for a repair. There were times I found the chase of public transport to be thrilling and other times I felt overwhelmed by the number of people marching to their destination in the underground stations. I felt like as bad as it was sometimes, it also felt quite predictable, although not justifiable, that a city as big and complex would not have it all together and figured out, but in certain moments, the amount of disorganisation was just pure stupid and ridiculous.

My flight arrived at JFK airport in the afternoon. I remember my eyes meeting the direct intense hot sun and instantly regretting it as it started to water profusely. The tears were so much that travellers must have thought I was either super elated to be there or I had just been broken up with at the airport like I was the embodiment of some cliché beginning scene from a cheesy rom-com, but the truth was nowhere close to being that dramatic – I just have easily irritated eyes.

Rachy smiling in Central Park NYC
Rachy in central park nyc

The special assistance staff had helped us get to the parking lot and also ensured we hopped on a yellow accessible taxi. It was slightly bigger than an average 5-seater car and the ramp was drawn out of the backside of the vehicle. Our hotel was in Queens and it took us over forty minutes to get there as we wrestled bumpy roads and the afternoon traffic. The driver chatted to us about what New York was like and what he felt was the safest and most accessible means of transport to travel with (of course, he was very pro yellow cabs). On arrival at Hotel Nirvana, he then went on to charge us an extra $15 for the ‘service’ of the ramp. I was pretty annoyed by it as I was quite unsure if it was the norm in the city or I had just been scammed real good. I did later find a Times article where an additional $20 fee was mentioned, but it only made me question, if we are striving for an equal right to public transportation, why add a ramp fee? And if you were to add one, why make it ridiculously heavy?
The idea that every person on a wheelchair is able to afford to pay such a fee every time they were to book a taxi sounds insane to me, as, if I were to pay that each time I was taking a cab in Manchester, oh well, I simply wouldn’t be riding in taxis at all.

The hotel was quite good when it came to accessibility because, obviously, I had researched it online. Our room was on the fourth floor and there were lifts headed to each one. It wasn’t a big room, but there was enough space to park the wheelchair in and a small wardrobe to hang clothes in. It was equipped with grip rails in the bathtub and a gigantic bed I had to jump unto acrobatically each night as I was way too short to climb on like I wasn’t imitating a hyperactive animal.

The first day, frankly saw us struggling to get around the city without looking lost, confused and frustrated. We struggled to find accessible underground entries and we weren’t the only ones.
I distinctly remember a moment as we wandered around the area where the lifts were supposed to be in (according to Google maps), we exchanged looks with an Asian couple who were also looking for the lifts that headed down under. The man was sat in a wheelchair and his partner pushed from behind. They looked like, just like us, they’d been roaming around for a while with lost hope in their eyes. We confirmed their suspicion that we were as clueless as they were, they smiled and went their way. We opted for an Uber that arrived about 25 minutes later and I wondered if they had slowly found their way too.

The Uber ride was certainly a lot shorter than the time it took to get the car to meet us at our pickup spot and it was also a lot cheaper than the yellow cab we rode the day before. Uber became our go-to means of transport and we used it when we were desperate or had limited options on the table. Plus, there was no additional ‘ramp’ fee which made that our clear choice.
I feel like another easy way to go around the City is with the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus tours. They drive round New York and pass through all major attractions so if you want to get off at different stops you can use those. We got a three-day pass ticket for the buses and with the help of the company’s app we were able to find the closes places where the bus picked up curious passengers.
I think this option, however, is to be considered only if you are sure you’ll make a lot of use off the ticket in order to get the money’s worth, especially if you are buying a bundle ticket that will last a few days as I did.

Rachy in central park

Now, here’s the thing; in New York City, the underground is probably the busiest and most used mode of transportation which was one of the reasons why we decided to attempt taking it back to Queens the first evening out.

The underground, which is also referred to as subway is, I believe, probably the most difficult means to navigate as a tourist on wheels. The lifts often lead to the mezzanines and then to the platforms. I think the major problem with riding the subways on wheel start from the fact that not all stations are accessible, in fact, a lot of them aren’t.
In some ways, I was lucky to have found the hotel I stayed at because from the area in Queens I was staying to Manhattan, the stops were almost all accessible on the F line trains after which we’d often walk down to wherever we were going.

Another thing I found to be problematic with most train lines was that the trains weren’t on the same level as the platforms even though they were stated to be accessible. Most times, my sister would have to give a big push to the chair before it could get onto the trains and on one occasion, after she had pushed me into the train, the doors shut instantly leaving her stuck on the outside. Yikes, I know! Of course, we managed to find each other after I got off the next stop, but how can such platforms be classified as ‘accessible’?

photo of wheelchair
in central park smiling at camera

The undergrounds were a big part of the experience because I got to see New Yorkers up close and personal going about their business in a routine fashion. There were silent readers, people who spoke loudly on their phone and those who drowned their lives out with the music playing in their ears. There were resting bitch faces and people that seemed like they lived to make a fashion statement on the daily. An awful different odour cramped the elevators that led to the main road and each time the smell was not as suffocating as the last, my sister and I would make endless remarks on the notable progress. The next elevator was always the worst one yet. Underground, there were people – all kinds of people hurrying to the next task on their seemingly long list, but sometimes they would stop to listen to the guy with a guitar and a mic.
it was a whole world down there and although sometimes it was a messy one, I’m glad I got to experience the underground lifestyle.

There’s so much more I could say about wheelchair access in New York and it could all probably take up a lot more words to fill in all the gaps. I’d say the best thing to do would probably be to choose where you’d like to stay in the city because that will determine how easy or hard it would eventually be to get around.
Also, consider what type of wheelchair would be easier to use over there. I stuck to my electric wheelchair because I felt as though I’d feel freer to move around more independently, however, I did contemplate travelling with a manual which might have been easier to fit into unequipped cars.
Whilst it is true that I felt a lot of anxiety due to questions regarding access before the trip, I’m glad my fears and questions weren’t enough to stop me from living it up and seeing the things I saw.
So, what are you waiting for? Stop wondering and book that trip!

Your restless romantic roamer

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