Last week, a man in a power wheelchair died from falling down an escalator at a train station in Columbia Heights, D.C. After seeing various opinions, considering my own experiences with inaccessibility, and contemplating the implications this tragedy has on society at large, I wanted to write this blog post. This atrocity has reminded me that inaccessibility is not just an inconvenience, it can be fatal. It has also shown me that many able-bodied people do not understand the extent to which inaccessibility disrupts lives.
Upon hearing stories like this, many people ask why disabled people do not just wait for elevators or ask for help. This is fair–people who do not encounter inaccessibility on a regular basis are often shocked by the barriers disabled people must overcome in order to perform the simplest tasks. It is important to note that the elevator in the train station was reportedly in-service at the time of the incident. The man was also said to have waited for the elevator for a few seconds before proceeding to the escalator. This is most likely is what triggers the question of why he did not wait. As someone who is disabled, I am accustomed to inaccessibility–so much so that I almost expect it. When an elevator takes longer than usual, I panic. My freshman year of high school, the only elevator was out of service every other week. As a result, I am conditioned to expect unreliability from elevators, especially when I am restricted on time. Sometimes, I do not have time to wait for an elevator; many people misuse elevators, and while I do not mind this all the time, if I need to be somewhere, it frustrates me. Similarly, when cars are parked in front of curb cutouts, I do not always have time to find the driver, and I typically resign to driving my chair down the curb, aware that I am endangering myself.
As a college student, I navigate campus on my own. This increases my level of stress; when an automatic door or an elevator is broken, I am on my own in finding an alternate route (if there is one). Under stress and time constraints, I have made and continue to make some rash decisions. While I do not know the man’s thought process, I can empathize with him. When I am alone (especially when in an unfamiliar place), I am more inclined to making dangerous decisions. I rarely consider that a seemingly minute choice can end my life, both for my own sanity, as well as out of necessity (sometimes the only available choice is a dangerous one).
It is frustrating to hear people judging the man (whose identity has not been revealed) because it does not take into account the millions of factors that hinder disabled people and render them prone to accidents, and it dismisses that the man was a human being whose life was valuable, but ended tragically and violently. It is impossible to fully understand his situation, as the only person who did is dead. Regardless of why the man made this fatal decision, his story serves as a reminder that we need to improve accessibility and the reliability of assistive devices. Disabled people should not have to go out of their way to locate ramps. Broken elevators should be fixed as soon as possible. Disabled people should not die because of inaccessibility; access is a human right–a right that disabled people are often stripped of.
There should be safeguards for disabled people; there should be workers in train stations, as well as other public spaces, to direct disabled people, assist them, and ensure that they get where they need to go. Tragedies like the one that occurred last week could be prevented, and disabled people should be able to exist in society like their able-bodied peers.
If this horrific incident has taught me anything, it is that I cannot afford to be passive in the fight for my community. I cannot be quiet. I cannot afford to tip-toe around able-bodied feelings; I must fight for accessibility.
Sadly, the way you are conditioned (to believe elevators are unreliable) is the reality in New York City’s subways. I have heard so many horror stories of people ending up stuck on broken subway elevators. There also needs to be safeguards to somehow prevent these public and heavily-used elevators from breaking so often as well. That being said, I am probably preaching to the choir here. 🙂