The Upper West Side Isn’t Flat

Life on wheels can’t be fun.  Not cool wheels, but a chair, without which you go nowhere.  And it’s hardly too much to ask that when a structure open to the public, inviting the public to enter, is built, it be capable of accommodating those people who depend on wheels.  Not your issue? It would be if your legs didn’t work right, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that your legs, or your kids’ legs, might not always move as well as they do now.

But what of structures from the old days? 

The Upper West Side of Manhattan is a thing of beauty, built of brownstones and tenements, and famous for generations of kids playing the quintessential New York game, stoop ball. I love old buildings. I love their look, their feel, the handmade bits of brass hardware that requires polishing to bring its richness to the surface. It’s New York’s history, and a reminder that there was once a time when people took pride in their design and craft. 

Brownstones are not, however, good for wheels.  Stoops are a problem, as each step is barrier that a wheelchair can’t surmount. At least not on its own.  From the New York Post :

Wheelchair-riding Linda Slone, 64, is suing 39 shops in her neighborhood for not being handicapped-accessible.

The legal crusade is netting her thousands, but Slone, who cannot walk because of polio, insists she is simply championing the rights of the disabled.

“If you think this is a money-making scheme, you’re dead wrong,” said Slone, a speech pathologist. “I, along with anybody else with a disability, has the right to go wherever they choose to go and not have to be dissuaded or inconvenienced or even apologetic.”

Whether or not this is fully accurate, and her motives aren’t quite as pure as she says, doesn’t matter. Her point, that the law entitles her to access in her chair without the “inconvenience” of having to ask for assistance, and provides for damages if she can’t.

Last month alone, Slone filed papers against eight shops on or near Columbus Avenue, aiming to force them to install ramps and other accessible features.

In each suit, all filed in Manhattan federal court, she demands $500 in damages, plus lawyers’ and experts’ fees, which could run up to $15,000.

The problem isn’t that Stone is doing as the law allows, but that the law would require shop keepers and store owners to do what the nature of the Upper West Side precludes.  Whether the indignity of requiring a disabled person to ask for help to enter a store that any able-legged person can enter is great enough to warrant relief is a question that I decline to answer. I have working legs, and thus am not qualified to decide how much indignity another person should rightfully endure.

But I also have two eyes, and can see what this means for the Upper West Side, or any neighborhood built before the time when consideration for disabilities came onto the radar.  It can’t be done.  At least not without such monumental bastardization of what exists as to destroy the beauty, the integrity, even the function of the buildings that line the broad avenues and narrow streets. 

While I can well appreciate the good intentions in trying to make the world available to people with disabilities, to put an end to their second-class citizenship where they must beg for aid to do the things that others do without the slightest thought, it’s far harder to abide the death of everything that existed before.  The only solution to Stone’s issue is the destruction of the Upper West Side, the razing of every structure that defiles access to wheels. 

That would be a tragedy.

Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron keeps running through my mind, the sanitization of our world to eliminate all barriers to absolute equality. 

H/T Walter Olson

4 comments on “The Upper West Side Isn’t Flat

  1. Eric L. Mayer

    BREAKING NEWS: Be on the lookout for SHG. He is underhandicapped and considered extremely dangerous.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    Life is not fair. This is a natural law. The question, then, is how much do we accomodate (as people, as a society, under the law) those who have gotten a raw deal from life? There really isn’t a good answer; but it strikes me that burdening a small group of people (who have committed no offense) with the task of providing accomodation for life’s inequities is equally unfair. ‘Misery loves company’ perhaps?

  3. Todd E.

    I think that this displays a significant issue, to wit: I must be able to operate as an individual devoid of community considerations no matter what, and if I operate as a disabled person, I should be able to do the same. This not only then refuses to take into account the state of our existing communities, but continues to deny that we are all better and stronger as we work together. If the stores in this area are literally built so as to be unable to become wheelchair accessible as they currently exist, would it really harm her to send somebody to go shop there for her, for the stores to be internet accessible, etc.?

    Any time any of us demands that the entire world reshape itself to our needs, especially, we would, I suspect, in the process deny the individuality of others, as well as our existence as social creatures.

  4. Disability Advocate

    In fact, a great wheelchair exists to help climb stairs on the Upper West Side: the iBOT, which was invented by Segway inventor Dean Kamen (it was a precursor to the Segway). Watch this video to see how it worked and climbed stairs [] which is just an example, but seeing it live was incredible. Regrettably, this great stair climbing wheelchair was discontinued because of cost.

    [Ed. Note: Bunch of links deleted per rules.]

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