NEW YORK CITY — Michele Kaplan was born legs first, which she says may have been part of the reason that at age 35, she could no longer walk.
But the official diagnosis is a growing cyst on her cerebellum that she calls the Squatter. Because of the cyst, Kaplan lost her job as an administrative assistant in Manhattan, was forced to go on disability and now uses a wheelchair.
At 37, she is active, organizing with Occupy Wall Street, hanging out in Central Park and spending time with friends. But most of those activities, along with doctor’s appointments at NYU, force her to take the subway from her Gravesend apartment.
And at the limited number of subways that are wheelchair-accessible, she has found that it can be nearly impossible — and at times terrifying — to get on the train. So she's taken up the fight of trying to get the MTA to make the subway system more accessible to people in wheelchairs.
“The elevators make it accessible for me to get to the platform,” she said. “But some trains are so high above the platform that my wheelchair cannot make it onto the train.”
The gap between the platform and the train shouldn't ever be more than 2 inches high and 4 inches wide (a train full of passengers would lower it) in the area of the platform designated for wheelchairs, said MTA spokeswoman Deirdre Parker.
But, according to the Brooklyn Daily, which first reported Kaplan's plight, "the Americans With Disabilities Act stipulates that the difference in height between a train and the platform cannot be more than 5/8 of an inch."
Whether the MTA is in compliance depends on the train, and as Parker noted, the number of passengers on the train.
Sitting at the DeKalb Avenue station on a recent Monday afternoon, Kaplan waited for the train.
The first to pass was approximately six inches above the platform. She didn’t even attempt to board. The next was a little closer, so she backed up her wheelchair, gaining momentum to get past the gap. Her small front tires made it over, but the back tires got stuck.
The third train was also closer to the the platform. Kaplan tried to board, but once again her back tire became stuck. The conductor encouraged her to try again, but fear and frustration drove her to tears.
The train left without her on it.
The fourth train was near the platform, and Kaplan easily glided on. After nearly 45 minutes on the platform, she was finally able to leave the station.
“This happens all the time,” she said. “After a long day it’s the worst, because I never know what time I’ll get home.”
To Kaplan, it can also feel like a traumatic experience. She remembers clearly the first time she got stuck. Scared that the train would leave the station with her still in the gap, she went numb. Passengers helped get her out, but the experience changed her. She can no longer ride the train without fear and anxiety, she said.
Kaplan has friends who had similar experiences and now refuse to ride the train. But she nonetheless fights on.
“The MTA needs to make a change,” she said. “And I will not stop fighting until they do.”
Kaplan began to write emails to the MTA, and she said each one was met with the same response: “Thank you for taking the time to bring this to our attention. We will pass this on to the appropriate supervisors.”
But no one ever got back to her. Months later, on July 10, she had had enough. She started a campaign called “Mind the Gap,” and is determined to get the MTA to listen.
A Tumblr account to document the campaign’s progress includes a petition calling on the MTA to take action. She currently has 366 signatures, and when she reaches 10,000 she plans to deliver it to MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota. Her next step is to get the unions involved.
She wants MTA employees trained to help people in wheelchairs and a ramp to get over the gap.
“I don’t think I am asking too much,” she said. “If nothing else, I am a paying customer and I have the right to get on the train safely.”
But Parker said a ramp would be impossible.
"On the commuter trains, ramps are possible because there's more time between stops," she said. "The time between subway stops, when the doors are open, is just too short for a ramp."