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Former Ms. Wheelchair America Struggles with East Village Curbs and Steps

By Serena Solomon | July 16, 2013 6:47am | Updated on July 16, 2013 11:18am
East Village Ride-Along
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

EAST VILLAGE — When Alexandra McArthur gets invited to a party at one of the many East Village bars that have a single step at the entrance, she has a difficult choice to make. 

McArthur, 25, a former Ms. Wheelchair America who has lived in the East Village for the past two years, cannot navigate over the steps that lead to dozens of the neighborhood's restaurants and shops.

"Do I not go and isolate myself from my friends? Or do I ask my friend to move her party elsewhere just for me?" said McArthur, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that weakens her muscles and has put her in a wheelchair for the past six years.

"It is disappointing to me that I can't have the full experience of someone living in the East Village because there are one or two steps and no ramp to get into the restaurant or bar," she added.

As McArthur zipped around the East Village recently in her electric wheelchair, which weighs about 600 pounds with her in it, she pointed out many shops and restaurants with stairs, as well as a handful of corners that don't have curb cuts.

“It is tricky to know, to navigate," McArthur said. "You have to know what curb cuts flood, which ones don’t have a drainage program, which ones are more of a step than a curb cut."

The absence of a curb cut, like at the intersection of East Seventh Street and Avenue A, often forces McArthur to take a block-long detour, just so she can cross the street.

"What do you do? I have gone in the street for quite a while, which is very dangerous," she said. "But if you can't get where you are going, I don't know what it is you are supposed to do."

McArthur, who works as an associate consultant for the Taproot Foundation in TriBeCa and advocates for accessibility in her spare time, added that public transportation is also difficult for her to access. Many of the East Village's subway stations lack elevators, including the Second Avenue F stop, the 6 stop at Astor Place, and the L stop at First and Third avenues.

While McArthur can use the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Access-a-Ride door-to-door van service, she said it's not ideal for those who need to be somewhere on time. The service gives riders a two-hour window for pickup after a passenger requests a ride, which must be booked one to three days in advance, according to McArthur and the MTA's website.

To get to her TriBeCa office, McArthur commutes along the streets in her wheelchair, which takes 30 to 40 minutes each way.

An MTA spokeswoman said 80 subway stations are accessible across the city, and the goal is to add another 20 key stations by 2020, to "provide access to virtually any destination in the city."

The Department of Transportation said more than 90 percent of Manhattan corners now have pedestrian ramps or curb cuts, and the DOT is working to increase that to 100 percent. A DOT spokeswoman encouraged wheelchair users to report curb cuts in disrepair by calling 311.

But even if all of McArthur's transportation problems were solved, she still wouldn't be able to access the many East Village shops and restaurants that have a single step or two at the entrance.

"It doesn't say, 'No wheelchair users allowed,'" she said, "but that is what it looks like to me."

While more than 20 years have passed since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, requiring equal access to "public accommodations" such as stores and restaurants, the law did not set a timeline for businesses to make accessibility changes, said Kleo King, an attorney for the United Spinal Association.

Small business owners are required to make "readily achievable" improvements to accessibility, based on their resources and what they can afford, according to the ADA's website.

King added that if a permanent ramp to a restaurant is out of the question, a portable ramp or food delivery can count as access.

McArthur has had some success in speaking to local business owners and getting them to install a ramp.

When she told workers at burger joint Whitmans, on East Ninth Street at First Avenue, that the single step leading to their restaurant made it impossible for her to eat there, a staff member quickly replied he could make a ramp.

"It took less than an hour," Whitmans manager Nathan Elston said of the makeshift ramp he created. "It is just a couple of pieces of wood, some nails. We essentially just needed to wedge up a plank."

Because of the ramp, McArthur could eat at Whitman's with her family that evening for the first time.

"With a little empathy and creativity, you are able to open doors for people," McArthur said.