Sunday, September 5, 2010

New York - August 2010


Finding a host in NYC proved to be quite difficult. I guess that happens when you travel to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world during the peak summer months. After sending out close to 100 CS requests (I’m serious!), I finally got an offer from a very nice girl named Rona. She lives in an apartment in Queens with her boyfriend Ross who were both amazing hosts. They are both artists. Rona works at an art museum and Ross makes funky lamps from a home studio.

Rona and Ross having pizza on
Staten Island
Rona and Ross were nice enough to pick me up at LaGuardia Airport, which is very close to their place, on the day of my arrival and I ended up staying with them for most for my of time in NYC. We spent my first night planning out activities I was going to do. She knows the city very well. My sleeping arrangement was an air mattress setup in the living room.

Rona is definitely a foodie and took me out to some of her favourite restaurants in the city. She even made me a hot breakfast every morning! She took good care of me and went out of her way to ensure I was comfortable. Rona was a different host in that she knew a lot about accessibility because her sister had to use a wheelchair for a year. Before I even arrived, she measured the bathroom doorway and let me know about the elevator and no steps to get into the building. The bathroom doorway was too narrow for my chair to fit through, so I had to transfer to an office chair with wheels and used that in the bathroom. It was a little awkward, but I’ve done it before. She was also immensely helpful in planning accessible routes on public transportation (discussed in greater detail below).

After spending a few days with Rona, I had to leave because she had some other friends coming over for a few days, but I asked if it would be alright to come back after they left and she was perfectly fine with that. So I spent the next few days in a hostel in the city and traveled to Philadelphia. When I got back to NYC, Rona and Ross were going to be out of town for a few days, but they just left me a key and let me stay in their place by myself! It’s obvious they completely trusted me. The day after they got back, they drove me to the airport to catch my flight back home. Rona was such an amazing host and she made my first trip to NY a memorable one.


There is only one word to describe the NYC subway system – FRUSTRATING! The subway here is the most difficult to use out of any city I’ve been to. If a subway is simply not accessible (like Montreal), then I can handle that. But when they try to make it accessible and do a half-assed job, then it drives my crazy.

Here are the obstacles you have to overcome when using the NYC subway in a wheelchair:
  1. NYC subway is complex enough for anyone to use, but not every station is accessible. MTA website tells you which ones are.
  2. If a station is accessible, you have to check which lines the elevator goes to. A station can realistically have 6 or 7 lines, and sometimes the elevator doesn’t go to every line.
  3. If you found an accessible station and the line you want to ride, you may only be able to go in one direction because the elevator only goes to one platform.
  4. The process for getting into the station is also cumbersome. You have to swipe your pass, push the turnstile by hand, then go tell the station agent you’ve paid so they can open the emergency exit and let you in. When you leave a station, you also leave through the emergency exit and set off the alarm every time.
  5. The elevators are notorious for breaking down. There’s actually a page on the MTA website that tells you which elevators are broken, but sometimes this list isn’t up to date. I’ve shown up at a station only to find the elevator was broken, but the website didn’t say it was. Plus, the elevator could be out for days, even a week.
  6. Working elevators are difficult to find. They’re usually hidden in a corner somewhere, or at the very end of a platform. You usually have to take multiple elevators and navigating those concourses was not easy. The signage is poor and there are lots of people. Not to mention the dumb-ass, able-bodied people who like to use the elevators when they have two perfectly good legs. The MTA site even has (confusing) instructions on how to find the elevators.

Note: You have to be very careful not to miss your stop. If you do, you could be stuck on that train for a while because there aren’t that many accessible stations for you to get off and ride back. I learned this lesson the hard way.   

I rarely saw a wheelchair user on the subway and I can understand why. I recommend finding the main accessible stations, like Times Square and Grand Central Station, and then planning your trip around that. All of the busses are accessible, so you’ll always have that mode of transportation, but they do move very slowly.

Tip: MTA has reduced fares for disabled people with a medicare card. I’m not American, so I don’t know what these are. I just bought a full fare, 7-day pass. If you pay full fare for the subway, ask the station agent for a return ticket. You get it for free and it’s good for about two months.

I took the Staten Island ferry one day and I loved it. I didn’t even have to take an elevator in the terminals to get on/off the ferry, but there’s no elevator on the ferry itself so you can’t get a view from the top deck.

I decided to spend a few days in Philadelphia and my couchsurfing host there recommended I take the Boltbus. Boltbus was perfect because every bus has a wheelchair lift, so I didn’t have to call 48 hrs in advance and reserve a bus with a lift like you have to do on Greyhound. Boltbus only travels to a few cities right now, but if you can ride with them I highly recommend it.

NYC streets are for the most part ok. There are curb cuts at almost every intersection, but sometimes there isn’t. Crossing streets will definitely require some weaving because of where the curb cuts are located. There are lots of cracks and uneven sidewalks congested with lots of people.
I found NYC curbs to be lower than other cities – around half a foot maybe. If you can get some speed, you can hop up these curbs no problem as I did many times.


I stayed for a couple of nights at the YMCA Vanderbilt. It is somewhere between a hostel and a hotel. It’s located about 5 blocks from Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan which makes it an ideal place to stay if you’re traveling mostly on foot. I paid only $125/night including all taxes and membership fee.

There are two elevators. Actually, I remember one breaking down, but it was fixed within a few hours. I wished MTA was like that! I stayed in a large private room, but there are only a few so book early. To my surprise the washrooms had a large wheelchair stall with handle bars, and there was even a private shower room (ie: one big room for one person to shower) with shower stool. The hotel wasn’t designated as ADA, but it was perfectly accessible for me.


The Temple of Dendur in
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the nicest art museums I have ever been to. Admission is by donation, but if all you donate is a dollar, no one will stop you. The accessible entrance is to the left of the main entrance. There are signs pointing to it. Ask for the official Access Map at the information desk. It will point out all the elevators and accessible washrooms. Most of the exhibits are flat, but to get to the Asian art section, there are stairs. You can reach this area by taking an elevator, but unfortunately for me, it was broken that day so I had to miss out on Asian art which is something I really wanted to see.
My favourite part was the Temple of Dendur. There is a ramp and lift to get up. The staff will have to operate the lift for you. Then there are is one high step to actually go inside.

By far, the best bang for your buck is the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island tours. For $12 you get a ferry ride to both islands. There’s a ramp they lower to get on and off the ferry. On Liberty Island, you get access to the museum and pedestal. The crown is not wheelchair accessible because there are only stairs to go up, but I heard it’s not worth the extra money. You have to wait hours to go up because they only let a few people in at a time, it gets really hot inside, and once you get to the top the viewing windows are small and narrow.

I checked out the museum which I really enjoyed and walked around the park. You can pay for the audio tour, but there are actually free guided tours throughout the day which I think are better. Unfortunately for me, the day I went the elevator to the pedestal was broken, so I didn’t get to see the view from higher up, but I still enjoyed the museum and taking nice photos in front of Miss Liberty.

After that you go to Ellis Island Immigration Museum which I really enjoyed. It’s completely accessible (with working elevators) and it too has free guided tours all day long.

Brooklyn Bridge at dusk
The Brooklyn Bridge is completely accessible, but it’s steep going up and there are lots of people. I would recommend starting your walk across from the Manhattan side. I only went about ¾ of the way across, so I’m not sure what the access is like on the Brooklyn side. What I really like about this bridge is that the pedestrian walkway is above traffic, so you don’t have cars zipping beside you. If it’s the summer, try going at night so it’s not so hot. You’ll get fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline from here.

View of Lower Manhattan from
Empire State Building
I loved the Empire State Building! I’ve never jumped so many lineups in one location before, and there are plenty of them. There’s a lineup to buy tickets, for security, get your picture taken, take the first elevator up, take the second elevator up, and the elevators back down. If you’re in a wheelchair, the ushers whisk you to the front of every line. I felt like a celebrity! When you actually get outside to the viewing deck, there is literally a wall of people. Just tell the usher you want to see and he’ll clear a spot for you. It’s totally awesome!  And the best part – ask for a disabled discount when buying your ticket and get $5 off. You can’t go wrong.

The NBC Studios tour was alright. It was $20 with no discount and lasted about an hour. An usher will take you down the elevator to watch the intro video, and then up the ramp to go through security. After that you’ll take the elevators with the rest of the tour group. If you like TV, I would recommend this tour.

I met Bernard through the
CS groups and we hung
out in Times Square
Times Square is a must, especially at night. There are so many lights that it feels like daytime, even at night. It’s flat everywhere, so you should have no trouble. The hardest part is navigating around the crowds of people.

I only went to one Broadway show, and that was Green Day the Musical at the St. James Theatre. There were no stairs, and therefore no elevator to take, but the wheelchair seating was in the orchestra level at the very back. I was satisfied.

Bethesda Fountain
Central Park is absolutely huge and cannot be explored in just one day, though I tried. There are lots of paved walking paths and roads, but they can be a bit bumpy in some areas. There are also some hard-packed dirt/gravel trails that I didn’t have a problem with in my chair.

Sandra wasn't able to host me, but
she took me to Coney Island
About an hour subway ride from Manhattan is Coney Island. There’s a fair with rides and games, beach, and boardwalk. It’s flat and there are ramps so I didn’t have any trouble. I really liked the boardwalk and pier. It’s made with wooden planks, so the ride is bumpy and will require some extra work. I didn’t ask about beach chairs to get out on the sand. 

I checked out the United Nations one rainy day. The buildings are completely accessible. I didn’t go on a tour because the ticket lineup was very long and it cost like $18 plus a two hour wait for a guided tour.

brisket sandwich at Katz's
People kept telling me to go to Katz Deli. I went there for lunch one day. It’s completely accessible. No steps at all to get in. I paid $15 for a sandwich and I just did not think it was worth it.

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