I learned very quickly that while New York may be the greatest city in the world, it is not the greatest city for wheelchair access. With so many old buildings, I expected some limitations, but the biggest disappointment was how many places could easily be made wheelchair accessible, yet weren’t. Many restaurants and stores had only one or two steps, but no one had bothered to install a ramp. I nearly flipped over my chair when a puddle at the end of a curb cut turned out to mask a pothole. Taxis, that venerable icon of NYC transportation, are almost never accessible. In fact the city has been sued for deliberately taking steps to avoid providing accessible cabs.
On my second day in NYC, we spent a few hours in Central Park, then decided to take the subway to fulfill the wish I’d made three months ago – seeing the Statue of Liberty. I was accompanied by my assistant, Tamra, and Glenn. We planned ahead and checked for accessible stops, and it appeared that the one closest to the Statue of Liberty would work. Aside from the expected elevator of questionable cleanliness, getting down to the subway platform was no problem. However, there was a large gap between the subway car and the platform, with a 2 inch step to surmount. It took two people to get me in the car, all the while worrying that the doors would shut on us. After changing trains and going through the same process again, we finally got to our stop, only to find out that it was closed for repairs. We had to go almost back to where we started, and take a bus instead.
If you use a wheelchair and are planning on visiting New York City, I suggest taking the bus or driving. The buses are clean and very accessible, although they can get crowded at rush hour. Driving is not as scary as it sounds. I don’t drive myself, but my assistants on all of my trips were able to get us around just fine. Parking is expensive, but available in most places you would like to go.
After our two hour subway and bus odyssey, we finally made it to Battery Park. We decided not to go out to the island, but just take in the statue from Manhattan. It was a cool day, and damp, with a strong breeze off the harbor, but I sat there for a long time looking at the statue, her calm majesty lifting my spirits and filling me with hope and pride. I did it. I’m here. And for the first time in many years, I feel like there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.
We took the bus back, passing Ground Zero, then still under heavy construction, the financial district, and several other famous neighborhoods I’d only seen on TV. I wished I had more time, and decided then and there that I’d be back as soon as I could. After reaching Times Square, we decided to see another show, one that Tamra loved and thought I should see.
Next to Normal is the most moving and powerful musical I’ve ever had the privilege to see. Alice Ripley, who received a Tony award for her performance, plays Diana, a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder. The show tells the story of the tragedy that triggered her illness, and how everyone in the family tries to cope and survive. (Spoiler alert) At the end of the show the character decides to leave her husband, and rebuild her life on her own terms. Tears poured down my face as I watched her make that gut wrenching decision, and realized I needed to make the same choice.
My first visit to New York City ended with learning a profound truth about myself. I needed to be free. Lady Liberty, Diana, even my subway saga had reminded me that freedom isn’t ever easy, but it’s the only thing that makes life worth living. For hundreds of years New York City has been a place where people came to be free. My own great-grandparents were greeted by the statue that inspired me, as they came in search of a better life for themselves and their descendants. They suffered poverty and crossed oceans for me, and now I needed to honor their memory by making the most of that gift. New York is a city that generation after generation, gets into your soul, grabs you and never lets go.