Additional reporting by Ann Choi, Clifford Michel and Gabriel Sandoval

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In order to qualify for Access-A-Ride, the MTA’s much maligned paratransit service, New Yorkers with mobility issues must get an in-person assessment at one of six facilities across the city.

But first they need to get through the doors.

None of the locations — two in Brooklyn and one in each of the other boroughs — has automatic doors, a situation that Access-A-Ride users, applicants and advocates for people with disabilities say poses a significant hardship.

“They are heavy doors,” said Judith Mitchell, 64, of Forest Hills, Queens, who uses a walker.

When she visited the assessment center on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park last month, “I had to ask somebody to hold the door for me. Not only is it not accessible, it could be a hazard.”

“It’s like an accident waiting to happen,” Mitchell said.

She also noted that the center’s waiting room was filled with folding chairs without armrests, which advocates say could cause extra discomfort for people with hip and back issues. THE CITY’s survey of the six centers found two others — in Manhattan and Queens — with similar setups.

A bus simulator at an Access-a-Ride assessment center in Queens. Credit: Christine Chung/THE CITY

Mitchell is one of the more than 150,000 New Yorkers who log a total of 12 million rides via the MTA-administered program, which costs nearly $600 million a year.

Most users must renew every five years with an in-person visit to an assessment center where they are tested on their ability to use public transportation.

Tim Minton, an MTA spokesperson, noted the centers are run by at least three different vendors and said “their doors are required to be ADA compliant.”

“We are continually reviewing center logistics in an effort, when contracts are renewed, to provide the most optimal possible customer experience,” said Minton.

‘Ableism All Over’

Advocates and experts said that while the non-automatic doors likely didn’t constitute a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Access-A-Ride was sending the disabled community a clear message.

“That’s Access-A-Ride saying they don’t want us to actually use the service,” said Eman Rimawi, who coordinates an Access-A-Ride improvement campaign for the group New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

The Midwood, Brooklyn Access-a-Ride office, and its heavy doors, on Jan. 17, 2020. Credit: Christine Chung/THE CITY

Rimawi said that the doors were just the latest in a litany of complaints she hears about Access-A-Ride — ranging from poorly trained drivers and inaccessible vehicles showing up for people in wheelchairs, to hours-long waits and customers who never get picked up.

A 2016 report by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office found that nearly 32,000 Access-A-Ride customers had been stranded the previous year and one of the service’s contractors had less than half their rides arrive on time. In 2018, Stringer’s office analyzed 21,000 complaints submitted to Access-A-Ride in 2016 and found that more than 40% were left unresolved past the MTA’s deadlines.

“I’ve been a customer with them for 12 years. That’s always been the feeling I’ve gotten from them — we’re going to make this service so bad that you’re not going to leave your house ever,” said Rimawi, a double amputee who uses a rolling walker.

“It’s ableism all over the place.”

Cold Shoulder

At a Midwood, Brooklyn, Access-A-Ride assessment facility last week, Barbara and Alfonse Spacagna waited in a 20-degree chill on Coney Island Avenue for a vehicle to take them back home to Marine Park.

After a few minutes in the bracing cold, Barbara struggled to push her husband’s wheelchair up a ramp, through a set of solid manual doors, and back into the building’s lobby. Alfonse, 76, has nerve damage and said he’s undergone multiple spine, hip and knee operations.

“She can hardly handle me on level ground, it’s hard,” he said.

Alfonse had come to the facility that day to get recertified. He said that guiding the wheelchair through the facility’s heavy doors was “ridiculous.”

“Nothing here is working right, but it’s better than it was,” said Barbara, 75, adding that they’d been told on the spot that Alfonse’s renewal was granted, rather than waiting the usual three weeks.

A Process People Dread

Applicants for Access-A-Ride are asked to obtain a doctor’s note outlining the nature of their need for the service, which is supposed to provide door-to-door services for $2.75 per ride, the same as a MTA bus or subway trip.

Then, at the assessment centers, applicants are asked to use a simulated bus set-up to try walking a short distance, climbing up bus stairs and then holding onto the railings. Multiple advocates questioned whether these obstacle course exams are even necessary.

“There is so much about the evaluation process that people dread or resent,” said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York.

Dooha added that MTA relies on a “giant bureaucracy” that’s been “created to do silly evaluations on people” instead of trusting doctors’ notes outlining reasons for eligibility.

Advocates said that it was their understanding that applicants were required to visit the assessment center in their home borough. But Minton said there was “flexibility” regarding the choice of location.

A Fraught History

Access-A-Ride service first began in 1990, in the wake of the Americans With Disabilities Act and litigation against the city and MTA, to expand public transportation to people who can’t easily ride buses or subways. The MTA contracts out the work to private van and car operators.

The centers are run by three contractors — Horizon Healthcare Staffing Corp, Metro Urgent Medical Care of Brooklyn and NY Doctors Urgent Care — previously at a cost of at least $18 million to the MTA over the past five years.

The transit agency recently requested an additional $4.3 million to continue these contracts, which cover both paratransit service and handling appeals for reduced fare MetroCard eligibility, for another two years, according to published documents.

None of the firms immediately returned requests for comment Wednesday.

In 2017, the MTA launched a limited pilot program for on-demand rides where a pool of 200 users could hail taxi rides on an app in real time, rather than heed Access-A-Ride’s normal day’s notice requirement.

The pilot later grew to include 1,200 customers, but in December of 2019, the MTA announced intentions to put new restrictions in place, such as limiting the number of monthly rides to 16 and replacing the $2.75 total cost with a $15 subsidy per ride.

Advocates and elected officials plan to hold a news conference Friday to announce new legislation to extend the pilot another year and double the number of users.

Advocates say that Access-A-Ride is crucial in a city where mass transit isn’t easily navigable by people with limited mobility. A 2019 investigation by the New York Times estimated that 550,000 New Yorkers have mobility issues and that two-thirds of them must walk long distances to the nearest accessible subway station.

Said Dooha: “There really needs to be a sea change from the top down that in the biggest matters but also in the smallest ways that they make themselves welcoming to people with disabilities and they make it clear that transportation is for everyone.”

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