When Henry Ludmer had to undergo an assessment to determine whether he was eligible for Access-A-Ride’s paratransit service following a 2017 hip replacement several years ago, he went to a walk-in clinic just a few minutes from his West Village apartment.

But the 81-year-old’s scheduled recertification this spring was anything but close to home: The MTA directed him to an address 27 miles away — on the South Shore of Staten Island.

“That’s a long trip, you wouldn’t go there unless you’re getting married or going to your best friend’s funeral,” Ludmer told THE CITY. “It’s absurd.”

While Access-A-Ride’s assessment requirements have long been a sore point for paratransit users — many with limited mobility — there are now fewer location options for screenings, and none in Manhattan.

A West 13th Street assessment center last performed screenings in January 2022, an MTA spokesperson said.

“If you’re in Manhattan, there’s no place to go in Manhattan,” said Joseph Rappaport, executive director at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. “So they send you on a ‘tour de boroughs.’”

What is Access-A-Ride and Who is Eligible?

The MTA-run Access-A-Ride offers paratransit service to anyone who has proven needs that meet the requirements of the federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Here’s how to find out if you’re eligible and apply, according to the MTA:

  • Call (877) 337-2017 to schedule an appointment at an Access-A-Ride assessment center. Translation services and a relay for deaf or hard of hearing callers is available.
  • Complete an application, which will be mailed to you after you make your appointment with an assessment center.
  • Go to your physical assessment appointment where you “will have a personal interview with a healthcare professional and undergo functional testing as appropriate,” the MTA says.
  • A decision about your qualifications for paratransit service should be mailed to you. If you are denied, you have 60 days from when you are notified to appeal the decision. That form can be found here.

— Rachel Holliday Smith

MTA spokesperson Kayla Shults said the transit agency is actively looking for a new Manhattan assessment center that is in accordance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the meantime, prospective paratransit users who live in the borough can request to be screened in The Bronx if it is closer to their home, or go to four other centers that are located in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Ludmer said that when he was told a wait for an assessment in Brooklyn could take months, he instead opted out of Access-A-Ride altogether, giving up the door-to-door transportation service that only costs the price of a subway or bus trip.

“This time around, I finally decided not to go to the far side of Staten Island, waste taxpayer money on the trip and a day in my life,” he said. “So for the time being, I just have to walk  everywhere.”

Jumping Through Hoops

Regardless of the distances to get there, advocates for New Yorkers with disabilities say requiring in-person assessments in general is unnecessary and time-consuming, when medical documentation and remote screenings are accepted by other paratransit authorities in the state and around the country.

“We see variations on the theme of people complaining about having to go far or having to wait long,” Ruth Lowenkron, director of disability justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, told THE CITY. “Neither is desirable.”

As part of the assessments, applicants have to demonstrate whether they can go up andor down subway stairs, board a train or bus, and ride or navigate the transit system independently. The MTA’s Access-A-Ride dashboard shows total monthly ridership for the service was just short of 800,000 in February, down from a pandemic-era high of 838,000 last August.

An Access-a-Ride vehicle waits to pick up a passenger on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, May 15, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The MTA adheres to guidelines set by the Federal Transit Administration to limit ADA paratransit eligibility to individuals who meet the regulatory criteria,” Shults said. “In-person interviews and functional assessments are necessary to determine whether a person can perform the tasks needed to use fixed-route service, like subways and buses, independently.”

Individuals who are found to be unable to use buses or subways at all, or whose disability is unlikely to improve, are granted what the MTA calls “continual full eligibility” for Access-A-Ride.

According to the MTA, 50% of all Access-A-Ride customers have continual eligibility. 

Sharon McLennon-Wier, who is blind, told THE CITY that her access to paratransit services in the city expired at the end of March and that she is now waiting for an appointment to be reevaluated for Access-A-Ride eligibility. Until then, she is taking taxis or catching rides from other people.

“I need to go to an assessment center and prove that I am blind — again,” said McLennon-Wier, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York. “I have been blind for decades.”

A Doctor’s Note

A bill introduced in January by Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) would allow individuals with disabilities to bypass in-person recertification assessments and submit documents from a licensed physician showing the need for paratransit service.

“With this bill, we can streamline the process and remove unnecessary hurdles to recertification, an important step forward for everyone,” O’Donnell said in a statement to THE CITY.

“It’s sufficient for all of the municipalities, except New York City,” said Lowenkron. “They all rely on the written documents from the physicians that know the individuals.”

She added that the assessment centers “come at a cost” for the MTA — in December 2021, the agency’s board approved a $23 million, five-year contract for three firms to provide paratransit certification services at assessment centers in The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

A proposed assessment center in Manhattan and one at a second location in Brooklyn were found to be not feasible, MTA documents show. 

Ludmer, who sometimes walks with the help of a cane, said he found the paratransit assessment process to be “preposterous.”

“I’m just out of it, I’ve given up, there is no point,” he said, noting that the re-evaluation seemed unnecessary for someone his age. “As you get older, you’re not going to get better.”