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Accessible NYC

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Navigating New York City with wheels.

7 Tips for navigating NYC with wheels

The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The Capital of the World. New York City has quite the reputation. While I found the reasons behind its poor reputation for handicap accessibility, I also found that the reputation of its people being rude and hurried is not entirely fair. In fact, while they may seem abrupt at times, I found most people had hearts as big as their city. Don’t worry about attitudes or responses to your disability: everyone was kind and helpful. There are loads of NYC attractions that are ADA… and loads that are not. If you’re planning to hit the city with wheels, here are some things that I learned… so you don’t have to.

1. Leave the car behind

This is terrifying to me. My van is my security blanket. It carries extra snacks, wheels, entertainment… it’s really like an extension of my diaper bag. It’s still not worth trying to drive from spot to spot in the city. Parking in NYC is expensive and sometimes hard to find. The best thing to do is to find a reasonable lot (this is anywhere other than midtown Manhattan), get in early (for the early bird rate – usually by 9AM), and leave it there for the day. Even when traveling with a wheelchair, this is the easiest way to navigate NYC. Throw some extra snacks in your bag and kiss your vehicle goodbye for the day. I used SpotAngels to compare live lot prices and find open spaces.

2. DON’T take the Subway

Yes, some stops are handicap accessible, but it takes a lot of planning and mapping to get where you need to go and you’re counting on nothing being under construction and everything being manned – neither of which is always the case. We were able to hop on a Subway with no trouble. Unfortunately, the accessible exit was only for the northbound train… which wasn’t us. A kind businessman helped us carry the wheelchair up the first flight of steps and a worried mother helped us with the next. Because of the stops we weren’t able to use, we ended up walking further than if we’d just skipped the Subway altogether. If you really insist upon using the Subway, here’s an easy to read list of accessible stops near top attractions.

3. DO take the bus

I was worried about this after our Subway experience, but it was SO easy. Each stop has a map showing where that bus is headed. The island is long and skinny, so half the time you can just go straight, anyway. At this point in time, there’s no such thing as a bus without a driver, so there is always someone available to answer any questions and to help with loading and unloading as necessary. We met some remarkable drivers who, instead of making us feel like we were wasting their precious time, rolled out the red carpet… or the wheelchair ramp… and really made us feel like royalty. If you’re opposed to the bus, NYC also has wheelchair friendly taxis.

4. Prepare to walk

This is true of any big city. Even when you catch the bus, there will still be a lot of walking within and between locations. Jaden uses a manual wheelchair, but his arms got pretty tired. My other two have fully functional legs, but those got tired, too. I ended up pushing the wheelchair and carrying a child. Obviously, this depends on the age of your family, but if you have young kids I suggest that you bring enough wheels for everyone and/or plan shorter days.

5. Make a prioritized list -stay flexible

New York City is a big place: don’t expect to see it all in a weekend. We had a plan; but, nothing ever goes according to our plans, so we also had a prioritized list to organize our order of elimination when we had to cut things out. (If you’re a foodie, I suggest you do this for your meals, too!) Our list was:

  • Native American Display
  • A REAL T-Rex skeleton!
  • The many steps leading to the main museum entrance
  • American Museum of Natural History (they have one of the few original specimens of T-rex, so it’s been on our list for a while)
  • Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (this is one you need to book in advance, so we didn’t want to miss it)
  • Brooklyn Bridge and park (a side of New York we’ve never hit)
  • Boating in Central Park
  • Times Square
  • Highline
  • Bonus items, based on time: Sugar Hill Children’s Museum; Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum; 911 Memorial; Dumbo

We only made it through the first three items on our list. I would recommend any of them. You can’t enter the Statue of Liberty without doing steps, but she’s better looking from the outside, anyway. Everything else was easily accessible… if you can get there. The crowds can be intimidating when you’re pushing a wheelchair through, but the only place it was so crowded as to be difficult was right in midtown in the Times Square area.

6. Explore limitless attractions

Don’t let your wheels keep you in. Most of NYC’s major attractions are handicap accessible. The Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge Park, the museums, the memorials, the parks, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Times Square, the shops, the Chrysler Building, The Met, the Broadway Theaters, Radio City Music Hall – all are accessible. The only big-ticket attraction that is not accessible is the Statue of Liberty, but going to Liberty Island was still worthwhile for the view of Lady Liberty.

7. Look up accessible entrances

We didn’t do this, but we should have. We mapped our transportation by main entrances, and ended up doing a lot of extra walking. Those grand museums with pretty steps all have accessible entrances… somewhere far away from the main entrance. The Highline also has separate accessible entrances. Checking in advance could drastically alter your mapped route for an accessible NYC.

I think that covers it! My main word of advice is not to be intimidated. Whatever the city lacked in accessible travel, its people made up for. There was a compassionate person ready to help us with each obstacle we faced. I suggest you know where you’re headed, and take the bus to get there! Enjoy all the sights and foods your heart desires in an accessible NYC!

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