Protesting in New York about subway accessibility

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn ’98 calls himself “the luckiest unlucky person.” He was a young father of two with a Ph.D. in computer science and a fulfilling and lucrative job at Google’s Manhattan headquarters when, one day in July 2009, he was walking through Central Park and a tree branch fell on him. He was unconscious for a month. With extensive hospital rehab and constant support from loved ones—including Amherst friends—he pulled through, and in 2011 returned to his job, this time as a paraplegic wheelchair user.

Navigating New York in a chair gave him a new perspective on his native city. “I know how the city can work at its best, how it can facilitate getting around with these systems that have been built over time,” he says. But he began to learn from experience that “they weren’t built to get everyone around.”

He suddenly faced the hassle of getting himself and his foldable chair in and out of taxis—if cab drivers would even stop for him at all. In the few subway stations that were supposedly wheelchair-accessible, the elevators were frequently out of service, with no announcements to warn travelers of the problem. He sometimes had to ask strangers or police to carry him up and down the subway stairs. “It’s dangerous. It’s not only humiliating,” he says—and it’s not even an option for those in heavy motorized chairs. (This author confirms that it can be unsanitary, too: on a visit to the city about a decade ago, my own hands and knees got filthy as I crawled up the stairs while a fellow subway patron kindly hoisted up my wheelchair.)

Blair-Goldensohn still had his position at Google and, luckily, his self-described hardheadedness. He started raising disability issues at company meetings, and spending more and more of his time at work on related projects, such as building crowd-sourced accessibility information (“Does the art museum have a stair-free entrance?”) into Google Maps. He collaborated with a colleague who also uses a chair on a demo program for wheelchair-friendly public transit directions—a feature unveiled in Google Maps in March 2018. Now he wonders about the company’s self-driving cars: “Are those going to be wheelchair-accessible? They’d better be.”

Blair-Goldensohn is a co-founder of Rise and Resist’s Elevator Action Group, shown above at a December 2017 rally outside the subway stop near the American Museum of Natural History.

Blair-Goldensohn serves on the East Coast Advisory Board of Disability Rights Advocates, a national nonprofit that has filed an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority and New York City Transit Authority to correct the lack of functional subway-station elevators. (Their similar 2011 case resulted in the installation of an elevator at the Dyckman Street station.) He wrote a March 2017 New York Times op-ed about that inaccessibility, complete with a 360-degree video of his frustrated attempt to use the subway system.

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn ’98

Shortly thereafter, he got involved with a New York City civil liberties organization called Rise and Resist, helping to found its Elevator Action Group, which worked with actor Cynthia Nixon to ensure that disability issues were a part of her 2018 mayoral primary campaign. On their own or in cooperation with other transit advocates, the group holds protest rallies and press conferences, sometimes disrupting MTA board meetings. Blair-Goldensohn says they’re trying to reverse a vicious cycle of invisibility: the general public doesn’t think to address how poorly the subway works for people in wheelchairs, “because you don’t see people in wheelchairs on the subway, because they don’t ride the subway, because it doesn’t work.”

The action group’s slogan? “Elevators Are for Everyone.” This is a nod to the fact that elevators benefit not just the disabled but parents pushing strollers, tourists hauling luggage and countless others. It’s also a declaration that access should be assured for more than just the luckiest.

Duke is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.

Photos by: Pacific Press/Alamy Stock Photo; Emma Cott/New York Times/redux

A Solvable Problem

The lack of safety and accessibility features throughout New York City’s subway system—and the work of activists including Blair-Goldensohn—received additional media attention this winter, after a 22-year-old woman, Malaysia Goodson, fell to her death while trying to carry her daughter’s stroller down the stairs of the Seventh Avenue and West 53rd Street station.

In articles about the Jan. 28 tragedy, The New York Times noted, “Only about a quarter of the subway system’s 472 stations have elevators, and the ones that exist are often out of order,” and quoted Blair-Goldensohn: “It’s a solvable problem,” he said. “It’s about cutting through civic bureaucracy and corruption, but it’s not rocket science—it’s elevators and ramps.”