Disability in the News:
"Life on wheels an ongoing battle" (Bronx Beat)
February 26, 2007
Esteban Santos Jr. and Nancy Leandro make a dashing couple as they zoom down Park
on the way to work at Independence Care System. Santos, 49, whose legs are withered from spina bifida, has a sturdy upper body from rolling his
wheelchair through the streets of his Bronx River neighborhood. But in the Manhattan morning rush, Santos hitches a ride from Leandro, a petite 40-year-old with cerebral palsy, by
holding onto the back of her motorized wheelchair.
City life for the disabled
has improved since 1990 when a federal law guaranteed wheelchair users
accessibility to public transportation. A lawsuit nearly 10 years ago forced
the Metropolitan Transit Authority to improve Access-a-Ride, the van service
for disabled people. The MTA has installed elevators in five Bronx
subway stations and 25 Manhattan stations. More recently, the
Parks Department hired Victor Calise, its first-ever accessibility coordinator.
From where Santos and Leandro sit,
is still an unnerving place. Daily, they endure the stares of both children and
adults and they miss elevators at Grand Central that are filled with people who
could have taken the stairs. This, however, beats the time they spent 30
minutes trapped in a broken elevator at the Pelham Bay Park subway station. "It
smelled like cheese," Santos said, crinkling his nose,
"and I don't mean cheese you eat. I mean, like, toes!"
And assumptions about
wheelchair users still keep the disabled on the defensive. Bobbi Linn, 56,
founding executive director of the Bronx Independent Living Services, said
despite her master's degree in rehabilitation counseling, people assume she has
a mental handicap just because she's wheelchair-bound. "You can legislate laws," Linn said, "but you can't
Jermaine Deleston, 25, of Morris Heights, who has muscular
dystrophy and is in a wheelchair, goes by the stage name Poppa Wheely. Deleston has been
instrumental in bringing crippled hip-hop, or "krip-hop,"
to the Bronx through his appearances at clubs and
parties. He said his music isn't just about disabled life, but he uses it to
dispel assumptions that black men in wheelchairs are disabled due to violent
lifestyles. "In my music, I let them know that wasn't the case for
me," he said, "and that's not the case with a lot of people."
Wheelchair life moves in slow
motion. It takes Santos and Leandro
two hours to get to work. Their trip should be as simple as 50 minutes on the
No. 6 train, but instead they must take two city buses, a Metro-North train and
another city bus. That keeps them from working a full eight-hour day. And two
weeks ago, when snow made the streets a slushy mess, the couple couldn't even
cross the street.
Calise, the Parks accessibility coordinator who is also a
wheelchair user, wants to make disabled life easier. He hopes to have
wheelchair-accessible softball and football fields in the Bronx by the summer. "We want more people
with disabilities to use our parks," he said. "If someone with a
disability is in a park, people will see they can play sports and do other
things." Calise will also advertise
wheelchair-accessible recreation centers (Hunts Point, St. James and St.
Also new is a 24-hour,
seven-day-a-week hotline that stranded wheelchair users can call for help, said
Michael Harris, campaign coordinator for the Disabled Riders Coalition.
"We get the bulk of our late night emergency calls from the Bronx," he said. Call 800-239-4216 to get
public transportation directions home.
Leandro, however, thinks more needs to be done. As it is, she
prays her wheelchair battery doesn't die every time she goes through a puddle
at the foot of a curb cut. "Most of the disabled people," she said,
"they're on their own."