Tackling Inaccessibility in Seattle & NYC: My Travels on 4 Wheels

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Nighttime view of the Space Needle in Seattle, WA.

This month has been full of so many phenomenal things.  September is a special time for me for two reasons:  my birthday and the start of autumn.  

For both my birthday and the season changing, I was bi-coastal – I spent the first full week in celebrating year 32 in Seattle and then set off to tackle the Big Apple.  

Seattle allowed me to be in the same place with every member of the Rooted in Rights team, and boy, did we have a blast.  Of course, there was work to be done, but it was nice to finally be able to see everyone that I have gotten to know since I took the position as Digital Manager in May.  Seattle was giving fall vibes before the season came to be; vastly different from the 80+ degrees I was enjoying in South Carolina.  

Photo of me smiling into the camera with the best pizza of my life plated in front of me. Who knew Seattle had good pizza?!?!

Right when I came back home this past Sunday, I got a day to breathe before I was jet-setting to NYC to speak on a panel for NYU School of Law.  The panel was made up of 4 individuals who discussed the complications of employment and disability, and provided real-life examples of how systemic barriers hinder our community.  I was very proud of the responses I received regarding what I shared about SSI, Voc Rehab, how we view productivity and worthiness, the disparities of disabled people of color and unemployment, and my own experiences in seeking employment.  What made me feel as if I did a good job was the responses from actually disabled people who attended the event – what I shared pertained to the issues and challenges they also endured in gaining employment in their state and how access has impacted their ability to not only retain work, but also supports in education and transportation.  

Snapshot of the image of the program for the NYU School of Law event. My photo plus biography information are provided.

Wheelchair User Woes

One of the things I love and hate about traveling is the constant worry about accessibility, particularly navigating an unfamiliar area and not knowing what is or is not wheelchair friendly.  In both Seattle and NYC, I encountered inaccessibility that looked differently due to the structural makeup of the areas and how much of a “priority” has been given to be accessible.  

What were the differences I encountered?  

Inaccessibility Throws A Monkey Wrench In My Plans Every Time

For Seattle, two words:  steep inclines.  I cannot explain how it feels to be falling forward due to gravity… when you’re not falling at all.  As a manual wheelchair user, I am pretty good at handling myself with hills, but these were not normal hills – these were man-made death traps.  I knew it was a setup when a colleague and I have been discussing how bad the inclines were since this trip had been planned.  

I was not ready.  

Thankfully, I did have assistance the first day these inclines were tackled, but it left me leery of venturing out on my own after that.  I mainly took Uber or the accessible cab service for the rest of the trip, and luckily had my friend Dara Baldwin with me when we explored the city.  Seattle has beautiful views of its harbor, but it is not so nice on these 4 wheels of mine.  

Me & Dara Baldwin in front of the Public Market Center in Seattle, WA.

NYC did not have the steep hills, but did have cracked, jadad sidewalks that welcomed this Southern belle with open arms.  As I learned from a friend, I definitely was not in the “touristy” part of NYC – I saw the REAL NYC, lol.  

Being from the South, I have seen many areas redesign their sidewalks to make it more accessible.  Even in my hometown, the downtown area has been renovated and the sidewalks are navigable without many issues.  

In the area I was traveled with a friend after the panel event, the sidewalks were a mess.  The crowded sidewalks did not bother me much – I am used to walkers (what I call those who do not use assistive devices) being in my way.  However, it was the broken and/or raised areas in the sidewalks that got to me and had to wheel around.  Also, finding the curb cuts was a challenge since they were not colored in some areas.  (This was also an issue I saw in Seattle, particularly in the areas that were not downtown.)  Having the curb cuts colored with a bright color makes them easier to spot and helps us determine which way to go in crossing the street.  This may seem like a minor detail to you as a walker, but to someone like me (and many others), this feature means a great deal.  

The one thing both cities had in common was me encountering wheelchair inaccessible venues.  In Seattle, I tweeted to Subway about the huge step in one of its establishments that was near my hotel.  For a chain like Subway, it was indeed unacceptable and upsetting to not be able to patron with ease.  In 2017, I should not have to stay in the doorway to have my order fulfilled because of a step.

In NYC, the Italian restaurant we chose to dine at also had a huge step.  Though I am not a fan of being picked up, I did allow it because I felt safe in the moment.  The staff was nice and took good care of us while we were there, so that was a bonus for me.  

Refusing to be Second-Class Because of Accessibility Issues

Yes, I did frequent these places because their lack of thought to include people like me is not going to prevent me from living my life as I desire.  Your steps will not keep me out – I will make you find a way to serve me as a patron.  27 years after the ADA, and now with the ADA being threatened with the HR620 bill, and I am STILL fighting to get in and be recognized.  Let that sink in.  

Traveling to other parts of the country has, and will, afforded me to examine how cities and towns have or have not prioritized being ADA compliant.  I plan to document my traveling adventures on here and on Patreon (which will be up soon!) because I will be leaving tire treads in many cities in the upcoming year.  

Despite the headaches of travel when it comes to getting around, I am fortunate to now have the chance to see the world up close and personal.  Nothing, not even raggedy behind sidewalks or inconveniently placed steps, can take those awe moments away from me.

Get ready – these wheels may be coming to a city near you.   

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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