Taking the Train to the Abilities Expo

Image of Abilities Expo LogoI spent a long weekend in New York City last week, and attended the New York Metro Abilities Expo in Edison, New Jersey, on the way up to the city. It was a great experience; I met some old acquaintances from other expos, tried out some new gear, and generally had a good time exploring and poking around the booths and displays.

I’ll be posting off and on about various things I saw, heard and learned there in the months to come. If you’re a regular GearAbility reader, you might have noticed that I’ve been posting a little more irregularly than is usual these last few days — I’ve been organizing the huge quantity of stuff I brought back. Fun, but a lot of work, too.

The expo ran for three days. I was there only on Friday, but the turnout was impressive. I usually prefer going on a weekday since fewer people do, and it’s often easier to move around than it is on weekends. By early afternoon, though, the show was packed. The number of people whipping around in wheelchairs was impressive — a much higher proportion of the attendees than I’ve seen anywhere else.

Image of a SEPTA TrainUsually, I drive to these events, but that wasn’t reasonable this time, since I was going on to New York, and nothing, absolutely nothing, could induce me to drive in Manhattan. I took the train up, and uncharacteristically didn’t quite plan the trip as well as I usually do.

At the station in Edison I discovered a depot manned (literally) by a cheerful Dunkin’ Donuts employee who didn’t speak much English and who had no idea whatever how to get to the convention center. None of the locals hanging around knew, either. All I knew was that it was seven miles away, but that didn’t exactly count as useful information under the circumstances. An errant cabbie rescued me, but it seemed like a close escape.

At the convention center, I discovered that there was amazing amount of courtesy transportation for people who use wheelchairs, including free accessible shuttles to hotels and buses looping from town to the center. It was rather amusing to realize that for once there were plenty of options for people who were using chairs and assistive devices, but absolutely zip for a walker coming in on a train. Impressive!

Image of a New Jersey Transit TrainEven the courtesy shuttles didn’t go to the train station. But that made perfect sense, since there doesn’t seem to be any way to ride either New Jersey Transit or SEPTA using much of any kind of assistive device. Like stationmasters, conductors are scarce, and ramps and wide doorways non-existent. Unless your chair has wings, your chances of making it up the steps into the rail cars are just about zip. Heck, they’re difficult for anybody to climb, even with athletic feet and legs.

SEPTA riders who have disabilities are entitled to buy reduced fare tickets, but that’s about it, at least as far as the trains are concerned. According to the website:

The current fleet of regional rail cars can accommodate mobility devices up to about 27” wide and about 42” long

but I can’t find any information on the website that explains how anybody using them could possibly board trains. Haven’t seen any indications at stations or on trains, either, in spite of fairly extensive travel on various lines. Not that it matters, since most stations aren’t accessible, either.

According to a press release prepared by New Jersey Citizen Action , New Jersey Transit has its own issues:

Shonda Lewis, a resident of Newark who uses a wheelchair, boarded a New Jersey Transit train from Newark to Trenton in the summer of 2005 where the conductors made the bridge plate available for that purpose. Although Ms. Lewis advised the conductors that she would need that same service to disembark at Trenton, no conductor was present to offer that service. When her companion finally brought conductors to her car, they forcibly pulled Ms. Lewis and her wheelchair from the train.


On April 12, 2006, Tyrone Lockett, also of Newark, requested use of the bridge plate to board a New Jersey Transit train from Newark Penn Station to Trenton. The conductor refused his repeated requests insisting he could only get on the train with the physical assistance of the conductor.

and so on. The press release announces a lawsuit, filed in November, 2006. Don’t expect much — both SEPTA (beset by incompetent management and a history of fiscal irresponsibility) and NJT (the same?) — are running at huge deficits. Providing accessibility isn’t gonna be high on either agenda for a long time to come.

Image of SEPTA train from Flickr

Image of NJ Transit train from Flickr