An Englishman in New York

An Englishman in New York

Just like Sting before him, Paul Carter finds elements of life state-side, and in particular as it is lived in New York City, somewhat alien.

This is the first of two Backlash dispatches from New York City. I’m in the Big Apple on a volunteering project for the summer, I haven’t had a midlife crisis and joined a cult – though at times it certainly feels like it.

Disability is weird here. That’s my professional, journalistic (ahem) verdict – weird. I can’t quite put my arm on it but the whole vibe feels very confused. There are some areas that feel forward-thinking, while some scenarios make me feel like I’m in the 1980s. By that I mean backward in equality terms, not that I was dressed like an Australian’s nightmare with bad hair.

In some respects it’s streets ahead – literally. The odds feel slightly more weighted in your favour that you’re at least going to be able to get in and around a shop or a building – elevators are ubiquitous and level access quite common.

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not Crippley Land by any stretch of the imagination. In between the many fantastically accessible places there are lots of buildings and streets that, like home, are a result of their time and remain pretty inaccessible. There are also some elements that seem really confusing. I’ve been to a number of places now that don’t have separate accessible toilets – they’ll be part of the gents or the ladies. That means, in practice, a slightly bigger cubicle – there are no extra hand rails or such like to speak of. In equality terms, part of me first looked at this as a step forward. But then I thought again and the penny dropped – they were expecting someone to be helping us.

It was only after a couple of weeks here that I clocked that a lot of the mentality around disability remains ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. I should stress that I mean in how ‘officialdom’ – for want of a better phrase – treats disability. The people here have been nothing short of fantastic in their attitudes.

What really brought this home was seeing my first wheelchair user board a bus – a young girl who had broken her leg. Now, I don’t know if anyone reading this has ever taken ‘accessible transport’ but the whole bizarre experience had the whole feel of something a bit like that. Back in the day I used to get picked up for school by a big yellow/orange bus with an ‘escort’ (not that kind don’t worry, this isn’t one for Yewtree) who used to get out these big straps and clamps (seriously, stop it) and secure all the wheelchairs in place. This is precisely what the bus driver has to do here – he gets out of his little bomb-proof box, folds up a bank of seats and starts strapping in. It’s oddly time-consuming. In a strange way that encapsulates a little how the state-side of things feels here. Like we wouldn’t dream of being expected to, you know, travel independently or take a crap.

What’s super strange is that this doesn’t fit with my experience of a single person I’ve met who have all been super clued up. Maybe this schism just needs time to naturally right itself, but considering the five year head start on legislation, it’s certainly, as I say, weird.

My biggest access issue is though, perhaps unsurprisingly, the bars. Many – and I mean many – have literally nowhere to sit that aren’t really tall stools, and usually the bar counter itself is massive resulting in me trying to drag myself up to peer over the counter to see the delights behind, ending up looking more like a fat kid in a sweet shop. I’ve had to learn to cope with it. I’ve already discovered two locals at different ends of the quality scale who have found ways to accommodate me, but that’s another story. Until next time.

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