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Death of mother in subway highlights caregiver accessibility issues

By Samantha Maldonado
01/30/2019 05:00 AM EDT

A young mother died Monday night after falling down a subway-station staircase with her one-year-old daughter, a tragedy that advocates say highlights a rarely-discussed issue: the subway system's inaccessibility to caregivers toting babies, and their accoutrements.

Malaysia Goodson, 22, died after falling down stairs at the Seventh Avenue subway station, located at 53rd Street. She was reportedly seen entering the station with her child in a stroller.

Like roughly three-quarters of subway stations in New York City, the Seventh Avenue station has no elevator.

"It's really sad because it was avoidable," said Christine Serdjenian Yearwood, CEO and founder of UP-STAND, a group that advocates for accommodations for pregnant people and families with children. "We've known this was a problem."

Yearwood described how hard it was to move around the city when she had her children — now a 4-year-old and an 11-month-old — and said she heard stories of women with strollers and children heading to the hospital with injuries from falling down subway stairs. She said she wanted to bring maternal needs, often left to be handled by individuals, to the forefront of the accessibility debate.

While wheelchair accessibility has become a major issue in the debate about how to improve New York's subway system, the plight of caregivers is frequently overlooked as a constituency because of the limited time people spend pregnant or caring for young children, Yearwood said — and because many lawmakers haven't been pregnant or relate to being a caregiver.

Instead of treating giving up seats or offering help with strollers as courtesies, she said, "the MTA should be institutionalizing policies that make it a safer and more accessible ride for a lot of their customers."

"It's nearly impossible to go far around the city with a stroller," said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation and a mother of two children. "Being a caretaker on New York public transportation is physically and economically tolling, to say the least."

Based on national statistics, mothers are the primary caretakers in 75 percent of families in the U.S., and Kaufman presumes the same to be true in New York City. In a study she co-authored last year, Kaufman estimated that the "pink tax," or additional cost levied on women caregivers in New York City, could reach up to $100 per month on top of regular travel expenses.

"You spend more money than you'd like to end up taking a taxi or bank on the kindness of strangers to help you up the stairs," Kaufman said. Moving around requires physical effort, and the costs of different strollers — from sport utility strollers for long walks and snow, to lighter-weight umbrella strollers to take on the bus — can add up quickly.

Sarah Feinberg, a former federal railroad administrator and chief of staff at the Department of Transportation, said she used to imagine how she might navigate a train or subway station in a wheelchair, and when she had her daughter, now 15 months old, that became more of a reality.

Feinberg said she prefers to put her child on a train or subway than in a car for safety reasons, and while she appreciates when a stranger offers to help carry her stroller in the subway, the experience can also be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking.

"This isn't a problem specific to New York City or the New York City transit system or a problem specific to parents or caregivers with young children," Feinberg added. "It's an issue across the country and it's high time the Americans with Disabilities Act be fully implemented."

Accessibility advocates for the disabled agree that Goodson's death was unnecessary and preventable. The need for working elevators in subway stations is urgent and will only become more so as the population ages, they said.

"Other mothers and fathers are at risk, and people with disabilities are, as well," said Joseph Rappaport, executive director at the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled.

The MTA issued a statement calling Goodson's death "an absolutely heartbreaking incident." The MTA, Medical Examiner's Office and New York Police Department will investigate her death, as it's not clear whether she died as a result of the impact of the fall or other medical conditions.

"Whether she did or not is irrelevant to the fact that we have an inexcusable lack of access for people who cannot take stairs," Kaufman said.

As part of the MTA's Fast Forward Plan, New York City Transit President Andy Byford has promised that in five years, no one will be more than two stops from a station with an elevator — which would mean adding "up to 50 elevators," according to an MTA statement. To achieve that goal, he appointed Alex Elegudin as the agency's first accessibility chief.

"Everybody will benefit one way or another from a fully accessible subway system, that's no question," Rappaport said.


This article originally appeared in POLITICO Pro.

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