It was Christmas Day, a few years ago, and my family planned our annual outing to the movies.
After choosing a Manhattan theater, I invited my mother-in-law and father-in-law along. But for Jon Marshall, any evening out wasn’t simple. Having fought for years against myotonic dystrophy, my father-in-law used a wheelchair to get around.
That Christmas, Jon never made it to the movies. After taking the subway to the stop near the theater, Jon found broken elevators leading to the street level. After getting transit and fire department personnel to help him out of the station, Jon reached the theater only to find its elevators broken, too. Eventually, he and my mother-in-law just headed home.
It was a tiny glimpse into the frustrations hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers experience on a daily basis.
Yet, Jon never gave up trying. He’d go to Broadway or smaller theaters, to the park or beach, to restaurants or his granddaughter’s school for her performances. A former elementary school teacher, he prided himself on maintaining his independence. He’d find joy in the simplest successes, like when someone held a door for him or when he could easily outpace us from his wheelchair as we traveled city sidewalks or the Long Beach boardwalk together. Always laughing, always striving to still do all he loved to do.
Despite progress in the 31 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, it still isn’t easy for many with physical limitations. Old buildings with stairs or stoops, out-of-order elevators, public transit that’s hit or miss, restaurants with that small but insurmountable step at the entranceway, broken sidewalks and grocery aisles narrowed by stacks of unpacked goods. Even doctors’ offices sometimes lack the space, exam tables, and equipment those with disabilities require.
More than two decades ago, I wrote about an East Islip 9-year-old who was confined to a wheelchair, in an apartment complex where the landlord refused to install a ramp. Only after we asked questions did the manager do what should’ve been done all along.
Similar barriers still exist in housing, schools, government, transit, retail, health care and beyond. Part of the problem is cost — especially when renovating older facilities or adding elevators to Long Island Rail Road and New York City subway stations. On transit, in particular, federal infrastructure dollars could help and officials say they’re pushing accessibility improvements forward.
But that’s not the biggest obstacle.
"Until we stop looking at it as optional, and start looking at it as something that we must build into everything we do, we’re going to continue to see the gaps," said Therese Brzezinski, who directs planning and public policy for the Levittown-based Long Island Center for Independent Living. "When somebody is willing to look at the world through somebody else’s lens, that makes such a difference."
Jon Marshall, my remarkable father-in-law, died this month at the age of 73. He battled challenge after challenge with grace, determination, and a smile. Now, I will still see the world through his lens. His laugh, kindness, and persistence will stay with me always. And his memory will live on, in the thousands of children he taught, the generations of family he guided, and in our continued efforts to design a smoother path for those like him, in every clear aisle or sidewalk, in every accessible theater, restaurant, train station or doctor’s office, and in every New Yorker who’s even just willing to hold a door.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall’s opinions are her own.