A Disability Advocate Moves the MTA

Graduate Student Jessica Murray in front of New York City subway entranceIn January, along with two other activists from Rise and Resist, Ph.D. candidate Jessica Murray (Psychology) gave Andy Byford, the new president of the New York City Transit Authority, a tour of the subway. Murray and her fellow activists wanted to give Byford a firsthand look at the sorts of challenges — from broken elevators to muddled announcements — that people with disabilities face on the city’s transportation system every day.
The ride-along was covered widely in the press, including by The New Yorker, as was Murray’s first interaction with Byford at an MTA committee meeting, when she and other activists gave him a corkboard map of the subway system, with blue pins marking the stations that are wheelchair-accessible and red marking those that are not. The ratio is less than one to four. “There are accessibility deserts,” Murray says. “You see a lot of blue clusters, but then there’s a chokehold, which is the street-to-mezzanine elevator: if that goes out, then all these subway lines that converge at that point are not accessible.”
Murray has worked as a transportation activist for just over a year, but her interest goes back to her time as a student in The Graduate Center’s M.A. Program in Liberal Studies (MALS), where she studied accessibility and wrote her thesis on work-life experience among people with impaired mobility. When she started her doctoral studies, she expanded her focus to include all forms of disability, and in March, she launched Our Mobility — a pilot study of behaviors and experiences on public transportation that was was supported by a Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant from GC Digital Initiatives.
Using the Google Maps’ timeline feature to track participants’ locations, and a second app to record travel diaries, Murray gathered data on how people with a variety of disabilities are experiencing the New York subways and buses. “Audible and visible announcements are not standardized anywhere in the system,” she says. “Bus drivers don’t always announce the stops. One blind woman in the study would walk for miles instead of taking the bus because she was afraid of getting lost.” There are issues for deaf people as well, such as when a train is switched mid-journey to a different line. “They get confused, and it’s hard for them to communicate because the station agent — if there even is a station agent — doesn’t know how to communicate with a deaf person.”
The pilot study had about 20 participants and allowed Murray to work out technical problems. This fall, she plans to expand her study: a new grant will allow her to explore factors affecting whether or not Social Security beneficiaries return to work. “Transportation problems are always in the top three reasons of why they can’t find work,” she says. “But we don’t really know why transportation is a problem, and it’s not like everyone is experiencing the same transportation issues.” Murray is hoping to survey 500 or more people in the New York City area as part of her expanded study. She is also planning a smaller study to test the impact of a training and resource guide that she is developing with help from people who have disabilities and from experts in accessibility.
Murray is often asked about her connection to the issue of disability, possibly because the answer isn’t readily apparent. “There’s a saying that’s been adopted by many disability organizations: Nothing about us without us,” she says. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2005, and since then has experienced flare-ups, which last from a couple of weeks to a few months, when she finds it extremely hard to function.
Before coming to The Graduate Center, she had an entirely different career. She received her undergraduate degree in design from the University of Texas at Austin, and later worked in graphic design and video production. “I was managing a creative team, but I felt like I wasn’t being challenged or fulfilled,” she says. She applied for the MALS program, not entirely sure what she wanted to do, though she was already interested in transportation. A lawsuit against the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission sparked her interest in accessibility issues. Most psychology studies on transportation focus on how people behave in traffic and how they can be convinced to make better choices. Murray decided to work in an area where there is currently little data.
As she starts her new project this fall, Murray, who is also a fellow in The Futures Initiative, plans to keep working as an activist. After her subway ride with Byford, the MTA (which oversees the New York City Transit Authority) invited her to participate in two focus groups on accessibility. Byford has said that accessibility is one of his top four equally important priorities, a sign Murray takes as positive. The corkboard-and-pins map she gave him in January, she notes, allows for the possibility of improvement.

Click here to hear an interview with Murray on The Thought Project, a GC podcast. 

Submitted on: SEP 5, 2018

Category: Diversity | General GC News | Psychology | Student News