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Visiting NYC with Special Needs

December 6, 2016 - by Irene Silber
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New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Residents hail from 200 countries and speak at least that many languages. Its rich tapestry includes people of different abilities who successfully live in and easily move around the city.

Visitors with special needs will find the city surprisingly welcoming thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and a civic commitment to accessibility. A must-read is the comprehensive guide published by the Mayor’s office.

Special Needs NYC: Transportation

mobility luxury mercedes sprinter van nyc

You can get around the city in style thanks to High Quality Tours and their new wheelchair-accesible Mercedes Sprinter vans. Unlike other area accessible vans, these have the lifts installed outside of the passenger area, meaning the interiors are more roomy, and clients with special needs will feel more like standard passengers. Fasteners and two sets of seatbelts ensure a ride that's both safe and comfortable. Another great feature of HQT is their private guided sightseeing tours for guests with disabilities in these same safe and comfortable Mercedes Sprinter vans. Call 212-531-1212 to request a quote.

More than 20 percent of New York taxicabs are wheelchair accessible. You can hail them on any street in Manhattan or use a free 24/7 service called Accessible Dispatch. Just dial 311 (the city’s information and service hub), text 646-400-0789, or download the app WOW Taxi (Wheels on Wheels).

From the moment they arrive at the airport, visitors have many accessible transportation options. Go Airlink NYC, Carmel Car & Limousine Service, Dial 7, Gray Line, and Super Shuttle, all have accessible vehicles in their fleets. Just call their customer service numbers to discuss your specific needs.

Uber, a service that sends a car to wherever you are can also connect you to wheelchair-accessible taxicabs through its app. First select the UberT option, then tap WAV.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) operates the largest accessible fleet of buses in the world. All buses have lifts or ramps to take scooters and wheelchairs, and priority seating for the elderly and disabled. Drivers routinely announce upcoming stops, but if you need assistance locating your destination, just ask.

Subways (also operated by the MTA) are the fastest way to get around the city. Currently, 82 stations are accessible with elevators, Tactile-Braille signage, maps, and ticket vending machines. Stations and trains en route announce arrivals and departures, but the audio quality could present challenges for the hard of hearing.

Special Needs NYC: Accommodations

A surprising number of NYC hotels offer accessible accommodations; even those built many years ago. Some with stairs from the street to the entrance have portable ramps that can be put in place upon request. Check prospective hotel websites for specific information or call before booking.

Special Needs NYC: Museums

New York’s many cultural institutions are strongly committed to accessibility. An impressive example is the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which offers a wealth of resources. Among them: multi-sensory experiences for visitors suffering from dementia; early opening times for children with autism; and special programs for learning-disabled and developmentally delayed people of all ages. Voice-interpreted and American Sign Language tours are regularly scheduled, supplemented with audio, video and tactile information guides. Most exhibits are wheelchair accessible, and a virtual tour simulates a visit to those that are not.

At the Guggenheim Museum, you will find large print and Braille brochures, infrared hearing aids, sign language interpreted tours, closed captioning and much more. There are a number of touchable exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, plus special Discovery Squad tours for children on the autism spectrum, assistive listening devices, transcripts of certain shows, and sign language tours.

Special Needs NYC: Sightseeing

One of the best ways to experience NYC is from the water. All publicly operated ferries, including the free Staten Island Ferry, are ADA compliant. Circle Line, New York Water Taxi, Spirit Cruises, and Statue Cruises, are among the private operators with accessible docks and boats that accommodate limited mobility passengers on some decks. Contact them to discuss your specific needs.

Hop on, hop off bus tours take you comfortably to attractions all over the city. Top operators including City Sightseeing, Open Loop, and Gray Line have accessible vehicles and audio narration – some with assistive listening devices. It’s best to contact the individual companies in advance to see which tour and type of vehicle will work best for you.

Special Needs NYC: Entertainment

Many NYC theaters and concert halls were built before accessibility was a concern, but have been retrofitted to offer wheelchair seating. Most provide assistive living devices, and some have ASL interpreted performances. Telecharge sells tickets to many productions, and helpfully includes detailed accessibility information about each theater on its website.

The nonprofit Theatre Development Fund (TDF) distributes seats to visitors who are hard of hearing or deaf, have low vision or are blind, who cannot climb stairs or who require aisle seating or wheelchair locations. Apply for free TDF Accessibility Membership in advance to access the tickets.

Hands On, ( is a nonprofit serving the deaf and hard of hearing community with interpreted performances of Broadway, Off Broadway, Shakespeare in the Park and other productions.

Special Needs NYC: Dining

There are more than 10,000 restaurants in NYC. True, some of them are as small as a closet, with stairs up to the entrance or down to the restrooms. Others are so loud that hearing aid users will be uncomfortable. But many are quiet, commodious, and accessible. Rely on your hotel concierge for dining recommendations.

Special Needs NYC: Athletics

NYC may be the adaptive sports capital of the world. Whether you’re a competitive athlete, a weekend warrior, or a sports-loving spectator, the city has resources for you. See the NYC Sports Commission’s guide “Exercise Your Ability” to learn more. 

Special Needs NYC: Equipment Rental

Medical equipment, including mobility devices, can be delivered to your NYC hotel room. Scootaround will rent you an electric scooter, powerchair or manual wheelchair; and Falk Surgical can supply you with a walker or wheelchair and a multitude of other devices.

A secret weapon for visitors of all abilities is the helpful spirit of New Yorkers. Stereotypes aside, the city’s residents are always eager to assist. Don’t be surprised if you are offered help even if you don’t need it, because New Yorkers love to give advice!

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