Edith Prentiss, a fierce and ardent disability advocate who fought to make the city she loved more navigable for everyone, died March 16 at her home in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. She was 69 years old.
The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest, his brother Andrew Prentiss said.
In 2004, the city’s taxi fleet had only three wheelchair-accessible taxis – vans with ramps – and people like Ms. Prentiss had less than a 1 in 4,000 chance of hailing one. “They’re like unicorns,” she told The New York Times that year. “You have to be pure to catch one.”
The number of accessible vehicles would eventually reach 231, but it took nearly a decade and a class action lawsuit – of which Ms Prentiss was a complainant – before the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission agreed to make the fleet 50% accessible by 2020 (this deadline has been pushed back amid the pandemic and other issues ; the fleet is now at 30%.)
Ms. Prentiss also fought for accessibility in subways and in police stations, restaurants and public parks. And she fought for issues that didn’t directly affect her, such as those that might bother people with mental, visual, hearing, or other disabilities.
When the city held a hearing in 2018 on the ban on plastic straws, a cause cherished by environmentalists but not those in the disability community, it made sure to assemble a group and present an opinion. There are those who cannot hold a cup, the group wanted to point out, and straws are essential tools for visiting a restaurant.
At the meeting, group after group testified in favor of the ban. But Ms. Prentiss and her colleagues were not approached.
“It’s hard to miss us – most people are in wheelchairs,” said Joseph G. Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and director of communications and strategy for the Taxis for All campaign, of which Ms. Prentiss was the president, “but it went on and on and finally Edith had it. She said, “Hey, we’re here to talk. We have an opinion on this bill. »» The group was allowed to speak.
“She worked the inside, she worked the angles, and if she had to scream, that’s what she did,” Mr. Rappaport added. “And she did it well.
She was bristly and relentless and always prepared. Woe to the city officials who did not keep their promises or do their homework. She knew within an inch the proper length of a ramp and how high a sidewalk should be cut. She drove her motorized wheelchair as she spoke, with great confidence and at times a little intentional recklessness; she was not above straddling the toes of those who stood in her way.
Among the many New York City officials to release statements following Ms. Prentiss’ death were Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and, in a joint statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Victor Calise, commissioner of the mayor’s office for people with disabilities.
In May, Ms. Prentiss will be inducted into the New York State Disability Rights Hall of Fame, and Mr. Calise will appear at the virtual ceremony in her place.
“She was brilliant,” Ms. Brewer said in a telephone interview. “She didn’t take any prisoners. She dispensed with the niceties, but her heart was so generous.
Edith Mary Prentiss was born on February 1, 1952 in Central Islip, New York, on Long Island. She was one of six children (and only daughter) of Robert Prentiss, electrician, and Patricia (Greenwood) Prentiss, social worker.
Edith was asthmatic, then diabetic. She started using a wheelchair after her asthma became severe in her late forties.
After earning a sociology degree from Stony Brook University in Long Island, she attended the College of Arts and Science at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio.
Early in her career, Ms. Prentiss was an outreach worker for ARC XVI Fort Washington, a senior care center. Working at the Port Authority bus station, she performed blood pressure tests and helped elderly people apply for municipal services and other benefits. She then worked with Holocaust survivors. Fern Hertzberg, ARC’s executive director, said Ms Prentiss’ last job, before her retirement around 2006, was at a physiotherapy center in her neighborhood.
Ms. Prentiss has served as president of the 504 Democratic Club, which focuses on the rights of people with disabilities, and has held positions in many other advocacy groups.
She was not known only for her means of intimidation. Years ago Susan Scheer, now CEO of the Institute for Career Development, an employment and training group for people with disabilities, was a New York City government official, and she met Ms. Taught in the usual way: being yelled at during various audiences. . Yet when Ms. Scheer, who suffers from spina bifida, started using a wheelchair about ten years ago, she called Ms. Prentiss for help. She realized that she had no idea how to navigate from her East Village apartment to her work at City Hall by bus.
“Don’t worry,” she recalled Ms. Prentiss, saying. “I am on my way.” (It took a while, with the usual obstacles like broken subway elevators.)
Once there, Ms Prentiss led Ms Scheer out of her apartment building and through the sounds of traffic on 14th Street, blocking vehicles threatening them, as she dragged Ms Scheer through her first shutdown. bus water, which was rocky. As she ping-ponged down the aisle, she ran on the driver’s toes. “It’s not your problem,” Ms. Prentiss shouted from behind her.
Ms Prentiss then ordered the less enthusiastic driver to secure Ms Scheer’s chair (drivers are not always diligent at this stage). And as the passengers moaned and rolled their eyes, Ms Scheer said, Ms Prentiss looked them down and announced, “We are learning here, people. Let’s be patient.
During her many trips, her brother Andrew said, Ms Prentiss has had numerous road accidents and been struck by numerous vehicles, including taxis, a city bus and a FedEx truck. She was in the emergency room a lot, but if there was a community council meeting or town hearing, she made sure to call from the hospital.
In addition to her brother Andrew, Ms. Prentiss is survived by her other brothers, Michael, Robert Anthony, William John and David Neil.
In early January, Ms. Prentiss received her first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at the Fort Washington Armory. Needless to say, she had a few complaints, as she told Ms Hertzberg: The pencils for filling out the health questionnaire were kind of golf pencils and too small for people with certain manual disabilities. The font of the questionnaire was not large enough. And the chairs set up in the post-vaccination waiting area did not have arms, which many people need to stand up. She called the hospital that ran the program there – and, Ms. Hertzberg said, you can be sure it didn’t take long for the issues to be resolved.
For three years, Arlene Schulman, photographer, writer and filmmaker, has been working on a documentary entitled “Edith Prentiss: Hell on Wheels”, a title with which her subject first quibbled. She didn’t think it was strong enough.