Fear of Subways

Hanni and me at Chicago bus stop -- on solid ground.Last week I read an essay written by a reporter whose notebook fell into the New York City subway tracks.

Since one train had just left, it would probably be about seven minutes before the next one arrived. At the very least, it would be five minutes. Jumping down to the tracks and picking up the notebook would take no more than a few seconds. So that would leave four minutes to climb back.

The essay was written by Jim Dwyer, and it grabbed my attention. I live in Chicago and am proud (you could even say haughty) of how efficiently I get around the city with my Seeing Eye dog. Hanni and I walk long distances, jump into cabs, ride CTA buses…but we NEVER take the el by ourselves.

During the 1990’s, when I was working with my first Seeing Eye dog Dora, a number of blind people using guide dogs died after falling into subway tracks in Boston and new York City. They fell in, but couldn’t see to find the ladder to get out. This 1993 NY Times story explains how one woman perished:

A blind woman led by a guide dog was killed yesterday when she fell from a midtown subway platform and was struck by a train as she frantically tried to climb back over the platform edge, the transit police said.

“We don’t know how or why, but she apparently slipped over the edge, leaving her dog on the platform,” said Albert W. O’Leary, a transit police spokesman…

Ms. Schneider was killed at 9:18 A.M. after she fell onto the southbound express tracks along the Broadway line. Witnesses said Ms. Schneider got up and tried to find the edge of the platform with her hands as a southbound No. 3 express train roared into the station with its horn blasting.

I am not afraid of much. I am, however, afraid of the el. Plenty of people who use guide dogs take the subway safely back and forth to work every day. I, however, am not one of those courageous blind people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now requires subways to mark platforms with bumpy material to warn blind people away from the edge. But the image of those people stuck in the track still haunts me. Bumps on the platform edges aren’t enough. When it comes to getting around Chicago, Hanni and I keep our feet –and paws – on ground level.

PS: The New York Times reporter who dropped his notebook? He did not climb down to the tracks to retrieve it – he let subway officials do that for him. His essay is very appropriately titled, Celebrating Prudence and a Trip Not Taken.

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10 Responses to “Fear of Subways”


  1. 1 Lin Hunnicutt August 2, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Since I live in the South, namely South Carolina, we have no subways and the last time I was on one, I was with my trainer in New York and he was guiding me. I thought it was horribly confusing and can see how a blind person would not want to do it alone. I know that there are many blind people that do it all of the time and do it successfully, but thankfully I do not have to deal with that and the bueses can be a pain enough.

  2. 2 Maybelle2000 August 2, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Wish you could see what Dawn does to get to work every day! Though I must admit: Chicago platforms are MUCH narrower than NY platforms. (And don’t seem to be as well maintained. “Rickety” is the word I’d use to describe them.) Still, Dawn has no dog, just a cane. And Fred, her hubby, does the same, and in addition, switches from the subway to the Long Island Railroad every day (are you ready?) at 4AM every morning! The nerve of some people! Just when you start feeling haughty and totally fab (me, not you—you ARE totally fab), along come the Whitfields to put you in your hubristic place.

    Everybody—sighted or otherwise— who takes the subway has a healthy respect for its dangers. Or should.

  3. 3 bethfinke August 2, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Love those two words, “healthy respect.” And to be fair to Jim Dwyer, who penned the NY Times, essay, I should say he talked about his healthy respect for the subway in that same essay I quoted: “Few things hold more
    terror for a child raised in New York than subway tracks: they are electric chair and guillotine, screeching steel and scorching voltage, a moat of rancid
    water and darting rodents. The River Styx. Yech. On a personal level, I have been firmly committed for many years to the practice of routine preventive cowardice. Generally speaking, that means I am afraid
    of everything. Not that I would admit that to myself.”

  4. 4 Sarah August 3, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Beth,
    I agree with you about how dangerous the platforms are for the Els. For the last week at GDF we had to learn how to travel using subways and trains. There is a giant process. But the main point that is emphasized is that the dog must be on the one nearest to the edge of the platform. One of the instructors I was working with lived and trained guide handlers in England. He was telling us tha a woman’s dog fell into the tracks and was killed. He’s only known of this happening once and that was in England. So GDF always teaches us to have the dog nearest to the tracks. It’s actually complicated but it is efficient when it comes to knowing where one is. I know when I move into the city, I’ll be using all the transportation available. Even after my first time encounter alone on an El train, I would like to practice more so I won’t be afraid if there is a unfortunate incident.
    On the otherhand, Jim has been home with me for two days now. I haven’t worked him yet, but will tonight. I can’t wait to show him everything. Perhaps I’ll visit Chicago sometime before I return to school.
    Take care,
    Sarah

  5. 5 Beth August 3, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Interesting to hear how the guide dog schools train for subway work. At the Seeing Eye we had the option to go to NYC for a day and work with our dogs, but while I was training with both dogs (Dora, and then with Hanni) we lived in smalltown Urbana, IL. “I’ll never need to know how to get on a subway,” I reasoned. I did not go on the trip to NYC.
    Silly me. It wasn’t long after I trained with Hanni that…we moved to Chicago!
    Glad you are home safe and sound with Jim, Sarah. I know you’ll be going to school in DeKalb, IL this fall, but tell me: where do you live? How far are you from Chicago?

  6. 6 Enna August 3, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Oh man I am not blind and I am afraid of falling onto L Tracks. If nothing else, which of those rails is the electric one???

  7. 7 Beth August 3, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Interestingly enough, I had originally planned on including information about that “third rail” in my blog post, but edited it out. My thought was that yikes, what I’d written was already scary enough!
    Here, from another NY Times story, (about a 19-year-old woman who died after jumping to the subway tracks to retrieve her cell phone) is a warning from the NY Transit Authority:

    Besides the relatively remote chance of being hit by a train, there is the risk of injury simply climbing down a stark subway platform on to unfamiliar terrain. There is also the threat of the third rail, the deadly steel column that conducts 600 volts of electricity, enough to power subway trains and to electrocute anyone who touches the rail.

  8. 8 Sarah August 4, 2008 at 12:25 am

    I live on campus. *sigh* I really wish I didn’t. I only chose that option because I thought I was going to Study Abroad in the spring. So I would only have to deal with housing for a semester. That’s not an option anymore. So I’m stuck with residence hall hell. It’s not all bad, but I don’t get my feeling of independence in. The food is bearable but not at all healthy. It’s like being fed table scraps from my family who is an hour away.
    Chicago is an hour when one drives. If I only have the option of using public transportation, it takes 3 to 5 hours. I’m hoping to do my clinicals for teaching in Chicago and commute to school. By then, I would like to have my own place. *laugh* It’s quite a bit to think about.

  9. 9 bethfinke August 4, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I’m hoping you get to do your clinicals for teaching
    in Chicago, too — then maybe you and Jim can teac Hanni and me how you ride the subways!

  10. 10 Sarah August 5, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    That would be fun! *smile*
    I’m not sure when I will be back in Chicago hopefully next week sometime.. I return to school either the 20 or earlier. Depends on who I can convince to let me move in early to train Jim on campus.
    Universities can be a pain with stuff like that.


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