Edith Prentiss, Fierce Voice for New York’s Disabled, Dies at 69


Edith Prentiss, a fierce and fiery advocate for the disabled who fought to make the town she cherished extra navigable for everybody, died on March 16 at her residence within the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She was 69.

The trigger was cardiopulmonary arrest, her brother Andrew Prentiss stated.

In 2004, the town’s taxi fleet had solely three wheelchair-accessible cabs — minivans with ramps — and other people like Ms. Prentiss had a lower than one in 4,000 likelihood of hailing one. “They’re like unicorns,” she advised The New York Times that yr. “You need to be pure to catch one.”

The variety of accessible autos would ultimately inch as much as 231, but it surely took practically a decade and a class-action lawsuit — of which Ms. Prentiss was a plaintiff — earlier than the town’s Taxi and Limousine Commission agreed to make the fleet 50 p.c accessible by 2020. (That deadline was pushed again amid the pandemic and different points; the fleet is now at 30 p.c.)

Ms. Prentiss additionally fought for accessibility on subways and in police stations, eating places and public parks. And she fought for points that didn’t have an effect on her immediately, like people who may impede individuals with psychological, visible, auditory or different disabilities.

When the town held a listening to in 2018 on banning plastic straws, a trigger that may be a darling of environmentalists however not these within the incapacity group, she made positive to collect a bunch and current an opinion. There are those that can not maintain a cup, the group needed to level out, and straws are important instruments to their visiting a restaurant.

At the assembly, group after group testified in favor of the ban. But Ms. Prentiss and her colleagues weren’t known as on.

“It’s laborious to overlook us — the general public are in wheelchairs,” stated Joseph G. Rappaport, govt director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and the communications and technique director of the Taxis for All Campaign, of which Ms. Prentiss was the chair, “but it surely went on and on and eventually Edith had had it. She stated, ‘Hey, we’re right here to talk. We have an opinion about this invoice.’” The group was allowed to talk.

“She labored the within, she labored the angles, and if she needed to yell, that’s what she did,” Mr. Rappaport added. “And she did it nicely.”

She was bristly and relentless and all the time ready. Woe to the town officers who had not stored their promise, or accomplished their homework. She knew to an inch the correct size of a ramp, and the way excessive a curb needs to be lower. She drove her motorized wheelchair as she spoke, with huge confidence, and typically a little bit of intentional recklessness; she was not above using over the toes of these in her means.

Among the various New York City officers to situation statements upon Ms. Prentiss’s dying have been Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, and, in a joint assertion, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

In May, Ms. Prentiss will probably be inducted into the New York State Disability Rights Hall of Fame, and Mr. Calise will seem on the digital ceremony in her place.

“She was sensible,” Ms. Brewer stated in a telephone interview. “She took no prisoners. She disbursed with the niceties, however her coronary heart was so beneficiant.”

Edith Mary Prentiss was born on Feb. 1, 1952, in Central Islip, N.Y., on Long Island. She was considered one of six kids (and the one daughter) of Robert Prentiss, an electrician, and Patricia (Greenwood) Prentiss, a social employee.

Edith was asthmatic, and later diabetic. She started utilizing a wheelchair as soon as her bronchial asthma turned extreme when she was in her late 40s.

After incomes a level in sociology from Stony Brook University on Long Island, she attended the College of Arts and Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Early in her profession, Ms. Prentiss was an outreach caseworker for ARC XVI Fort Washington, a senior providers middle. Working from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, she carried out blood strain screenings and helped older individuals apply for metropolis providers and different advantages. She later labored with Holocaust survivors. Fern Hertzberg, the manager director of ARC, stated Ms. Prentiss’s final job, earlier than she retired in about 2006, was with a bodily remedy middle in her neighborhood.

Ms. Prentiss was president of the 504 Democratic Club, which focuses on incapacity rights, and held positions with many different advocacy teams.

She wasn’t identified only for her bullying methods. Years in the past, Susan Scheer, now chief govt of the Institute for Career Development, an employment and coaching group for the disabled, was a New York City authorities official, and he or she met Ms. Prentiss within the traditional means: being yelled at in varied hearings. Yet when Ms. Scheer, who has spina bifida, started utilizing a wheelchair a couple of decade in the past, she known as Ms. Prentiss for assist. She realized she had no concept navigate from her East Village condominium to her job at City Hall by bus.

“Don’t fear,” she recalled Ms. Prentiss saying. “I’m on my means.” (It did take some time, with the same old impediments, like damaged subway elevators.)

Once there, Ms. Prentiss led Ms. Scheer out of her constructing and thru the snarls of visitors on 14th Street, blocking the autos that menaced them, as she coached Ms. Scheer by means of her first bus launch, which was rocky. As she ping-ponged down the aisle, she ran over the motive force’s toes. “Not your downside,” Ms. Prentiss known as out behind her.

Ms. Prentiss then directed the less-than-enthusiastic driver to safe Ms. Scheer’s chair (drivers usually are not all the time diligent about this step). And because the passengers groaned and rolled their eyes, Ms. Scheer stated, Ms. Prentiss stared them down and introduced: “We are studying right here, people. Let’s be affected person.”

In her intensive travels, her brother Andrew stated, Ms. Prentiss had many visitors accidents and was hit by quite a few autos, together with taxis, a metropolis bus and a FedEx truck. She was usually within the emergency room, but when there was a group board assembly or a metropolis listening to, she made positive to telephone in from the hospital.

In addition to her brother Andrew, Ms. Prentiss is survived by her different brothers, Michael, Robert Anthony, William John and David Neil.

In early January, Ms. Prentiss obtained her first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on the Fort Washington Armory. Needless to say, she had some complaints, as she advised Ms. Hertzberg: The pencils to fill out the well being questionnaire have been the type often called golf pencils, and too small for individuals with sure guide disabilities. The typeface on the questionnaire wasn’t sufficiently big. And the chairs set out within the post-vaccination ready space had no arms, which many individuals want as an help to face up with. She known as the hospital that was administering this system there — and, Ms. Hertzberg stated, you possibly can make sure that it didn’t take lengthy for the issues to be mounted.

For the final three years, Arlene Schulman, a photographer, author and filmmaker, has been engaged on a documentary known as “Edith Prentiss: Hell on Wheels,” a title its topic initially quibbled with. She didn’t assume it was robust sufficient.



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