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


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

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

In 2004, town’s taxi fleet had solely three wheelchair-accessible cabs — minivans with ramps — and other people like Ms. Prentiss had lower than a one in 4,000 probability of hailing one. “They’re like unicorns,” she informed The New York Occasions that 12 months. “It’s a must to be pure to catch one.”

The variety of accessible autos would ultimately inch as much as 231, but it surely took almost a decade and a class-action lawsuit — of which Ms. Prentiss was a plaintiff — earlier than town’s Taxi and Limousine Fee 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 or he fought for points that didn’t have an effect on her straight, like those who would possibly impede individuals with psychological, visible, auditory or different disabilities.

When town held a listening to in 2018 on banning plastic straws, a trigger expensive to environmentalists however to not the incapacity group, she made certain to assemble a gaggle and current an opinion. There are those that can not maintain a cup, the group wished to level out, and straws are important instruments to their visiting a restaurant.

On the assembly, group after group testified in favor of the ban. However Ms. Prentiss and her colleagues weren’t referred to as on.

“It’s exhausting to overlook us — the general public are in wheelchairs,” stated Joseph G. Rappaport, govt director of the Brooklyn Middle for Independence of the Disabled and the communications and technique director of the Taxis for All Marketing 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’ve got 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 or he did it nicely.”

She was bristly and relentless and at all times ready. Woe to town officers who had not stored their promise, or carried out their homework. She knew to an inch the correct size of a ramp, and the way excessive a curb ought to be reduce. She drove her motorized wheelchair as she spoke, with monumental confidence, and typically a little bit of intentional recklessness; she was not above driving over the toes of these in her means.

Among the many many New York Metropolis officers to subject statements on Ms. Prentiss’s demise have been Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, and, in a joint assertion, Mayor Invoice de Blasio and Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor’s Workplace for Folks with Disabilities.

In Could, Ms. Prentiss shall be inducted into the New York State Incapacity Rights Corridor of Fame, and Mr. Calise will seem on the digital ceremony in her place.

“She was sensible,” Ms. Brewer stated in a cellphone interview. “She took no prisoners. She allotted 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 Lengthy Island. She was one in every of six youngsters (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 College on Lengthy Island, she attended the School of Arts and Science at Miami College in Ohio.

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

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

She wasn’t recognized only for her strong-arm methods. Years in the past, Susan Scheer, now chief govt of the Institute for Profession Improvement, an employment and coaching group for the disabled, was a New York Metropolis authorities official, and she or he met Ms. Prentiss within the regular means: being yelled at in hearings. But when Ms. Scheer, who has spina bifida, started utilizing a wheelchair a couple of decade in the past, she referred to as Ms. Prentiss for assist. She realized that she had no concept the best way to navigate from her East Village residence to her job at Metropolis Corridor 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.)

As soon as there, Ms. Prentiss led Ms. Scheer out of her constructing and thru the snarls of site visitors on 14th Avenue, 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 referred to as out behind her.

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

In her in depth travels, her brother Andrew stated, Ms. Prentiss had many site 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 certain to cellphone in from the hospital.

Along with her brother Andrew, she 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. Evidently, she had some complaints, as she informed 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 handbook disabilities. The typeface on the questionnaire wasn’t large enough. 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 referred to as the hospital that was administering this system there — and, Ms. Hertzberg stated, you’ll be able to ensure 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 referred to 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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