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 folks like Ms. Prentiss had a lower than one in 4,000 likelihood of hailing one. “They’re like unicorns,” she informed The New York Instances that yr. “It’s important to be pure to catch one.”
The variety of accessible automobiles would finally inch as much as 231, nevertheless it took almost a decade and a class-action lawsuit — of which Ms. Prentiss was a plaintiff — earlier than the 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 he or she fought for points that didn’t have an effect on her immediately, like people who may impede folks with psychological, visible, auditory or different disabilities.
When the town held a listening to in 2018 on banning plastic straws, a trigger that could be a darling of environmentalists however not these within the incapacity neighborhood, she made certain to collect a gaggle and current an opinion. There are those that can’t maintain a cup, the group needed 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 known as on.
“It’s arduous 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 strategy director of the Taxis for All Campaign, of which Ms. Prentiss was the chair, “but it went on and on and finally Edith had had it. She said, ‘Hey, we’re here to speak. We have an opinion about this bill.’” The group was allowed to speak.
“She worked the inside, she worked the angles, and if she had to yell, 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 had not kept their promise, or done their homework. She knew to an inch the proper length of a ramp, and how high a curb should be cut. She drove her motorized wheelchair as she spoke, with enormous confidence, and sometimes a bit of intentional recklessness; she was not above riding over the toes of those in her way.
Among the many New York City officials to issue statements upon Ms. Prentiss’s death were Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, 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 phone interview. “She took no prisoners. She dispensed with the niceties, but her heart was so generous.”
Edith Mary Prentiss was born on Feb. 1, 1952, in Central Islip, N.Y., on Long Island. She was one of six children (and the only daughter) of Robert Prentiss, an electrician, and Patricia (Greenwood) Prentiss, a social worker.
Edith was asthmatic, and later diabetic. She began using a wheelchair once her asthma became severe when she was in her late 40s.
After earning a degree 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 career, Ms. Prentiss was an outreach caseworker for ARC XVI Fort Washington, a senior services center. Working from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, she conducted blood pressure screenings and helped older people apply for city services and other benefits. She later worked with Holocaust survivors. Fern Hertzberg, the executive director of ARC, said Ms. Prentiss’s last job, before she retired in about 2006, was with a physical therapy center in her neighborhood.
Ms. Prentiss was president of the 504 Democratic Club, which focuses on disability rights, and held positions with many other advocacy groups.
She wasn’t known just for her bullying ways. Years ago, Susan Scheer, now chief executive of the Institute for Career Development, an employment and training group for the disabled, was a New York City government official, and she met Ms. Prentiss in the usual way: being yelled at in various hearings. Yet when Ms. Scheer, who has spina bifida, began using a wheelchair about a decade ago, she called Ms. Prentiss for help. She realized she had no idea how to navigate from her East Village apartment to her job at City Hall by bus.
“Don’t worry,” she recalled Ms. Prentiss saying. “I’m on my way.” (It did take a while, with the usual impediments, like broken subway elevators.)
Once there, Ms. Prentiss led Ms. Scheer out of her building and through the snarls of traffic on 14th Street, blocking the vehicles that menaced them, as she coached Ms. Scheer through her first bus launch, which was rocky. As she ping-ponged down the aisle, she ran over the driver’s toes. “Not your problem,” Ms. Prentiss called out behind her.
Ms. Prentiss then directed the less-than-enthusiastic driver to secure Ms. Scheer’s chair (drivers are not always diligent about this step). And as the passengers groaned and rolled their eyes, Ms. Scheer said, Ms. Prentiss stared them down and announced: “We are learning here, folks. Let’s be patient.”
In her extensive travels, her brother Andrew said, Ms. Prentiss had many traffic accidents and was hit by numerous vehicles, including taxis, a city bus and a FedEx truck. She was often in the emergency room, but if there was a community board meeting or a city hearing, she made sure to phone in 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 some complaints, as she told Ms. Hertzberg: The pencils to fill out the health questionnaire were the kind known as golf pencils, and too small for people with certain manual disabilities. The typeface on the questionnaire wasn’t big enough. And the chairs set out in the post-vaccination waiting area had no arms, which many people need as an aid to stand up with. She called the hospital that was administering the program there — and, Ms. Hertzberg said, you can be sure that it didn’t take long for the problems to be fixed.
For the last three years, Arlene Schulman, a photographer, writer and filmmaker, has been working on a documentary called “Edith Prentiss: Hell on Wheels,” a title its subject initially quibbled with. She didn’t think it was strong enough.