Learning about Malaysia Goodson’s death sent me into a spiral. All I could do was think about all the Black death that surrounds us, all the time, every day. It stops me in my tracks, and I sit still in it wishing it would disappear and sometimes that it would swallow me too.
On January 28, 2019, twenty-two-year-old Malaysia Goodson of Stamford, Connecticut, was shopping in New York City (NYC) with her one-year-old daughter Rhylee. Malaysia plummeted down the stairs of the 53rd Street and 7th Avenue subway station while carrying her daughter in one arm and her daughter’s stroller in the other (Nash 2021). She was found unconscious and transported to Mount Sinai West, a teaching hospital located eight minutes away on 54th and 10th, where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Mount Sinai is less than fifteen minutes away. How long did it take Malaysia to get there? Who informed her family of her death? How quickly could her family get to her from Connecticut?
New York State Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson, the first white woman coroner for New York City, declared that Goodson did not suffer ‘significant trauma’ from the fall and instead died of pre-existing medical conditions – “cardiac arrhythmia complicating hyperthyroidism with cardiac hypertrophy” (NBC 2019). These autopsy findings pinned cardiovascular disease, a condition the medical-industrial complex often deems “reversible through lifestyle changes” (Gosse 2005), as Malaysia’s cause of death. Goodson’s health condition did not mean death – the undue and unnecessary burden of having to carefully navigate a subway staircase while holding a baby and a stroller did. Sampson passed the blame for Malaysia’s death on to her body, obfuscating where the real responsibility lay. In her refusal to name the lack of American with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant subway stations as Malaysia’s cause of death, Sampson exonerated New York City’s public transportation system and employed the same logic used to discount the deaths of George Floyd and other casualties of police brutality. As Mollow (2017) writes, “Fatphobia is routinely deployed in ways that exacerbate the problem of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans” (105). This too was one of those deaths.
As a Black Dominican girl from the Bronx who traversed New York City for most of my teenage and adult life, I understand how “bodies are ordered” (Cox 28) within space. That mid-to-lower Manhattan location where Malaysia died is a hyper-white (Fessenden and Roberts 2011), hyper-classed space. I wondered if anyone offered to help Malaysia Goodson. Black people are “required to be phantasmically abled in a white supremacist society” (Bailey and Mobley 2019, 22) and social identities are “always already” (Alexander 2004). Did anyone see Malaysia and think she was a person worth helping? We don’t know.
I kept trying to get closer to Malaysia’s death. I looked for a copy of the 911 call placed to alert emergency services about her fall. I was unsuccessful. I contacted Brett B. Chellis, the Deputy Director of the New York Interoperable and Emergency Communications Office, in the late afternoon from Los Angeles. He directed me to call the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) Office of Operation Coordination. I hesitated, then reminded myself that this is what research is and called. The operator told me that 911 audio calls are destroyed after one year and suggested I call the NYPD’s Office of Tapes and Records. She said I might be able to access records of the call if I was granted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which could get me a copy of The Intergraph Computer Aided Dispatch (ICAD) report.
I later learned this automated response system answers emergency calls and shares information between first responders. It was first instituted in 2008 as a multi-year initiative in New York City. Prior to 2008, New York City’s emergency call system resembled the rest of the nation in that emergency calls were handled by independent call centers. NYC Open Data, an online portal that publishes free public data by NYC agencies, has links to ICAD’s call logs for emergency services. When I opened the file, however, much of the data was unusable, with egregious gaps in time, space, and dates. In 2015, a letter audit from NYC Comptroller’s office stated, “Implementation and integration was successful.” I’m unconvinced. Twice I was asked if I was calling from the District Attorney’s office, and both times I said I was conducting independent research. One of the operators asked, “Oh so you for the public?” A convoluted police state incapable of achieving public safety leaves us unable to obtain full transparency or to demand accountability.
We do know that Goodson might have been seen. A 2019 Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) study of single stations grouped by ridership ranked the 53rd and 7th Avenue subway station in the top 20th percentile of a total of 472 subway stations across the city.
161 Yankee Stadium in the Bronx became an ADA-compliant subway station in 2002 and has been my neighborhood train station for twenty-six years. I have seen hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people offer assistance to those going up and down the train stairs with strollers, groceries, kids, rolling backpacks, and wire carts full of miscellaneous items because the elevators were out of service. This is no exaggeration. On an average weekday in 2014, 27,541 people passed through the 161 subway station. Weekday ridership had fallen to 25,642 by 2019, but this key station remained the 44th busiest subway station in the city. Efforts to improve accessibility have nevertheless continued to fall short. According to a 2023 Policy Spotlight Report, only a quarter of subway stations are ADA compliant and 10% of available assistive equipment (elevators and escalators) is out of order at any point in the day. This percentage is likely an undercount because the MTA double counts complex subway stations (Murray 2019).
Most of the information we have about Goodson’s death comes from news outlets. Her death has garnered significant attention and sympathy. A mother tumbling to her death during the end of the holiday season, shielding her child (Nash 2021), has become a stepping-stone for addressing a larger story on accessibility in New York City’s MTA. Malaysia’s death has strengthened existing calls and organizing demands to increase the number of accessible working elevators in public transportation across the city (Dias Rodrigues 2021). When I reviewed the twenty-six articles and nineteen videos about her fall, however, almost none of them mentioned her race.
Christine Serdjenian Yearwood, a pregnant woman and family accessibility advocate, was interviewed by Metro Focus about Goodson’s death. Yearwood explained that “institutional solutions should not fall on riders.” And while I agree, I also feel that we cannot overlook how riders themselves interact with one another. People offering to help others transport themselves and their belongings up and down stairs across hostile infrastructures is key for survival. These passing relationships point to a deeper call for justice that extends beyond engineering. New York City undoubtedly needs more elevators, but small moments of mutual aid should not be trivialized: survival demands solidarity. Volunteering to carry a stroller can help build the community we need to navigate a racial capitalistic, necropolitical (Hong 2015), “post-pandemic” society that treats some of our lives as more valuable than others.
Installing elevators is a material win that aligns with the concept of “universal design,” which “seeks to design built environments to be as accessible as possible from the outset to as many people as possible” (Hamraie  2017, 2). A class action lawsuit in 2021 led by individuals with disabilities and community stakeholder like the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, Bronx Independent Living Services, and Harlem Independent Living Center revealed that “commuters who have high-traffic routes during peak hours may encounter elevator outages 8 to 15 percent of the time.” Access has other dimensions as well. In 2019, the board of the MTA voted to raise the cost of a monthly and unlimited weekly MetroCard by 5%, which undoubtedly impacted the more than 75% of workers of color we now categorize as essential (NYS Comptroller 2020). At the same time, the MTA pledged to “hire 500 police officers to patrol commuter trains, buses, and subway systems” (Chapman and Berger 2020). These decisions deliberately deprioritize the people who keep the city moving. Black and Brown New Yorkers were now paying more for a service that put their dignity and their safety at greater risk.
Some critics call universal design utopian, but abolitionist feminist and sociologist Avery Gordon (2020) reminds us that “thinking in utopian terms is important and necessary for social struggle, for remembering what one fights for, for giving it language and form.” Calls for justice for Malaysia Goodson have taken up the ideals of universal design and must confront its erasures. The station where Malaysia fell to her death has been added to the MTA’s shortlist of stations that will be fast-tracked for capital improvements between 2019 and 2024, which could be called justice. Justice for Malaysia Goodson, however, requires elevators and something else.
Close to 20% of elevators and escalators are managed by third parties, which include developers or other transportation institutions like the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Howard Beach Station (Powers and Sanchez 2023). Elevators and escalators “maintained” by third parties are more likely to be out of order than MTA-managed equipment (Powers and Sanchez 2023). For those who are disabled with limited mobility, New York can already feel like a city of enclosure because of its high rises, numerous staircases, and exorbitant cost of living. Unreliable transportation makes these exclusions worse. Many disabled people are confined to their neighborhood, borough, or block. Some only leave home for doctor’s appointments. On August 1, 2023, federal and state judges ruled that the MTA and NYCTA “discriminated against people with mobility disabilities” and “are required to make sure 95% of stations have elevators by the year 2055” (Welch 2023). In the MTA’s race to meet this legally mandated accessibility requirement and to counter the economic fallout of COVID, they may increasingly turn to public-private partnerships already plagued by poor maintenance and frequent outages to reach their goals. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “When public policies are guided by the objectives of private enterprise… they are clinched in a dance of conflict” (Taylor 2019). The MTA’s entanglement with private enterprise may supply its stations with assistive equipment more quickly, but inadequate service can be as dangerous as none at all.
Conceptualizing justice for Malaysia Goodson as only a call for elevators across MTA subway stations misses what else could be imagined when we think about the ways Black femme bodies affect the production of space (McKittrick 2006). As a Black feminist sociologist, I insist that we ask if anyone is being left behind in our continuous pursuit of an equitable society. Policies that advance disability justice without accounting for race and class lead to an insufficient and inequitable future. But if we engage with disability alongside other political, global, national, interpersonal, policy, and theoretical registers, we can start to imagine something better. Elevators are a start. Justice for Malaysia Goodson and disabled people across New York City demands something more.
Alexander, Elizabeth. 2004. The Black Interior. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
Bailey, Moya, and Izetta Autumn Mobley. 2019. “Work in the Intersections: A Black Feminist Disability Framework.” Gender & Society 33(1): 19-40.
Cox, Meredith Aimee. 2015. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press.
Chapman, Ben and Paul Berger. 2020. “New York Police Department Officers Leave for Better Pay at MTA.” Wall Street Journal. January 21. https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-york-police-department-officersleave-for-better-pay-at-mta-11579615201.
Dias Rodrigues, Victor. 2021. All Riders. PBS. https://www.victordiasrodrigues.com/portfolio-collections/my-portfolio/all-riders.
Fessenden, Ford and Sam Roberts. 2011. “Then as Now – New York’s Shifting Ethnic Mosaic.” New York Times. January 22. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/01/23/nyregion/20110123-nyc-ethnic-neighborhoods-map.html.
Gordon, Avery F., Katherine Hite, and Daniela Jara. 2020. “Haunting and Thinking from the Utopian Margins: Conversation with Avery Gordon.” Memory Studies 13(3): 337-346.
Gosse, P. 2005. “Left Ventricular Hypertrophy – The Problem and Possible Solutions.” Journal of International Medical Research 33 Supplement: 1:3A-11A.
Hamraie, Aimi.  2017. “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design.” Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader, pp. 78-88. Edited by J. Boys. New York: Routledge Press.
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McKittrick, Katherine. 2006. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Metropolitan Transit Authority. 2019. “Subway and Bus Ridership for 2019.” MTA Information. https://new.mta.info/agency/new-york-city-transit/subway-bus-ridership-2019.
Mollow, Anna. 2017. “Unvictimizable: Toward a Fat Black Disability Studies.” African American Review 50(2): 105-121.
Murray, Jessica. 2019. “Even Worse Than Reported: The NYC Subway Is Only 20% Wheelchair Accessible.” Open CUNY. https://opencuny.org/jmurray/2019/02/18/even-worse-than-reported-the-nyc-subway-is-only-21-wheelchair-accessible/
Nash, Jennifer Christine. 2021. Birthing Black Mothers. Durham: Duke University Press.
NBC. 2019. “Cause of Death Released for Mom Found Dead After Falling Down Subway Stairs with Baby in Stroller.” NBC New York. June 11. https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/cause-of-death-released-for-mom-found-dead-after-falling-down-subway-stairs-with-baby-in-stroller/1065267/.
Powers, Keith and Sanchez Ana Pierina. 2023. Out of Order: Focusing on MTA Elevators and Escalators. New York City Council. https://council.nyc.gov/keith-powers/wp-content/uploads/sites/64/2023/02/Policy-Spotlight-MTA-Equipment.pdf.
Stringer, Scott M. 2020. “New York City’s Frontline Workers.” Office of the New York City Comptroller. https://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/letter-audit-report-on-the-implementation-of-the-computer-aided-dispatch-system-by-the-new-york-city-police-department/.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2019. Race For Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
U.S. Court of Appeals. 2020. Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority. August Term, No. 20-1433.
Welch, Chris. 2023. “Subway Accessibility: Disability Advocates Have Praise and Criticism for MTA’s Recent Actions on Elevators.” Fox 5 New York. August 1. https://www.fox5ny.com/news/mta-to-expand-accessibility-in-subway-bus-stations.