Edith Prentiss, a bitter and ardent lawyer for the disabled who struggled to make the city she loved more navigable for all, died on March 16 at her home in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She was 69 years old.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said her brother Andrew Prentiss.
In 2004, the city’s taxi fleet had only three wheelchair-accessible taxis – minivans with ramps – and people like Ms. Prentiss had less than one in 4,000 chances of calling one. “They’re like unicorns,” she told the New York Times earlier this year. “You have to be clean to catch one.”
The number of vehicles available would eventually increase to 231, but it took nearly a decade and a class action lawsuit – of which Ms. Prentiss was the plaintiff – before the city’s taxi and limousine commission agreed to make the fleet 50 percent accessible by 2020. (This deadline has been postponed due to the pandemic and other issues; the fleet is now 30 percent.)
Ms. Prentiss also fought for accessibility in subways and in police stations, restaurants and public parks. And she fought on issues that did not directly concern her, such as those that could hinder people with intellectual, visual, acoustic, or other disabilities.
When the city held a hearing in 2018 on banning plastic straws, a thing a favorite of environmentalists but not those in the disabled community, it made sure a group was put together and a statement was made. There are those who cannot hold a cup the group wanted to point out, and straws are an essential tool when visiting a restaurant.
At the meeting, group after group testified in favor of the ban. But Ms. Prentiss and her colleagues were not called.
“It’s hard to miss us – most people are in wheelchairs,” said Joseph G. Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and communications and strategy director of the Taxis for All Campaign. Prentiss was the chair, “but it went on and on and finally Edith had it. She said, “Hey, we’re here to speak. We have an opinion on this bill. ‘“The group was allowed to speak.
“She worked inside, she worked the angles, and when she had to scream, she did,” added Rappaport. “And she did well.”
She was bristle and relentless and always prepared. Woe to the city officials who failed to keep their promises or did their homework. She knew up to an inch how long a ramp was and how high a curb should be cut. She drove her motorized wheelchair while she spoke with tremendous confidence and sometimes a little deliberate recklessness; She wasn’t overwhelmed with riding the toes of anyone in her way.
Among the many New York officials who made statements about Ms. Prentiss’s death were Gale Brewer, President of the Manhattan District, and, in a joint statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Victor Calise, Mayor’s Commissioner for People with Disabilities.
In May, Ms. Prentiss will be inducted into the New York State Hall of Fame for Disability Rights, and Mr. Calise will appear in her place at the virtual ceremony.
“She was brilliant,” Ms. Brewer said in a telephone interview. “She didn’t take any prisoners. She skipped the finer points, but her heart was so generous. “
Edith Mary Prentiss was born on February 1, 1952 in Central Islip, NY, on Long Island. She was one of six children (and the only daughter) of electrician Robert Prentiss and social worker Patricia (Greenwood) Prentiss.
Edith was an asthmatic and later a diabetic. She started using a wheelchair when her asthma became severe when she was in her late 40s.
After graduating from Stony Brook University on Long Island with a degree in sociology, she attended the College of Art and Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Early in her career, Ms. Prentiss was an outreach clerk for ARC XVI Fort Washington, a senior services center. She worked at the Port Authority’s bus station, doing blood pressure tests, and helping elderly people apply for city services and other benefits. She later worked with Holocaust survivors. Fern Hertzberg, the executive director of ARC, said Ms. Prentiss’ last job before she retired around 2006 was at a physical therapy center in her neighborhood.
Ms. Prentiss was president of the 504 Democratic Club, which focuses on disability rights, and has held positions with many other interest groups.
She wasn’t just known for her methods of bullying. Years ago Susan Scheer, now the executive director of the Institute for Career Development, an employment and training group for the disabled, was a government official in New York City. She met Ms. Prentiss the usual way: she was yelled at in various hearings. But when Ms. Scheer, who suffers from spina bifida, started using a wheelchair about a decade ago, she called Ms. Prentiss for help. She realized she had no idea how to navigate the bus from her East Village apartment to her town hall job.
“Don’t worry,” she remembered Ms. Prentiss. “I am on the way.” (It took a while, with the usual obstacles like broken subway elevators.)
Once there, Ms. Prentiss led Ms. Scheer out of her building and through the growl of traffic on 14th Street, blocking the vehicles that threatened her as she trained Ms. Scheer through her first bus launch which was rocky. As she ping-pong down the aisle, she ran over the driver’s toes. “Not your problem,” Mrs. Prentiss called from behind her.
Ms. Prentiss then instructed the less enthusiastic driver to secure Ms. Scheer’s chair (the drivers are not always diligent at this step). And when the passengers groaned and rolled their eyes, said Ms. Scheer, Ms. Prentiss stared at them and announced: “We’re learning here, folks. Let’s be patient. “
On her extensive travels, her brother Andrew said, Ms. Prentiss has had many road 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 hearing in town, she made sure to call from the hospital.
In addition to her brother Andrew, her other brothers Michael, Robert Anthony, William John and David Neil survive Mrs. Prentiss.
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 discomfort when she told Ms. Hertzberg: The pens used to fill out the health questionnaire were known as golf pens and were too small for people with certain manual disabilities. The writing on the questionnaire wasn’t big enough. And the chairs in the waiting area after the vaccination didn’t have arms that many people can use to stand up. She called the hospital that administered the program there – and Ms. Hertzberg said you can be sure that it would not take long to fix the problems.
For the past three years, photographer, writer, and filmmaker Arlene Schulman has been working on a documentary entitled “Edith Prentiss: Hell on Wheels,” a title that originally addressed the subject. She didn’t think it was strong enough.
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