Wednesday, January 22, 2003
Disabled riders take issue with some drivers

Anne Nalepa maneuvers her motorized wheelchair
Keith Hodan/Tribune-Review

By Gregor McGavin
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, January 21, 2003

It was below freezing on the December morning when Anne Nalepa decided she'd had enough.

Her teeth already were starting to chatter when the first Port Authority bus passed by the Downtown stop where she waited. By the time the third bus driver said she couldn't board because of a broken wheelchair lift, she'd been there nearly an hour, and "all my muscles had started to tremor from the cold."

"I was so disgusted, I pulled in front of the bus and wouldn't move," said Nalepa, 44, of Millvale.

Such stories abound among disabled residents who rely on Port Authority of Allegheny County buses. They say drivers often pass them by at bus stops or claim that wheelchair lifts and other equipment aren't working. Port Authority officials say the problem is not as bad as Nalepa and others say, but they're stepping up training, nonetheless, teaching drivers how to deal with handicapped passengers.

The training push is part of a continuing effort to improve service for disabled riders, said authority spokesman Bob Grove. He said the training is not in response to complaints.

"What we ask these people to do is call our customer service number. We need to know where they are, what time of day and the bus route in question," Grove said. "We can proceed at that point to begin investigating the problem."

Of the 84,000 monthly calls received at the authority's service line, about 24 complaints come in from disabled riders, Port Authority officials said. About 10 of those complaints come from riders who say that the wheelchair lifts on some buses don't work.

Union officials did not return calls seeking comment.

In Nalepa's case, the incident was resolved after the driver called Port Authority police to remove her from his path. The driver of the next bus that stopped told the disabled woman and the police officer that his wheelchair lift was broken, too.

"I looked at (the officer) and said, 'See what I mean?' Eventually they got me on another bus, but it took one of their police officers to say, 'This is ridiculous,'" Nalepa said.

FOLLOWING THE RULES

Under Port Authority policy, any driver who's unable to pick up a passenger because of a broken lift is to call dispatchers, who then determine whether another wheelchair-accessible bus is due to arrive at the scene within 30 minutes. If not, dispatchers are supposed to have a bus sent to that passenger.

"That system is in place and should be used when there (is) a problem getting on the bus," Grove said.

Disabled riders say that doesn't always happen.
Rob Robertson, 36, of McKeesport, has ridden many buses in the 13 years since a car accident made him a quadriplegic.

"There are some good bus drivers," he said. Other drivers will insist their wheelchair lifts are broken, refusing to even try them, Robertson said.

Drivers are required to inspect their vehicles before taking them from the garage each day. So unless the lift broke down during the driver's shift, he's not being completely truthful, Robertson said.

Some disabled Allegheny County riders say they're passed by as often as 20 percent of the time, but the harder question is why.

Even when they do make it aboard, Robertson and Nalepa said drivers frequently earn them the ire of fellow passengers by moves such as letting them on last, thereby forcing them to wheel their way down crowded aisles.

"I think the perception that people in wheelchairs take a lot of time is so strong that drivers are apt to pass you by," said Nalepa, who's paraplegic, but began using a motorized scooter only after she broke her leg four years ago.

Boarding the bus is about a two-minute operation for Nalepa. For more experienced wheelchair users such as Robertson, it takes half that time. At worst, it's a minor inconvenience for others on the bus, she said.

Nalepa's transit tribulations are rather ironic, given her occupation.

The divorced mother of two girls, 8 and 10, works for the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living in Wilkinsburg, showing other disabled people how to live their lives.

"It's real frustrating when you tell people, 'You can do this,' but you go to do it and you can't," Nalepa said.

"If I told my consumers, they'd never russle up the courage to get out there."

THE LETTER OF THE LAW

Stranding wheelchair-bound passengers isn't just insensitive, it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The act took effect more than a decade ago to protect disabled Americans from discrimination.

"We hear a lot from around the country that people have these kinds of problems," said Brewster Thackeray, a spokesman for the New York-based National Organization on Disability.

A 2000 study by the organization found that 30 percent of disabled people nationwide rated their public transportation options inadequate, or three times the number of non-disabled people who are dissatisfied.

Grove would not comment on any disciplinary action taken against drivers, but he said multiple complaints against drivers have resulted in retraining on serving disabled passengers.

"One of the things we can do, and we have done in the past, is put an undercover rider on the route to make sure that that operator is complying with our ADA policy," Grove said.

To ensure that drivers are serving disabled riders as they should, the authority plans to start putting all operators through a computer-based training program in the spring.

As part of their initial nine-week training course for operating buses and trolleys, drivers are instructed on following federal disability regulations, operating wheelchair lifts and other devices, and otherwise helping disabled riders.

The training program will feature a video put together by authority staff working with members of the Committee for Accessible Transportation, a local advocacy group for disabled commuters.

A CHANGE OF HEART

Grove and other officials tout the transit
agency's record of ADA compliance.
The authority has:

* Equipped all buses with wheelchair lifts and other devices for boarding by disabled passengers.

* Hired two full-time ADA compliance officers.

* Developed new equipment, such as emergency ramps, to be used on older buses on which lifts cannot be manually deployed if they don't work automatically.

The authority was equipping its buses with wheelchair lifts before the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990 to combat discrimination against disabled people in transportation, housing and other areas of daily life.

"Most major transportation (systems) are not nearly at the point where Port Authority is," said Paul O'Hanlon, an attorney who works Downtown with the Disabilities Law Project.

The nonprofit group has offices throughout Pennsylvania and provides free legal help to disabled people, their families and organizations.

O'Hanlon, who uses a wheelchair because of a neuromuscular disease and rides the bus often, said the regular failing of Port Authority drivers he knows of is that they don't call out stops as they're required to under federal law for visually impaired passengers.

"It's an issue that's hard to do any advocacy for, because it's not really the system that's the problem so much as some of the individual drivers that aren't doing what they're supposed to."

Others, however, say the Port Authority is at fault if it doesn't correct the problem.
"I blame the whole authority," said Brenda Dare, a statewide organizer for the Three Rivers center who rides the bus daily and said she's passed by about 20 percent of the time. "It is largely that the drivers are insensitive to the issue, but the union condones that and the authority isn't doing anything about it."

Many disabled people say for all the Port Authority's good intentions, they're convinced their complaints fall on deaf ears.

"You get the apology, but I don't think there's any follow-through," Nalepa said. "How do you legislate a change of heart?"

Gregor McGavin can be reached at gmcgavin@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7844.

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