One afternoon last June, Oakland wheelchair user Oliver Freed got on AC Transit’s 43 line in Berkeley and took his place in the disabled seating area. Freed was careful to thank the driver for letting him board. That way, if the shit hit the fan later, no one could accuse him of being a troublemaker. After all, he knew something the driver didn’t know — that their entire interaction was being secretly recorded on videotape.
Freed was wearing a baseball hat rigged with a spycam, purchased at a San Francisco detective store. He was on the lookout for disability-related violations of AC Transit policy, such as when a driver improperly secures his wheelchair, neglects to ask ahead of time where he will be getting off, or doesn’t call out the stops for passengers with poor or no vision. His hat was ready to record whatever happened.
The resulting tape is fuzzy, but its squiggly black-and-white images clearly show the driver moving toward Freed and putting one of the bus’ shoulder belts across him. That’s when she made her first mistake. The driver disregarded the four wall-mounted straps that are supposed to be used to anchor any wheelchair to the floor. As she returned to her seat, and Freed discovered that he was not secure, he called out, as if in pain, “Driver! You haven’t secured me yet. Driver! The wheelchair is not secured yet!”
The driver calmly returned and tried to anchor Freed according to AC Transit’s official protocol. She yanked a bit at the straps, then claimed that they weren’t working, saying she couldn’t pull them out from the wall.
“Okay,” Freed said loudly into his hat’s microphone. “Driver 31860’s completely refused to put on securement system. … If I slide out into the aisle and hit some child it’ll be your fault, like I almost hit this lady here. … Driver, I’d like you to come back and secure me correctly, please.”
Freed has been in roughly this same situation on many an AC Transit bus. Depending upon which videotaped encounter one watches, sometimes the driver ends up securing Freed properly, and sometimes he ends up securing himself. But on more than one occasion, it has accelerated into a full-fledged confrontation.
On one trip, after a spat with a different female driver, a passenger came forward and told Freed, “Hey, man, quit disrespecting the lady.”
Freed replied, “This lady is disrespecting me!” and then went on to accuse the driver of threatening him. More passengers joined in the argument and, eventually, the police arrived.
Another time, a group of pissed-off passengers actually pulled at Freed’s wheelchair and attempted to eject him from the bus. Four men tried to drag his wheelchair out of its space, but Freed, who has good upper-body strength, firmly clutched a seatback, screaming, “Assault! Assault!”
In several of the videotapes, the bus driver has said something akin to: “You got issues, man.”
Oliver Freed knows he has anger issues. But perhaps he should. After all, he has been fighting AC Transit for more than five years to improve what he sees as its lack of attention to people with disabilities. He keeps a log of the outcome of every one of his bus trips, and has complained to AC Transit administrators on hundreds of occasions. He has served on the agency’s disability board, and been arrested no fewer than five times for causing a nuisance on a bus. His methods may be extreme, but what he shares with many less-combative disabled riders is a belief that AC Transit is not doing its job.
In 2001, Freed sued AC Transit for not complying with the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For that lawsuit he received a settlement of $40,000. He and the district are currently in the middle of a second lawsuit over the same issues, this one for a minimum of $100,000. “Obviously, the first time didn’t do anything,” he said. “They still don’t secure people properly. We are going for a higher amount this time because we mean business.”
Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, bus agencies are required to offer equal transit access to everyone regardless of their physical or mental condition. After all, public transit is the only way that many, if not most, people with wheelchairs, impaired vision, or other conditions can get to work, school, the hospital, or anywhere else that able-bodied people take for granted. AC Transit’s perceived dismissal of their needs has proven to be a big and costly problem for the agency.
Over the last two years, AC Transit has received a staggering volume of criticism from its disabled riders. From January 2002 to November 2003, disabled passengers filed at least 918 complaints with the agency. Roughly one sixth, 151, were from wheelchair users or blind passengers who reported “pass-ups” — incidents in which they say a bus deliberately drove past them without stopping. Complaints such as this one are typical: “Caller states she witnessed this driver pass up an elderly disabled woman.” The woman was with a walker and was “waving frantically for the driver to stop. … Driver had a very nasty attitude.” Another one reads: “Caller states she is in a [wheelchair], and states driver looked at caller straight in the eye, closed door on her and drove off.”
Another 146 riders complained of being unable to board a bus because of broken wheelchair lifts. Given that AC Transit drivers are supposed to ensure that the lifts on their buses are operational before they start their shifts, some disabled passengers believe that drivers often lie when they say their lift isn’t working. Still others complained of waiting for a bus only to be denied service because it already was full, even though no one else on board was in a wheelchair, and able-bodied people were sitting in the area reserved for the disabled.
Perhaps most typical were the 278 accusations involving rude or unaccommodating drivers. “Caller states that after getting on bus, the driver grumbled that she ‘did not know why you people try to ride the bus,'” one read. An alarming number of these allegations sound outright sadistic: “Caller states he is disabled and presented his [disabled ID] card upon boarding, and states driver took it, and punched a hole in it, and then threw it out the window, and then made him exit bus.” Or this one: “Caller states her daughter is 16 yrs old, and every morning the above driver harasses and makes fun of her because she is crippled. The driver let everyone on the bus, closed the doors, then moved the bus forward to make her daughter walk more.”
The result is a climate of bitterness between AC Transit and the disabled community, a culture of mutual recrimination stemming from a document that was supposed to level the playing field: the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Everyone agrees that most drivers do their jobs correctly, but widespread evidence suggests that some deliberately pass up people in wheelchairs, and even more drivers improperly secure them once they are on board. AC Transit officials agree that there are problems with some drivers, but point out that hundreds of disabled people ride the bus each day in safety and comfort. They lay the blame for the agency’s high-visibility problems squarely at the feet of a small number of individual bus drivers — perhaps 5 percent of the force. After all, they argue, no one can stand over all the drivers to make sure they are doing their jobs correctly.
This argument angers disabled riders who have been trying for years to get AC Transit officials to provide them with safe, convenient transportation. They note that even when complaints pile up at the transit agency, drivers seem to face little or no recourse for ignoring the needs of disabled passengers.
When Si Tarlen began driving an AC Transit bus in 1966, disabled passengers’ needs weren’t on the minds of many people besides the disabled themselves. “One time I was on the 51 line up there at College and Ashby, and there was an elderly guy sitting there at the bus stop in a wheelchair,” recalled the 34-year AC Transit veteran. “A few people boarded and got off, and he rolled up to the door and said, ‘Can you take me?’ I looked at him and was tongue-tied. … I didn’t know what in the world to respond to this. And then I looked at him again, and he was just flipping me off.”
It wasn’t until 1978 that AC Transit began seriously contemplating the needs of disabled passengers. That was the year that hundreds of wheelchair users jammed the Transbay Terminal in a rush-hour demonstration, paralyzing the commute. Tarlen remembers it well, because his bus was stuck in the middle of it, surrounded by activists. When the police attempted to arrest the demonstrators, they soon realized that not only were buses unable to accommodate wheelchairs, so too were their paddy wagons and jails. The protesters were let go.
The East Bay’s disabled community has long been one of the most empowered, vocal, and active such populations in the country. Partly because of the effective lobbying of local organizations dedicated to this community, AC Transit was one of the first bus systems in America to add wheelchair lifts to its buses, in 1979.
But becoming handicapped-accessible isn’t as simple as adding ramps or lifts to buses. Once a wheelchair is on a bus, it has to be firmly tethered to the floor just like any other seat or its occupant may roll around or skid. A sudden stop can send the passenger forward and perhaps out of the chair.
In the beginning, AC Transit secured wheelchairs using wheel clamps, which were relatively easy for passengers and drivers to use. Disabled passengers liked the clamps because they could often secure themselves to the bus instead of relying on a bus driver to do it for them. But later, as wheelchair designs evolved, the clamps weren’t always a good fit, and many other types of securements began to appear.
Today, most wheelchair securements involve four hooks and straps attached to the front and back of a chair, along with an optional over-the-shoulder-style seat belt. “When they got rid of the wheel clamps, they got rid of my independence,” Freed complained. “They also put the burden on the bus driver, someone who basically signed up to drive a bus, not be an attendant for disabled people.”
Indeed, since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteed the disabled equal access to public transit, the whole process has become considerably more complicated. A four-point tie-down can be involved and time-consuming. The driver must reach around behind a wheelchair to pick up the hooks, then attach them to the chair at specific points. If a bus is full, or a driver or passenger isn’t physically fit, maneuvering around a chair can be difficult. Also, given the wide variation of wheelchair types, there are at least seven different tie-down scenarios, which can be frustrating for drivers. “Sometimes it was overkill,” recalled AC Transit veteran Tarlen, who now works with blind people, and is therefore sympathetic to both sides of the debate. “You have to secure every single wheel, plus the chair, plus the person in it … all sorts of things that got very obnoxious.”
The challenge that AC Transit drivers face is that slowing down to pick up and load someone in a wheelchair can result in a late bus or lost coffee break. This leads some drivers to resent disabled passengers, Tarlen said: “It’s not because you’re going to get in trouble for being late. It’s not because you are gonna make less money if you are late. It’s gonna be that you have a much, much worse day if you are late.”
On a busy route where the buses run every ten minutes, losing just two minutes means that a driver will not only have to pick up all the people who normally would have caught the bus, but 20 percent more who wouldn’t have been there had he arrived two minutes earlier. Every one of those people takes a little more time to get on and off. The result? When the driver gets to the end of the line, he may have lost his chance to use the restroom or sit quietly with a cup of coffee. “I wasn’t taking speed, or anything like that, but I would really be … in a hyper state, just really on, really doing the job,” Tarlen recalled. “And it would look to me like all of these other people were moving in slow motion. I would just watch them; they would just slowly reach out and put a hand on the door, or they’d take one step onto the bus and they’d still have one foot hanging out and they’d say, ‘Ummm…’
“I’d think, ‘Do I need this?'”
That attitude, Tarlen explained, is part of the frustration that some drivers feel when they encounter a rider with special needs. And that is why he believes some drivers intentionally pass up disabled people to save time.
Joe Schlenker, AC Transit’s chief transportation officer, quarrels with the notion that drivers don’t have enough time for breaks, saying that the typical bus route contains twenty minutes of leeway in the schedule. And even if a driver is running behind, he added, that still is no excuse. “If they have to use the bathroom, they can call Central Dispatch,” he said. The driver can pull over, secure the bus, and go with impunity, he added.
Still, the perception that time pressures play a big part in AC Transit’s disabled-service crisis is widely held by agency observers. One current driver, who agreed to be interviewed only if he could remain anonymous, confirmed that some drivers pass up disabled passengers. “I hear them talk about it,” he said. Even AC Transit’s Accessible Services Manager Mallory Nestor confirmed that some drivers have been known to tell passengers that lifts are broken when they aren’t, or bypass disabled riders because of time constraints. Nestor concedes that the time pressures on drivers are a problem. “Anything else that affects their ability to get to the layover, that’s a big issue with them,” she said.
To experience firsthand the challenges faced by disabled people who ride AC Transit, a reporter recently accompanied a 33-year-old woman with cerebral palsy on three bus rides. “Lucy” relies upon a motorized wheelchair and rides public transportation daily. She said she has tried for years to work with AC Transit, by serving on its accessibility board, making sure that proper tie-down procedures are posted on buses, and taking down the badge numbers of drivers who incorrectly secure her wheelchair. But in spite of these efforts to improve the system, she said she has pretty much given up on buses because drivers seldom tie her down properly. On various occasions this has caused her wheelchair to skid around, fall forward, and even break twice, mishaps that cost her insurance company a total of $800.
We began our journey at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street in Berkeley, where many AC Transit lines coalesce into a jumble of high school kids, office workers, and the elderly. When the first bus approached, we boarded it to pay. The driver simply sat and stared angrily. Asked what was wrong, he replied, “Didn’t you just see me let a wheelchair off back there?” He was pointing out that since we didn’t approach the bus at the same time as the other wheelchair-bound rider was disembarking, he now had to go back and redeploy the ramp. “You need to get on first,” he grumbled. “Wheelchairs need to get on first.”
The driver then moved to the back of the bus to let down the ramp so that Lucy could board. She took her position a few feet from the securements, and he motioned her to back up. He secured her with a shoulder strap and nothing else, which meant that Lucy herself was attached to the bus but that her wheelchair wasn’t. The driver did at least ask her where she wanted to get off, and she said the Berkeley Bowl.
As we moved down Shattuck, the bus became more and more full. As we passed the grocery store, it became apparent that the driver had forgotten this was our stop, something that would have been more important if Lucy were blind, or unable to press the button riders use to request a stop. She called out, and the driver pulled over a half block later. He came to the back, undid her belt, and put the ramp down. But the bus was too far from the curb, and the ramp landed on the street. Because it had missed the curb, it was too steep for her; a ramp needs to be as level as possible for people in electric wheelchairs.
“Is that too steep?” the driver barked as Lucy paused to assess the situation. “Ramp too steep?” he repeated, before she even had a chance to say yes. Ultimately, the driver pulled the ramp back onto the bus, closed the doors, and drove to the next corner, this time closer to the curb. As he drove, he simply left Lucy’s wheelchair facing sideways in the middle of the bus, not at all secure. He then walked back, let the ramp down, and we disembarked. By the time we were done, Lucy’s presence on the bus had probably delayed its journey by ten minutes.
“In situations like that, I constantly feel attacked,” she said later. “I feel like it’s personally my fault as to why the bus and the passengers are delayed. And it’s not my fault; I know it’s not my fault. … AC Transit has not put extra time into its schedule to pick up people with disabilities.”
Our next two rides were less eventful, if still imperfect. The second bus driver was professional and pleasant, and even attempted to do the four-point tie-down, although she managed to secure only the two front straps and shoulder strap. The third bus driver didn’t estimate how far the lift was going to come out and banged it into a pole. She then had to retract it, move the bus a few feet, and redeploy the door and lift, a process that ate up about three minutes. Once again, the driver secured Lucy with only a shoulder strap.
These three trips demonstrated how often the current system fails drivers and riders alike. Even if everything goes well, stopping for a wheelchair takes at least several times as long as stopping for an able-bodied passenger. And yet, as lengthy as the process was on this day, not one of these three drivers secured Lucy correctly. “That’s why I don’t take the bus,” she said flatly.
Instead, she travels by Paratransit, AC Transit’s specialized service for people with severe disabilities or serious health conditions. Lucy — not her real name — admits that she lied on her application because she is technically not disabled enough to qualify for the service. “They ask you if you can walk a block by yourself,” she said. “I said I couldn’t, though I can. I just couldn’t take the buses anymore. I didn’t feel safe.”
Lucy is hardly the only disabled passenger who has stopped riding the bus for similar reasons. Some riders are wealthy enough to buy expensive, specially equipped vans. Most, however, rely upon Paratransit vans equipped with securements for wheelchairs and people with other medical needs. The vans take passengers directly from their homes to their destinations, and the drivers help passengers get on and off.
On first impression, this might seem like the best way for AC Transit to accommodate the needs of the East Bay’s disabled community. But Paratransit is far from perfect in the eyes of either riders or transit officials. For one thing, it kills spontaneity. Appointments must be made at least a day ahead, and riders must know exactly when they will need to be picked up again. That isn’t always clear, of course, especially with doctor’s appointments or social events with time frames that cannot be easily predicted.
Consider the case of Kevin Siemens, a 29-year-old man with cerebral palsy, a chronic condition that manifests differently in everyone who has it. In Siemens’ case, his speech is slowed, he uses an electric wheelchair, and he has very limited mobility with his arms. But he is an otherwise jocular and confident Asian American who doesn’t hesitate to report problems to AC Transit when they arise. Siemens said he complained about conventional bus service more than five times in the last year, either about pass-ups, improper securement, or for problems with lifts or ramps. He estimates that he is told a lift is broken on a bus three times a month, and that he is improperly secured at least five times a month. “That’s illegal,” he said. “They just attach the one seatbelt, and that could be fatal in an accident.”
Siemens began relying upon Paratransit last December, after budget cuts reduced the frequency of service on the bus lines that run near the Cerebral Palsy Center on Lincoln Avenue in Oakland. Siemens, like many other people with CP, takes classes, socializes, and finds support at the center. But because of the reduced bus service and the already unpredictable nature of disabled access, Siemens now has to plan his entire day around his Paratransit ride, allotting two hours of time to get where he wants to go, and two hours more to get back.
Like many disabled people, Siemens has developed a thick skin over the years, but still finds these delays a huge burden. “Do you like to get up and go wherever you want?” he asked. “Do you like to get up and go whenever you like? I can’t. You can do anything you want; you don’t need to make a ride appointment the night before.”
Even if you know where and when you are going, if the Paratransit van is early and you miss it, it has been known to take off without you. Paul Coggins, a San Leandro man with cerebral palsy, has witnessed this firsthand. He also said he has seen the van completely pass up another one of his friends and report her as a no-show. If you get three no-shows, you lose Paratransit privileges altogether. But Coggins said he has had his own bad experiences with Paratransit, most notably on his last birthday.
Coggins said he had dined with a nondisabled woman whose apartment was at the top of a flight of stairs. Most of the time, he uses a wheelchair, but he can walk if he has to, albeit very slowly. When Coggins learned that the Paratransit van had arrived to take him home, he began his prolonged descent downstairs. It became obvious that it could take more than the five-minute grace period that Paratransit offers its passengers to board, so Coggins and his friend told the driver that he could go on and pick someone else up and then come back. The driver was very polite, Coggins recalled, and said, “Oh no, don’t worry. Take your time.”
After what Coggins said was about seven minutes, he reached the bottom of the stairs and boarded the van. The driver was again very polite and loaded him in, then drove off with Coggins secured in the back. That is when, Coggins said, the driver’s whole demeanor changed.
“He was polite when my able-bodied friend was there, but after we pulled off it was a whole different story,” he said. Coggins said the driver began chiding him for taking so long on the stairs. “How dare you make me wait?” he recalled the driver saying, to which he replied, “I was doing the best I could.” Coggins said the driver continued to chew him out when no other passengers were on board, deliberately keeping him in the back of the van for at least two hours before taking him home. “I was almost in tears,” Coggins recalled. “He said a few parting cutdowns to me, but I was so shaken up and it was so late that I didn’t say anything.” He said he never reported the incident, thinking that it would just be his word against the driver’s.
Paratransit is not just inconvenient; it’s costly. Yet at a time that AC Transit is cutting costs right and left to avoid massive deficits, Paratransit is a multimillion-dollar sacred cow. Even as 43 lines were cut last December to resolve a $50 million deficit, anything relating to the Paratransit program had to remain. Mallory Nestor said Paratransit-related costs now account for roughly 7 percent of AC Transit’s $248 million annual budget, even though the 575,000 riders served annually by the program are only about two thirds of 1 percent of the agency’s total annual ridership of about 84 million. She added that the typical Paratransit journey costs the rider between $2.25 and $5, but AC Transit ends up forking out more than $36 in costs per ride.
The explosion of AC Transit’s Paratransit budget from nothing in 1990 to more than $20 million today is largely a result of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA not only required bus lines to outfit their entire fleets with wheelchair ramps or lifts and securement straps, it also required them to provide Paratransit options to everyone for whom buses were unsuitable. And if a Paratransit van is unavailable, then the transit agency must pay for disabled riders to take a cab, which ironically is probably often cheaper than the service it replaces.
The ADA came with a hefty price tag that the federal government wasn’t going to pay. The ADA was an unfunded mandate, meaning that local government agencies, businesses, and other entities would have to foot all the costs of compliance. Places that didn’t comply could suddenly find themselves at the business end of a lawsuit.
“The biggest challenge that public transit faces with the ADA is Paratransit,” said Connie Soper, senior planner for the Metropolitan Transit Organization, which oversees AC Transit and BART. “All Paratransit trips must be provided; you cannot turn people down.”
As Paratransit costs continue to grow, demand for the service also is expected to increase, as baby boomers become seniors. Many wheelchair users who could technically ride the bus prefer Paratransit because they know they will always be secured properly and will encounter a driver whose entire day involves serving passengers like themselves.
All of these things worry Mallory Nestor. Her agency is launching a public relations campaign to encourage riders to move off Paratransit and onto regular buses. “We want to attract active seniors who are now going to be retiring, all the baby boomers,” she said. “A lot of them have never been on a bus in their lives, but we want to get them educated … so that they don’t go from driving their car, to hip replacement, on to Paratransit.” She acknowledges that many seniors could easily be using conventional buses, but prefer Paratransit because they feel safer. “It will involve educating them that the buses are safe,” she said. “Some seniors don’t have that impression right now.”
Consider Willie Jones, an elderly Oakland resident in a wheelchair who happily rides Paratransit and never takes the bus. “I feel safer on Paratransit,” he said. “I don’t like to be with the public in a wheelchair, it’s not safe. Plus all that language and profanity on the bus. I don’t need that.”
But perhaps a better way to get disabled riders back on conventional buses would be to do something about the toxic climate that encourages them to use Paratransit in the first place.
Transit officials concede that they have done little in the past to resolve disabled passengers’ complaints. Riders who have lodged several complaints generally receive at most a form letter in response to their concerns. “That is why I sued them, and that is why I am suing them again,” Freed said. “Nothing has changed; drivers still aren’t following the rules.” Meanwhile, at least four other disabled riders who have complained to AC Transit say they never received any response at all.
Transit officials admit that their old complaint system was flawed. Chief Transportation Officer Joe Schlenker and Customer Service Director Ken Rhodes say they have reworked the system over the last eight months, which has resulted in steady improvements to the process. Complaints are now logged daily and shared immediately with supervisors. “It makes it much easier for supervisors to follow up and take appropriate action with the driver,” said Assistant General Manager Jim Gleich.
But no amount of organizational improvement is likely to mean a thing until AC Transit’s disciplinary policy is perceived as having some teeth. Currently, there is no public evidence to suggest that drivers have anything to lose even if they completely ignore or mistreat disabled riders.
Asked for any sort of evidence of a systematic disciplinary track record, Schlenker could provide no evidence of having ever disciplined any drivers for improper tie-downs, rudeness, or deliberate pass-ups. Transit agency officials said they could not discuss specific instances of driver discipline because those are private personnel matters.
Schlenker said the transit agency takes complaints from disabled passengers very seriously. And yet he provided a glimpse into his agency’s attitude toward driver discipline by noting: “We don’t like the word ‘punishment.'”
Transit officials could not even provide a clear policy for dealing with drivers who have received complaints from several different riders. Consider the case of one driver who has received at least three similar complaints. In one complaint she was accused of calling a man with no legs a “motherfucker.” Someone else accused her of saying “your mama” to another man in a wheelchair. A third disabled caller complained that the driver asked him if he had money before she would let him board her bus. “Caller states he asked driver if she asked to see everyone’s fare before they board, and driver stated ‘Only for people like you.'”
Of course, complaints often come down to a case of a single driver’s word against that of a single passenger. And even if a driver has received multiple complaints from riders, it is not unreasonable for AC Transit officials to consider them innocent until proven guilty. But even if a driver has received several such complaints, it is apparently left to the discretion of supervisors to decide what, if any, punishment is meted out.
Gleich said that if enough evidence comes forward about a driver, an AC Transit “spotter,” or undercover employee, is placed on board their bus to see if the driver replicates the alleged behavior. If they don’t, he said, the complaint can be dropped. If a driver does violate AC Transit policy in front of an undercover observer, then the driver’s supervisor has the discretion to set a hearing at which the driver could possibly face suspension or dismissal, Gleich said. However, he noted, the original complainant has to show up at the hearing or the whole case is thrown out.
Most discipline takes the form of drivers being sent back to training classes to be “re-educated” about ADA laws and practices. “They get, at a minimum, counseled, which means they sit with their supervisor and have a conversation about what happened,” Gleich said.
The lack of emphasis on discipline is partly because of the powerful bus drivers’ union, which has helped to devise an entire list of rules for disciplining drivers. Yet the union claims that punishing a driver won’t really do much, because that is not where the real fault lies. “No one is really looking for the real solution,” said Christine Zook, who started working as a driver in 1977 and today serves as president of Local 192 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “This is a systemic problem. You aren’t going to fire the problem by firing the driver.”
Zook believes the agency’s attitude toward the disabled stems right at the top of AC Transit management: “Everything they have done, they have done kicking and screaming.” It starts in training, she said, which depicts ADA compliance as something transit officials must deal with, rather than something they want to deal with.
Evidence for that viewpoint can be found in the office of AC Transit attorney Paul Sluis, a soft-spoken professional who defends his agency against buses that drive into cars, passengers who fall and hurt themselves and, perhaps his very favorite, disabled passengers who sue on the grounds that their access rights have been violated. Maybe that’s why the wall to the left of his desk has a New Yorker cartoon featuring a gallows complete with a handicapped-access symbol and a wheelchair ramp.
Mallory Nestor oversees ADA compliance for all of AC Transit. She has spent the past three years monitoring Paratransit, meeting with the disabled community, dealing with passenger complaints, making sure each lift and ramp is working, and ensuring each driver is properly trained about the ADA. She said the transit agency is now in the process of standardizing all the various tie-down systems to make them less confusing.
The rest, she said, is up to the drivers. After all, there is only so much you can do to train them, but after that they are alone on the bus. Nestor refers to the attitudes of some of the bus drivers as part of a culture that’s hard to change overnight.
“If we get everything else square, eliminate every single thing that drivers could say, ‘I can’t do it because of this, this, this, and this,’ then you are just left with your attitude,” she said. “You need to change your attitude. … We don’t train the drivers to have that attitude on the street. You’ve got happy employees and you’ve got miserable employees. You’ve got happy passengers and you’ve got lousy passengers. From my perspective, we are making sure that we provide them with all the tools necessary for them to perform their job. And then it’s really up to them. … There are some drivers, they need to find another occupation. And we really haven’t in the past, I think, emphasized that they are the ambassadors. And that is what we expect from them.”
And yet, Nestor also points out that it’s not always the bus driver who is cranky. She believes passengers’ attitudes have been getting worse as well. “Drivers have noticed a marked increase in the rudeness of the passengers on the bus,” she said. “How do you change that? I don’t know. Again, the only thing I can come up with is education.”
Retired AC Transit veteran Tarlen agrees that drivers ultimately hold the power. “When a person in a wheelchair gets on the bus, the way the driver handles the situation, the attitude that the driver shows, affects the attitudes of everyone else on the bus. … If the driver comes with the attitude, in words or body language, of ‘Oh damn, now I have to deal with this, and everybody’s gonna run late, and I’m not gonna get my break, and everything’s going to go wrong from here on out because I have to pick up a wheelchair,’ well, this kind of attitude would make most people on the bus pissed off at the person in a wheelchair.
“I’m looking for the day when the driver just looks over there, you know, and sees a person in a wheelchair waiting for the bus, and reacts to it like, ‘Ho-hum … it’s just another passenger. This is not a big deal.’ That’s what we are shooting for.”
Some highlights from the files of AC Transit. All typos verbatim.
- “Caller states she had a wheelchair passenger with her and six other disabled passengers. Caller states before they even boarded the bus this driver was yelling at them like they were stupid. Caller states driver refused to assist her with wheelchair straps, saying it wasn’t her job, and that caller could do it herself. Caller states wheelchair was rolling and passenger in wheelchair was crying because she was afraid. Caller states that driver started handing out comment cards to other passengers to write and say how good a driver she is.”
- “Caller states driver refuse to let caller board with her service dog. Driver said it was his damn bus and he doesn’t allow dogs.”
- “Caller states she is disabled and walks with a cane and needs a little time to get to the bus and states the same driver always puposley pull off to avoid boarding her. As passengers told him to wait, driver stated he didn’t have time for that damn shit. 11/26/02 driver stated the above complaint is false.”
- “Caller states she is disabled with a walker and a white cane. Caller states she had been waiting for over an hour for a 73, and when one finally came, the driver boarded everybody else and then stated to caller that she need to take the next bus because he was full. Caller states she just started crying.”
- “Caller states he is disabled with no arms and could not pull cord to alert driver for his exit. But states he sat right in the front next to the driver and called repeatedly for driver to stop at the Cerebral Palsy Center. But driver ignored him and ended up letting him off near the Greek Church and he couldn’t walk all the way back because he’s disabled.”
- “Caller states she and her disabled husband were approaching bus stop and states bus came so she had to speed up a little to catch bus but her husband is disabled and could not move as fast so when she boarded bus she told driver her disabled husband was coming. But driver just slammed the doors and took off leaving him.”
- “Caller is in a wheelchair and states this driver was so rude and disrespectful to him and asked him before he boarded if he had any money, because you people don’t never have any money. Caller states he told her he did and after he boarded, driver stood in his face and he thought she was going to assist him with the tie-downs, but she simply asked for the bus fare again and then just took a seat after he paid and never assisted him with any tiedowns.”