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The Detroit News
By Richard H. Bernstein
November 5, 2004
Just try to imagine. A man in a wheelchair waits at a bus stop on a snowy winter evening.
At last, a city bus pulls over. The driver opens the door, and tells the man that he cannot get in, because the bus wheelchair lift is broken. Another bus comes -- and another. For more than three hours, buses keep passing -- some without even stopping -- others pausing just long enough for the driver to say the vehicle lacks a functioning wheelchair lift.
By the time a bus comes with a wheelchair lift that actually works, the man is shaking from the cold -- and the fear of freezing to death.
You may wonder -- did this really happen? Yes, just last January.
And it keeps happening.
Every day, wheelchair riders have to watch two -- three -- or more -- buses operated by Detroit’s Department of Transportation (D-DOT) pass them by before a vehicle arrives with a working wheelchair lift.
In other words, D-DOT provides significantly worse service to the wheelchair user, because of the disability preventing that individual from walking up two or three steps into a bus.
This ongoing discrimination against the disabled is wrong -- morally and legally.
In fact, federal law requires D-DOT -- and every other public transit system -- to equip all fixed route buses with wheelchair lifts or ramps and make sure the equipment works.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, essentially all public facilities and services must be accessible to the disabled. This statute simply assures people with substantial limitations an equal chance to participate in society.
Without transportation, wheelchair users often become prisoners in their own homes. They cannot do the things that the rest of us take for granted, such as grocery shopping, getting to the doctor, attending religious services, or visiting family and friends.
But with reliable, timely mass transit, they can do these things and more, including going to school, working to support themselves, and helping others in the community.
For years, Detroit wheelchair users have been filing complaints with DDOT about its lack of dependable accessible transit.
Because DDOT failed to correct the problem, I agreed to serve as the attorney for five disabled citizens and filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Detroit. Our goal is simple – we want DDOT to stop the discrimination by fixing its wheelchair lifts as soon as possible, setting a specific timetable when all lifts will be functional and instituting an inspection, maintenance and repair program to keep the lifts working.
However, it should not have been necessary to initiate litigation to vindicate the rights of the disabled.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits a federal government agency from making grants to a program that violates disability-access regulations.
In this case, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, already has broad enforcement power, because it provides DDOT with substantial federal funding. To date, FTA has not yet used its authority.
Disabled Detroiters need federal action now. The FTA should work with to pinpoint the problems in DDOT equipment or operations, and actually solve them.
Concerned citizens should ask their representatives in Congress to demand that FTA ensure that Detroit’s transportation department uses federal transit grants in a manner that complies with the law.
After all, winter is near. We need immediate federal enforcement to make sure that no lonely wheelchair user again waits at a bus stop, praying for accessible transit before he freezes to death.
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