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By Valerie D. Lockhart, Chronicle Associate Editor
Nov 18, 2004
Gusty winds swept up construction dust and trash that encircled Carolyn Reed’s power wheelchair, as she cautiously maneuvered it across makeshift ramps and dirt roads in downtown Detroit to a nearby bus stop.
The end of one dilemma marked the start of another.
While most riders typically wait 10 to 15 minutes for the Woodward bus’ arrival, Reed’s wait is often three to four times longer.
Three buses passed Reed by earlier this week, before the driver of a fourth bus stopped and yelled out, "The lift is broken," then pulled off.
"Two or three buses will come, and it’s likely that all three won’t have a working lift," said Reed, who was born with spinal bifida. "It makes me very frustrated. Just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean I’m not human. No one wants to sit out in the cold waiting for a bus."
Broken wheelchair lifts prompted five disabled riders to file a federal lawsuit last August in U.S. District Court against the City of Detroit for allegedly failing to meet American Disability Act standards within its Department of Transportation.
Monetary compensation is not being sought. Instead, plaintiffs are asking that broken lifts be repaired and a plan enacted to ensure regular maintenance and inspections are performed on D-DOT’s entire 525-bus fleet. A hearing date for the case has not been scheduled, which was assigned to Judge Robert Cleland.
"All that we’re requesting is that the city submit a plan on when they’re going to fix the wheelchair lifts," said attorney Richard H. Bernstein, who represents the plaintiffs and is blind. "D-DOT receives federal funds that are subject to the Federal Rehabilitation Act. The law requires federal grantees to make services accessible to persons with disabilities. If a lift breaks, it must be fixed within 48 hours. They have denied there is a problem, so it has gone unsolved for a long time."
Norman White, executive director of D-DOT, refused to comment on the case pending litigation. However, some city workers refuted the plaintiffs’ claims.
"The Justice Department has been breathing down our backs, since we walked in the door," said Howard Hughey, press secretary to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "In less than two years, we were in compliance and have gone above and beyond requirements. The ADA has given us awards for compliance of federal guidelines across the board."
In a written affidavit filed by attorneys Andrew Jarvis and Valerie Colbert-Osamuede on behalf of the city, it states, "Defendant City of Detroit’s actions in all respects were legal, reasonable and non-discriminatory. Plaintiffs have failed to mitigate their damages."
It continues, "The Plaintiffs have no standing to sue the Defendant City of Detroit as they lack standing under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act."
No admissions of guilt were cited in response to the plaintiffs’ allegations, noting their claims lacked sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. But others in the department have taken note of the problem.
"There is a problem with the wheelchair lifts not working," said Henry Caldwell, a D-DOT terminal supervisor. "Drivers are instructed to stop and let the person know what the problem is. Then the driver must contact dispatch and have them send a van to pick up the disabled rider. Another supervisor will check out the bus before he reaches the end of the line."
Ongoing concerns with broken wheelchair lifts were also noticed by Art Vardiman, a former bus driver and union president.
"D-DOT has a lot of wheelchair lifts that are not working because they lack parts and manpower," said Vardiman, who retired last June after 31 years on the line. "The city said they are going to provide new buses with ramp lifts in January (2005). But you will still have a coach problem because there are not enough buses. I always felt bad and frustrated when the lifts were broken, because there is only so much you can do as a driver. When the wheelchair lift isn’t working, you write it up. And there’s nothing more you can do. You may have a workable lift three or four days out of the week. It’s a huge problem that’s not going to be fixed going with the same program."
Distressed by witnessing Reed’s ordeal firsthand, Ora Corley, a passenger on the Woodward route, said the city should show compassion and help the disabled.
"I saw a couple of buses pass her up," said Corley. "They said their lifts didn’t work without even trying. I think it’s unfair. It’s not right. She pays her fare just like everyone else. They need to put themselves in her place and see how they would feel sitting out in the cold."
Regardless of eyewitness accounts and blatant problems with operations, several disabled D-DOT passengers view the city’s denial as a slap in the face.
"This makes me feel like a third-class citizen," said David Barnett, a 39-year-old quadriplegic who depends on the bus to get back and forth to work. "They’re saying that there isn’t a problem, when I’m waiting over an hour for a bus. The system needs to be accessible for us. Although I work for myself, I’m still working for my customers. It costs me money by being late."
Unsettled disputes over repairs to D-DOT’s wheelchair lifts go on and drops in temperatures have disabled riders concerned about their welfare during the coming winter.
"The colder it gets, the greater the impact is on these poor people," said Bernstein. "Immediate help is needed. It is nothing short of a crisis and should be a top concern for the city."
While Reed continues to bare the bitter cold and dodge construction debris on her way to the Woodward bus stop three days a week, she hopes justice will soon be granted to the disabled and that others would become more empathetic to their concerns.
"I’m an active individual," said Reed. "I’m not going to sit around holding my head, because you think I shouldn’t go anywhere. I like to play bingo and go to the casino like everyone else. One night a bus driver asked me, ‘What are you doing out at night? We put wheelchair accessible buses on the line during the week, so you can go to the doctor and grocery store.’
"Who are they to think that we can’t have lives too? I’m 54 years old, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to go out. If you’re grown and can go out, so can I. Just fix the lifts so I can live my life to the best of my ability."
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