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'Accessible' Transit: Unsafe at Any Speed?

By W. Carol Cleigh

Most wheelchair users don't realize they're making a bargain with the devil every time they board a transit vehicle. Big bus or paratransit van, it makes no difference: the wheelchair user is unsafe. Our very lives are forfeit to preventing "injury" to others.

They don't require shopping carts or luggage hauled onto buses to be secured in any way. Just us in our chairs. It's to prevent injury -- to others.

Wheelchair makers evade responsibility by printing warnings saying they don't recommend using their chairs in vehicles, knowing full well that those who use their devices will ride in buses in them. Those who make securement systems (and who haven't changed their basic design in 20 years) know that even if used "properly," their systems will damage mobility devices and potentially kill their users. Transit companies tell wheelchair users that securement is for their own safety, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is that even when it can be installed "properly," most securement systems unevenly torque the frame of the wheelchair. This not only causes frame failure over time, but it will tear the device apart in an accident. Securement systems, used improperly, can cause wheelchairs to tip over during normal vehicle operation.

The worst part of the system may be the seatbelt. A seatbelt attached to the vehicle rather than to the device can prove fatal to a wheelchair user in an impact as modest as 5 mph. The seatbelt stops the person but not the device. It keeps going, crushing the person's pelvis into the belt. A crushed pelvis is almost invariably fatal. But, if that weren't enough, the seatbelt then causes the person to fall back into the now-wrecked wheelchair -- usually impaling them and finishing the job.

So why do transit providers want to force securement upon us? They do it to protect non-disabled passengers from possible injury -- caused by our devices flying about in an accident. That's right, they're sacrificing our freedom, even our lives, to prevent possible injury to others. Never mind that they don't require other objects (shopping carts, luggage, etc.), that may weigh more than many wheelchairs to be secured in any way.

Wheelchair makers and those who make securement systems do a cost-benefit analysis, and so long as they aren't financially responsible for our deaths, they go right on making systems that compromise our safety.

Transit providers and riders, infected with Dr. Strangelove syndrome, consider wheelchairs and their users sinister and dangerous.

For those of us whose chairs provide no way to be secured, the nightmare is even worse. We are constantly harassed. Everyone seems to believe that our chairs could be strapped down and secured if we would only allow it. They think we're out to hurt others. Passengers seem to think that by yelling obscenities at me they can persuade my device to grow securement points. They have verbally and even physically assaulted me.

For months now I have faced arrest if I ride a Chicago Transit Authority bus. CTA personnel first refused to recognize that my mobility device cannot not be secured, claiming they can secure any "common wheelchair" (despite evidence from a sister agency and manufacturers to the contrary). The CTA finally agreed that my chair cannot be secured, and they agreed it is a "common wheelchair" under the ADA definition, But they continue to refuse to let me ride anyway, in direct violation of the ADA (specifically 49 CFR 37.165(d)).

CTA's latest was a left turn into the surreal. Having finally agreed that my device cannot be secured by any reasonable means, they have decided that I should accept securement that even they consider unreasonable. If I don't allow them to fasten straps to various parts of my chair not designed for the purpose, and not up to the task -- as the arm rests (held on by a cotter-pin), the casters, the controller box and the control cable -- they will continue to deny me transportation.

They openly admit that their policy doesn't allow securement like this, because of the potential for damaging the chair. And I just received a letter from an engineer at a securement manufacturer, confirming that what the CTA wants to do will not protect me -- or anyone else -- in a crash, and is likely to tip my device over during normal vehicle operations.

Sounds just as unreasonable as the CTA considers it.

I'm supposed to let them use methods they know will damage my wheelchair, and that they know will surely fail in an accident. "Surreal" seems too mild a word for this situation: I'm not only supposed to make a deal with the devil, but one that even the devil considers unreasonable.

W. Carol Cleigh is a freelance writer and an activist.

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