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"I had to quit my job . . " by Jean Ryan



Is There Any Safety -- or Equality -- for Gimps?

By W. Carol Cleigh

Sometimes even I find it hard to believe the hazards that a world not built for our convenience or safety imposes upon us.

drawing of a bus

If hundreds of non-disabled people were having catastrophic experiences on public buses, there would be a massive outcry

I have just gotten off a Chicago Transit Authority bus -- a trip that started with my narrowly avoiding serious injury -- or death.

When I got on the bus, the lift failed. This in itself is not unusual, but this one failed in an unusual way. I'd gotten to the top and paid the fare, only to have the lift sink from beneath my rear wheels as I tried to turn into the aisle.

The operator told me what was happening and I was able to grab a stanchion and execute a transfer of sorts. I'm not sure what would have happened had I not been able to transfer -- or if she'd warned me a moment later. Likely the paramedics who came to lift my chair the rest of the way onto the bus would have been scraping me off the sidewalk instead.

This is the second time that a lift on that type of bus has malfunctioned catastrophically with me on it. Two years ago another bus on the same route folded its lift into stairs under me. At the time, I was using an ultralight wheelchair, and was able to push backward onto the bus before it was too late.

Last fall, the lift on a Flxible bus had a bridgeplate collapse under me, causing my front wheels to fall into the stairwell. Then last Tuesday, as a friend and I were returning from the Symphony, the same thing happened again, and I was stranded on a lift four feet in the air for 20 minutes in the middle of the night in the Loop. Finally a pry bar was found, the lift freed and I was able to get down, just in time for the fire department to come roaring up to the scene with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

The point I want to make here is not that CTA has bad lifts, poorly designed and even more poorly maintained, though that is certainly true. The point is not even that, extrapolating from my experience, they must have hundreds of catastrophic lift failures each year. No, the problem is that CTA, the non-disabled public, and even we, the disability community, accept this and other similar situations with equanimity.

If hundreds of non-disabled people were having catastrophic experiences on CTA, there would be a massive outcry until the situation was corrected. When a few children were injured in CTA turnstiles some years ago, there were stories in the media for weeks, and a multi-million dollar project to replace the turnstiles was accelerated.

Yet hundreds of our people experience or narrowly escape serious injury time after time. And no one cares.

The real problem is the general indifference to our safety, even our survival, which permeates public life.

The "better dead than disabled" movement both exemplifies and reinforces this attitude, of course. But our lives are devalued in many other aspects and arenas of life.

A little less value.

A document prepared this spring by the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs urges federal agencies to weigh the cost of new regulations against how many years they might add to people's lives and to give less weight to people with a questionable "quality of life.".

The approach values each year of life for someone over 65 at $273,000, and for someone younger at $172,000 a calculation which is widely used in the medical field. Despite the yearly "value," the older person's overall value is still less, because he or she has fewer years to live: A 65-year-old with 10 years left is worth $2.7 million, while the 40-year-old with 35 years left is worth $6 million.

One of the reasons that building managers so often keep wheelchair lifts locked is that they're not safe.

I just watched a video of disability activists in Korea taking to the streets after lift failures killed one person and injured several others. The tape reminded me that, because they're only for us, lifts don't have to meet the rigorous safety standards of "real" elevators. Nor are they regularly inspected, as "real" elevators must be.

Lifts on buses are often unsafe. But the new low-floor buses with ramps may not be much better. Designed for a 4-inch curb, they are often deployed on the street or in a curb cut, and, when so deployed, the ramp is so steep that wheelchairs can flip over backward trying to enter. And people can fall out of their wheelchairs or crash when trying to debark on such a ramp.

Thresholds also pose an inordinate risk for wheelchair users. Getting through a door and over a too-high or too-steep threshold -- often at the top of a too-steep ramp -- creates a hazard that can be fatal (see "Death in a Doorway," Ragged Edge Mar./Apr. 1998). Curb cuts that are too steep, or have a drop-off at the bottom, pose a similar hazard. I've also found many ramps that don't have proper handrails -- manual wheelchair users have no way to brake on the way down. Others actually have stairs coming off of flat spots. If you miss the "switchback" you can go flying down a flight of stairs! Now that's a safety hazard!.

The worst example, however, may still be those 4-point tie-down systems required by most transit agencies. There is no place else in law or in custom where one person is required to put their life in danger to assuage assumptions about the safety of others. There is no evidence that our wheelchairs pose any greater hazard to non-disabled passengers than other objects brought onto buses and trains -- luggage, grocery carts, bicycles -- yet we are required to put our lives in dire danger solely to protect others from a danger that our devices are alleged to pose.

This horrific double standard is based upon supposition rather than evidence. It graphically shows how little our safety is considered even by federal agencies that regulate the transit industry. The Federal Transit Administration won't even prohibit transit agencies from disassembling our wheelchairs to find "securement points" where they can attach straps. They can violate not only our safety rights, but also our basic right to bodily integrity, since for many of us our wheelchairs are part of our body systems.

Now the Bush administration wants to formalize this devaluation of our lives. Those of us over 70 would be worth 37 percent less than a younger adult. "If Person A lives 10 additional life years in good health, while person B lives 10 additional life years with 30 percent impaired health, it may not be appropriate to assign the same (value) to both individuals," says Bush regulatory czar John Graham. This sounds suspiciously like the "Quality of Life Adjusted Years," or QUALYs that have crawled out of the rat's nest of bioethics in recent years.

All of this flies in the face of the ideals embodied in this country's founding documents. Yet people buy it.

I believe that people buy this "big lie" because, although we are all taught that everyone is equal, we're taught it with a wink and a nod. Whether or not the "founding fathers" intended to include women, racial minorities or us, the documents they've passed down to us -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- have a life of their own. Like other minority groups before us, we can -- and indeed, must -- hold this country to what those documents say.

Carol Cleigh writes frequently for Ragged Edge. Her last article was "Riding Lessons."

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