Home for the holidays
The story is about a woman trying to visit her daughter for Thanksgiving. But it could just as easily be Christmas, or Hannukah, or simply a visit. This tale will unfortunately sound all too familiar to many readers.
This is wheelchair user Laura Williams' story:
My daughter worked and lived in Lake Tahoe for many years. I travel from Southern California to Sacramento about once a month, and I would add a side trip to Lake Tahoe several times a year.
Then she moved to Carson City, Nevada -- on the other side of the hill.
She and I decide that Thanksgiving will be a good time for me to visit and see her new home.
Making my plans, I visit the Carson City website to get some transit information. I learn that there is a small bus route that runs fairly close to her home. And, of course, there is paratransit.
A few weeks before my trip, I call Carson City Transit to make my arrangements.
I usually travel by Amtrak. The Amtrak bus -- the one that has taken me to Tahoe on so many occasions -- has Carson City as its final destination. It leaves every day from Sacramento at 4 p.m, and is scheduled to arrive in Carson City at 7:10 p.m. But I know that bus and its schedule, and I know that the likely arrival time will be more like 8 or 8:30.
"Our buses stop running at 6 p.m.," the person at CCT tells me.
I call my daughter. She looks in the phone book while I look on the Web. We come up with a taxi service, and with a medical transportation listing that says it does "after-hours seniors trips."
I call them both the next morning. Neither has any vehicles with ramps or lifts. The medical transport people suggest that I call the hospital and arrange an ambulance. Yeah: probably $600 each way. I don't call them.
I call CCT again. Again I'm told they are "only contracted to run from 6 to 6; all our vans must be in the yard by 6:30." I remind them that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires "modification in policies and procedures to serve people with disabilities." They hang up on me.
Carson City is the capital of Nevada. I call the governor's office. Get a real nice lady on the phone who sticks with me through most of this tale -- most of it. She wasn't real clear on what to do, though. She said she'd try to find out who I could talk to.
Not wanting to put all my eggs in her iffy basket, I also call the Nevada attorney general's office. I'm transferred to the Citizen Response Unit.
I didn't write down the name of the woman who talked to me there. I wish I had. She came up with two brilliant solutions: One: perhaps I should not come. Two: I could fly from Sacramento to Reno.
She asks, "why can't your daughter pick you up?" I explain that my daughter doesn't have a van with a wheelchair lift. Given that I am traveling to Carson City, not Reno; and given that I do intend to come, I continue to try with her. I tell her about the ADA and "policies and procedures" etc. I remind her that cities have obligations under the ADA to provide public services accessible to ... well, you know the drill.
I tell her, "Listen: every ablebodied person getting off that Amtrak bus can get a taxi or whatever and be on their way, but a visitor in a wheelchair is stranded on the sidewalk until 6 a.m. the next morning, when the buses run again." I also tell her that I have every intention of spending Thanksgiving with my daughter. And if that means I will be sitting on the Carson City sidewalk all night, so be it.
She puts me on hold, then comes back with a referral to the Carson City risk manager. I call and leave a message for him. He never directly returns my call.
Meanwhile, the nice lady from the governor's office has left a message to call her back. I do, and she gives me a referral to a "Mr. Monroe." I call him. He refers me to Todd Butterworth, who, I've been told, is in the Office of Disability Services. She also gives me the number for the local independent living center.
I start calling. I eventually have a long talk with a woman from the independent living center who is concerned and sympathetic. She says if I do end up camping out on the sidewalk all night, she'll see that there's a group with me, and some space heaters. She refers me to two other people.
i call them.
I call the head of Carson City Developmental Services, which appears to be the paratransit service. He asserts rather brusquely that "transportation entities are allowed to set hours of operation" and stick to them. I make my own assertions. He asks why my daughter can't pick me up. He asks why I don't use Greyhound. I tell him they don't serve Carson City. He tells me he is looking at a Greyhound bus that very minute and hangs up on me. I can only presume he is looking at the 8 a.m. Amtrak that returns daily to Sacramento. I double-check: no, Greyhound no longer serves Carson City.
Meanwhile, I've called someone from the Washington, DC Office of the Chief Counsel -- someone who'd helped me get appropriate service for my student travel back in 2003. I leave a message for them to call me back.
I call back the nice lady from the Governor's office, and remind her that I am about to leave home to begin the week of travel and meetings that will precede my trip from Sacramento to Carson City. This time she's a bit cool, and lets me know that she doesn't think this is an issue for the Governor's office. I state my disappointment in the Governor of Nevada for not being sensitive to disability issues.
I also tell her that I have every intention of taking that bus, and if that means sitting on the sidewalk all night, I will do my best to have the whole world with me on that sidewalk that night. She assures me that the Governor "cares," and rings off. I figure the "nice" has been used up, and I won't be hearing from her anymore.
I was wrong. Twenty minutes later, she calls back. She wants the size of my wheelchair and other specifics. She asks me to please stay in touch, as she wants to be sure I'm not stranded on the sidewalk.
I leave for Sacramento on Tuesday, very early. Nothing has been resolved.
From Sacramento, I make a few more calls and leave a few more messages. I call a contact from the Sacramento Bee and leave a message, telling my tale of traveler's woe. I get a call back from the Bee. My contact is sending my story to another section. "Stay in touch," I'm told.
Thursday I get a call from Todd Butterworth. Turns out he is head of Nevada's state Independent Living Council. He asks me why my daughter can't pick me up. Asks why I can't use another method of travel. I tell him that as far as I can determine, Amtrak is the only way of getting to Carson City other than by private vehicle. I tell him I fully intend to spend Thanksgiving with my daughter, even if it means sitting on the sidewalk all night. He tells me he is surprised to find out that none of the Carson City taxis are accessible, and he intends to work on that issue. In the meantime, he has arranged for a van from the state garage, and will personally pick me up Monday night. He give me his home and cell phones and suggest I call when I'm about 30 minutes out so he can be there to pick me up.
So I go off to Santa Clara and the Disabilities Expo, the next stops on my trip.
Monday around 3 p.m. I head over to the Amtrak office to get on the 4 p.m. bus to Carson City.
The superintendent of the ground crew (or whatever they call themselves) does not have a wheelchair space listed on her manifest. I show her my ticket, purchased weeks earlier. She tells me she doesn't think the lift is working.
She goes off to find the driver so they can start trying to get the lift open.
I get a call from my son back at home. A "lady from transportation or something" has called, and "you have to call before 4 p.m. if you want them to pick you up." Huh? He gives me the number. I recognize it as the CCT number I've called in the last week.
I call right away. A nice young lady says she "needs my info" -- that in order to get a ride, I need to register, and the driver will have a form I need to fill out.
I don't ask a lot of questions. I don't assert my "presumed visitor eligibility." I just go with the flow. She does say that the latest her driver can wait for me "after hours" is 7:30.
While I'm on my cell phone with CCT, I'm trying to board a malfunctioning Amtrak lift. We finally get the safety guard down, I am on the lift -- and it won't go up. The driver says I am too heavy for the lift. I tell him I have used this bus and lift on several occasions. He tells me that this lift has a 300-pound limit.
The ground grew is checking out the bus to Auburn. Its lift appears to work. All the passengers on the Auburn bus transfer to the bus with the nonfunctioning lift. The Carson City passengers transfer to the bus with the working lift.
After much travail, we finally get the safety guard on the "300-pound-limit" lift to go flat again so I can roll off. Without further incident, I get on the formerly-going-to-Auburn bus.
It is 4:20 when we leave Sacramento. I ask the driver when we can expect to arrive in Carson City. He tells me "7 or so." Having ridden this route before, I suspect this is false.
I sit back and watch the clock tick the minutes down as we ride.
I call Todd Butterworth. He is not aware of the CCT's plans to pick me up. He says he will remain as a backup if something goes wrong. I call the governor's office to thank the nice lady for sticking with me, and tell her that even though my problem seems to be solved for this trip, that perhaps plans should be made for all the visitors to Carson City?
We arrive at the first Tahoe stop at 6 p.m. I call CCT to tell them we are running late. She asks if we are using Highway 50 or Kingsbury? She thinks that if we go Highway 50 we may not reach Carson City before 7:30. She says to call her back when we get to the 395 intersection. I feel somewhat reassured that the CCT actually does intend to get me to my daughter's home.
My Amtrak bus gets to Carson City at 7:40. The paratransit van is there. I get to my daughter's home safe and secure. I am also registered now with CCT -- they called to get my daughter's address, as my address, they point out, is in California. What about visitor eligibility under the ADA, I wonder? Do local transit agencies just not "get it"?
I am resting in a nice featherbed in my daughter's home. She treats me well!
I finally get around to calling home to check messages. There's a late Friday-afternoon call from the guy in Developmental Services (this really is what they seem to call the paratransit office) saying that, after talking to the city manager, they've decided that they will just this one time only stay after-hours to give me a ride. So the mystery is solved.
On Tuesday, very early, my contact from Washington calls. He's happy I'm safe in Carson City. He expresses concern about local transit companies failing to serve visitors....
How does Laura Williams get home from Carson City? That is a story remaining to be told.
Laura Morris Williams is president of Californians for Disability Rights.