March 30, 2006

Stranded by paratransit, rolling home

by Ed Kemper.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Access activist Ed Kemper recently attended the National Center on Accessibility's 3-day workshop on "Accessibility for Hunting & Fishing Programs and Facilities," put on in conjunction with the USDA Forest Service. The event was held at Sacramento's Vagabond Hotel. The workshop, says the Center's website, would "concentrate on the movement away from minimal accessibility standards and 'specialized' design to the benefits of universal designs..."

On the last day they hire a tour bus to haul us out to see some examples of accessible hunting and fishing. It's a huge fancy bus. The chairlift carries riders about 6 feet up into the bus.

We are supposed to check out before we leave, because we won't be back in time for late checkout. I get up early and pack everything up, check out, and am ready, as instructed, by 7 a.m.

Although neither I nor my chair, a new Omega Trac powerchair from Teftec, is over the weight limit, the chairlift can't lift my chair onto the bus.

The presenters are beside themselves. I tell them it isn't a big deal. I don't want to explode on anyone. But I'm already frustrated. Neither the hotel nor the seminar meeting rooms have been accessible.

I'm supposed to be on a panel discussion that afternoon, but I tell them I'll be leaving now and going home. I have nowhere to wait around while they are gone on their bus tour, and I have no way to get home later in the evening. I told them I won't be able to return for the last parts of the seminar.

When I'd called the day before to arrange my ride home from the hotel, I wasn't able to set up a reservation. Para Transit, Inc. -- the contractor who runs the paratransit service for Sacramento's RT (regional transit authority) -- put me on a waiting list for a few hours, but then I called back as instructed and was told there were no more rides available. I was told I could "call again in the morning" and they'd "try to help me." It was no use. One could never get through the phone lines in the morning.

I can't get onto the tour bus for the field trip. I have no ride home that evening. What to do?

It's not raining, and I think I'm dressed warm enough to be able to make it home driving my power chair. I'm only about 12 miles from home. I had charged my chair the previous afternoon and hadn't driven much since. I am supposed to be able to get about 25 miles to a charge.

So I'll have an adventure.

At 7:30 in the morning I roll away from the Vagabond Hotel, heading for home. I've done some scary shit in my life, but this soon takes the prize. I have to ride in the street for much of the way. Sidewalks simply aren't easy to negotiate, even in my chair; curb ramps are still missing in many places. [put link here to sacramento sidewalk case]

The auto lot run by the state representative has a car blocking the sidewalk at the entrance to the lot. I suspect it's a security measure, to keep anyone from stealing a car off the lot. But it blocks the sidewalk. I have to go out into he street, during rush-hour traffic, to get around the car.

I'm in the street facing oncoming traffic much of the way home.

I'm still a mile away from home when the flashing red light comes on to tell me batteries are almost dead. My speed has slowed to a snail's pace. The only choice I have is a nearby bank. I go in and ask to borrow a plug for about 10 minutes. Just enough to get me home.

The woman I ask has just started learning about disabilities. Her husband became a c-4 quad about 10 months ago. (Some things are meant to happen.) I sit there and charge my battery for what I figure is about 10 minutes, then leave her my name and contact information, and offer any help I can provide her and her husband in the future.

I take off down the sidewalk and get a real education on batteries. I cross the street at an electronic crawl, and by the time I get to the end of the next block -- I'm now only 200 yards from home, all downhill -- I need more juice.

I stop at a Standard Station and ask to borrow a plug "for just 10 minutes." Another gimp-aware woman says "of course!" Turns out her brother-in-law is blind and another family member is in a wheelchair.

After 10 minutes of charge I finally make it home. It's taken nearly 5 hours. I am exhausted. I'm also humiliated that I can't attend the afternoon panel I was supposed to be on. I was supposed to talk about the law and barriers I'd faced to hunting and fishing.

I've tried to book paratransit 3 times since being certified to use it. The first time it never showed. The next time I booked a ride I got one, and got there on time -- but what a hassle!

Then this incident.

They've failed me two out of three times. My attorneys say they're willing to take them on.

This kind of stuff is still happening in California. There's no punishment for stranding disabled people miles from their homes.  It appears to be a local sport in the Capital City.

Every time I've been passed by at a bus stop by one of the RT buses, I call and complain. Every time I'm told "you must stand next to the bus stop sign." I tell them I'm in a wheelchair. They always suggest I wave "vigorously" at the bus.

I wish I could raise my hands over my head and wave at anyone.

Ed Kemper, a retired doctor of chiropractic, has been a specialist on access issues in California for nearly a decade.

Posted on March 30, 2006