Atlanta, Nov. 28, 2001 -- Judge Stephanie Davis never thought she'd find herself on the other side of the bench, particularly in the plaintiff's chair. As a Fulton County Magistrate Judge, Davis is used to parceling out justice -- not being the one who seeks it. But when a bus driver for MARTA, the Atlanta-area public transit system, recently refused to help Davis, who has quadriplegia, deposit her fare in the slot, she said, "enough is enough!"
Davis joins five other plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed today against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). These plaintiffs, along with dozens of others, have tracked dozens of violations and are sharing their personal experiences on MARTA in an effort to improve service for all Atlantans with disabilities.
"Like many Atlantans, I use MARTA as my primary means of transportation," said Davis, who uses a wheelchair as the result of a spinal cord injury she sustained in 1980. "It is not unusual for me to encounter buses with wheelchair lifts that don't work, or drivers who don't know how to operate the equipment, and to experience unacceptable delays in service. But when a paratransit van driver recently refused to help me deposit my fare because he wasn't supposed to handle money, I was shocked."
The lawsuit filed today is the first formal action taken against MARTA for ADA violations. Represented by attorneys for the nonprofit Disability Law and Policy Center and cooperating counsel from the Decatur law firm Hill, Lord and Beasley, the six plaintiffs in the class-action suit allege consistent, blatant discrimination against MARTA riders with disabilities. Specifically, the suit alleges noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which provide a specific set of guidelines for public transportation systems serving people with disabilities.
The Disability Law and Policy Center (DLPC) is a nonprofit organization founded last year to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible in the community. While there are many other organizations that advocate for people with disabilities, the DLPC is one of the only groups that was created specifically with the mission of bringing suit against those who it identifies as violating the rights of people with disabilities.
Since earlier this year, the DLPC has worked with a group of people with disabilities to audit the service MARTA provides its disabled riders. People who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices, as well as blind and visually impaired riders, were asked to report to the DLPC their daily experiences with inaccessibility on MARTA. The results were evaluated by attorneys for the Disability Law and Policy Center, who identified a consistent, serious pattern of discrimination.
"In a three-month period of time, riders have logged an unacceptable number of violations," explains Joshua H. Norris, spokesperson for the DLPC. "Visually impaired riders constantly encounter drivers who do not announce stops, and people who use wheelchairs are frequently denied service because buses have broken equipment. Riders who rely on MARTA's paratransit service have received the worst treatment, which is made all the more unfortunate by the fact that the paratransit van is for many the only option for transportation." The ADA requires all public transportation systems to provide paratransit services, which are dedicated buses that provide transportation to individuals with disabilities who cannot use the regular, fixed route service. This service, by law, must provide a comparable service to the fixed route alternative.
The complaint filed today in federal court details the experiences of the six individuals named in the action, and asks that the court find MARTA in violation of the ADA for the following abuses:
Failing to make information available to people with disabilities through accessible formats and technology.
Failing to ensure that personnel -- particularly bus drivers and customer service representatives -- are adequately trained to serve riders with disabilities, and to serve them in a respectful and courteous way.
Failing to maintain wheelchair lifts and other features of the vehicles that make them accessible to people with disabilities, and also failing to have a good system in place for alternative means of transportation when lifts and other equipment don't operate correctly.
Failing to announce stops at transfer points, major intersections and destinations, particularly when a specific request is made by a visually impaired rider.
Failing to provide paratransit services (curb-to-curb service in vans outfitted specifically for people with disabilities and the elderly) comparable to the level of service provided to nondisabled riders. Specifically, the paratransit service is found to be unreliable and inconsistent, frequently requiring riders to wait for hours for vans that never show, or be refused service because of inconsistent customer service policies.
Several of those who are participating in this action have worked with MARTA on a voluntary basis for years to try to bring about change, including Bernard Baker, who is a member of a MARTA consumer committee that is supposed to help the Authority comply with ADA guidelines.
"I have used MARTA for nearly 12 years, and I am constantly frustrated by my encounters with vehicles that don't have lifts or have inoperable lifts," said Baker. "I joined the Elderly and Disabled Accessibility Committee because I thought I could make a difference, but it is clear to me that MARTA's leadership is not going to bring about change on their own."
The complaint asks the court to find MARTA in violation of both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which provides a similar set of guidelines for transportation systems receiving federal funding. Additionally, the group is seeking an immediate injunction against MARTA. It is expected that the hearing for injunction will be well attended by MARTA riders with disabilities who for years have experienced frustration and discrimination.
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