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Despite all of our horror stories about paratransit, the real oppressor is the re-certification process.

The Re-Certification Game

By Larry Biondi

Oppression is omnipresent among people with disabilities. It's interwoven in our daily lives. We breathe, sleep and work with it as if it were natural.

drawing of paratransit van

Of course, we know better than to think that, right?

The fight for accessible public transportation seems to have been the crucible for the disability rights movement for much of the last two decades. We thought that accessible transportation would be the key to free our brothers and sisters and to mainstream them in society. When the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act passed, mandating that all public buses and train be made accessible, we celebrated in our success.

If it were only that easy!

The spirit of the ADA is all about equal access and leveling the playing field so we no longer have to sit on the sidelines. But 14 years after the law was passed, I wonder, if we had to do it all over again, if we wouldn't focus more carefully on the wording of the regulations that transit agencies are now throwing back into our faces. They are citing and employing these regulations, using them against us, to keep us from riding paratransit services.

The very nature of paratransit services is oppressive.

The very nature of paratransit services is oppressive. According to the ADA, paratransit shall be "comparable" to a bus system's regular, fixed-route service. But is it? The fact that some paratransit riders must schedule their rides a day in advance -- some rural paratransit services require scheduling trips 14 days in advance -- is all the more maddening, considering that the ADA requires a person to book a paratransit ride only 8 hours in advance. In other words, folks, what they're doing is illegal.

Then there's the hurry up-and-wait-factor. Paratransit expects us to be ready el pronto at our scheduled pickup time. Yet, they can be two hours late; never mind that you've wasted your time waiting when you could have spent it productively had you known your chariot would be delayed. Late for a meeting that you were supposed to be at an hour ago? That's just too bad. You're expected to have a smile on when your paratransit ride finally arrives. Your day may be ruined by a dispatcher's incompetence but don't vent your frustration on the driver. He'll tell you it's the dispatcher's fault.

Despite all of our horror stories about paratransit, the real oppressor is the Regional Transportation Agencies (RTAs) across the country. Every four years, they re-certify us to find if we're still "eligible" for paratransit. They tell us that they are only following the ADA guidelines to recertify people. But what they are really doing is using a tedious and inaccurate process to kick us off the paratransit program. After all, what gives them the right to say we can or can't ride paratransit?

For the few fortunate people who've never been certified, let me explain the process (hold your nose):

You get an 8-page application in the mail that you must complete to begin the recertification process. Be careful how you answer each question -- because the nature of your answer you might give you a one-way ticket forcing you to ride only fixed-route buses.

A prime example of a question: How far can you travel in your wheelchair?

A. 1 Block

B. 2 blocks

C. 3 Blocks

D. 4 Blocks

What one would you circle if you have a unpredictable disability like multiple sclerosis? You can't give a honest answer because you can't foresee how you'll feel on a given day. But here's an even bigger problem: how long is the "block" they're asking about? In some neighborhoods, it might be difficult to even get down one block. The sidewalks might be broken or full of tree roots.

If you wish to be "paratransit eligible," you need to give considerable thought to each question, making sure to answer each one so you can be deemed "paratransit eligible." You've got to know how to play their game.

I'm not saying you should lie. You just might need to embroider the truth. What would you do if your job requires you to travel throughout the city and surrounding suburbs and sometimes you could not get there on regular route buses, but only by using paratransit? Suddenly you find yourself fighting for your job by driving wildly along broken-up sidewalks, trying to get up poor -- or nonexistent -- curb cuts, driving in the street.... An extra layer to crap to work through.

Then there's the interview process. Each of the Regional Transit Authorities holds interviews, and there's always a simulated obstacle course. . After the interview, the evaluator (who's either an occupational therapist or a rehabilitation counselor and who usually has no intimate knowledge of various types of disabilities) takes you on this course. The intent of this indoor course is to try to simulate an outdoor environment, which is used to determine if a paratransit user has the skills to use regular mainline public transit, or if they "really need" paratransit. Do they have the wheelchair driving skills to access a regular public transit bus? Of course, there's no bus at these sites to create an accurate environment.

So what can you do to assure that you'll still be paratransit eligible? Driving uncontrollably, smashing into everything in sight can be both effective and gratifying. Try not to drive into your evaluator. He will be the one who determines your fate. Try to be discreet but firm.

Your RTA determines whether you are eligible for paratransit or not based on the ADA guidelines administered by the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA). There are four categories that you can fit into after being evaluated:

Paratransit expects us to be ready el pronto at our scheduled pickup time. Yet, they can be two hours late...

*Seasonal Eligibility -- This means a person can ride paratransit during certain times of the year. For example, a person who can be outdoors if the temperature is between 60 and 85 degrees and can travel a lengthy distance in their wheelchair could be certified as only paratransit eligible during the winter. Theoretically, there's a flaw with this eligibility criteria. What if the temperature dips below 60 degrees or rises above 85 degrees -- as some northern and southern cities experience in the summer -- and the person has no alternative transportation available? I don't know about you, but the thought of a partransit vehicle suddenly dropping a passenger at the side of the road when the temperature falls below 60 degrees sends shivers down my spine.

*Conditional Eligibility -- Basically you are able to use the fixed route buses or trains for some of your trips, and still qualify for some paratransit service. But if the "path of travel" en route to the fixed route is under construction, you might just end up more disabled from rolling or walking through broken sidewalks and uncut curbs.

*Unconditional Eligibility -- Your disability or health condition always prevents your from using the fixed route system or trains, and you qualify for all paratransit trips.

*Temporary Eligibility -- You have a health condition or a disability that prevents you from using the fixed route buses or trains, but only for a defined period of time -- until, for example, your temporary disability ends.

So there you have it.:The FTA's flawed criteria to become ADA paratransit eligible. This is yet another system that we must struggle with. The citeria for being "paratransit eligible" are illogical. They're just another way to strip our rights from us, preventing us from riding paratransit services.

The RTA is attempting to use the ADA to diminish our independence. We must not let them. If you're denied paratransit services based on these criteria, use the appeals process.

Remember, being denied paratransit is like being denied our civil rights. As with all our civil rights issues, we must stay firm and fight!

We will ride!!

Posted Nov. 10, 2004.

Larry Biondi is on the staff of the Progress Center for Independent Living and a member of Chicago ADAPT

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