INVESTIGATION: The Inaccessible CTA
By Kaitlyn McAvoy
A three-month investigation of the CTA found that 41 percent of the handicap-accessible train stations could not be fully used by customers in wheelchairs, calling into question whether the nation's second-largest mass transit system is doing what it should for hundreds of thousands of disabled Chicagoans.
During its first round of visits in late February, the team found six stations on the Pink Line - California, Central Park, Pulaski, Kostner, 54th/Cermack and Damen - had broken automatic doors. A second visit two weeks later found those same doors out of order, and on third visit in early April, four of those five station doors, again, were not working. The same was true at the Brown Line's Rockwell station.
The transit system has an obligation to keep equipment in working order, said Laura Miller, managing attorney at Equip for Equality. That organization joined another disability group, Access Living, in suing the CTA in 2000.
Although it's not clear if the CTA is breaking the federal American with Disabilities Act because the law does not specifically state how fast equipment must be repaired, Miller said the reporters' research "speaks for itself" and makes a solid case that the CTA has a problem.
The only CTA employee who agreed to answer questions - the CTA's longtime ADA compliance officer, Christine Montgomery - said she was surprised to learn that several handicap-accessible stations did not have automatic doors.
Montgomery said she inspects renovated stations when they are about to re-open to make sure the proper equipment is in place. Despite repeated attempts over several weeks to obtain further comment, the CTA declined to discuss the other problems found at stations.
There are accessibility problems on the CTA's buses, too. A review of the roughly 2,000 ADA-related complaints filed with the CTA from Jan. 1, 2004, through Feb. 28, 2009, found ongoing issues with malfunctioning equipment, rude drivers unwilling to help disabled customers and, in several instances, transit employees refusing to allow blind riders to board with their guide dogs.
In September 2008, a blind man filed a complaint after attempting to board a bus with his service dog and his daughter. The unidentified man said the driver gave him a "very difficult time," telling him: "You need to get the hell off my bus, you must be crazy. You cannot board the bus with a dog unless he's in a cage."
Two months later, another customer contacted the CTA about "an act of discrimination that, I feel, makes a mockery of the commitment made on your web site," which states all 153 bus routes are fully accessible. The unidentified customer said in an e-mail that a driver refused to stop for a man in a wheelchair.
"Rather than lowering the ramp so this customer could board the bus, the driver simply and wordlessly drove away, leaving the customer behind. I have heard this happens sometimes - that bus drivers carelessly dismiss disabled passengers for whatever reason - but this is the first time I have been a witness.
"I am frustrated with myself for not having tried to make the driver stop for this customer, but I am also infuriated with the driver for his blatant discrimination. As a CTA customer, I expect this issue to be addressed with this particular bus driver in addition to ALL bus drivers."
It's not clear if the drivers in either of these cases - two of 402 ADA-related complaints filed with the CTA in 2008 - were disciplined.
Michelle Robbins, who uses a wheelchair, said she was stranded by the side of the road three times in the first six months she lived here because a bus ramp wasn't working or the driver refused to deploy it.
The most recent instance happened in early March. Robbins, a housing policy coordinator for Access Living, had planned to board a southbound 146 Michigan Express bus but the ramp was broken.
If a ramp doesn't deploy automatically, the bus driver can do it manually, but Robbins said the driver refused. So with no other choice, she watched the bus doors shut and the bus drive away. Ten minutes later another bus came and she was able to board.
Robbins tried using the CTA trains when she first moved to Chicago from El Paso, Texas, but found them even more difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. Even when equipment like automatic doors and elevators work, getting on a train car requires a lot of employee assistance, said Robbins.
And just as frustrating to Robbins and other disabled Chicagoans is the frequent encounters they say they have with rude CTA employees who make them feel like they're creating too much of a hassle or simply refuse to help. In Robbins case, it has led her to avoiding CTA trains altogether.
Robbins said her reliance on a wheelchair should not mean she can't use public transportation like everyone else. "It's my right to ride," she said.
The law is on her side.
The nearly 20-year-old ADA, hailed as a landmark civil rights legislation when signed by President George H. W. Bush, specifically states a person with a disability should not "be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity."
Problems disabled customers were having with the CTA throughout the 1990s prompted the 2000 lawsuit by Access Living and Equip for Equality. A year later, the case was settled, with the CTA agreeing to make improvements, including rehabbing train station elevators, hiring more employees to make repairs and creating a database of ADA-related complaints.
The CTA's accessibility has improved, and it's not required under the ADA to be 100 accessible. According to the Chicago Tribune, in 1990, just 12 out of the 143 stations then operating were accessible, and 10 years later, 61 out of 144 stations were accessible. Today, the CTA reports it has 88 accessible stations - or 61 percent of the "L."
Rene David Luna, a plaintiff in the 2000 lawsuit who regularly rides CTA buses, said while the equipment may have improved in recent years, there continues to be problems with too many of the transit system's personnel, especially bus drivers.
Luna, the community and economic development team leader at Access Living, has also experienced bus drivers leaving him at the curb because they said the lifts didn't work. "There have been a couple of instances where the [bus] driver has said, 'I gotta go. The lift doesn't work,' and shut the door and left," he said.
It's one of the most frequent problems found in a review of the CTA's ADA-related complaints.
One report made in January 2009 by a mother traveling with her disabled daughter captures the frustration and anger expressed by customers in complaint after complaint.
The driver of the first bus the pair tried to catch for a doctor's appointment at the University of Chicago didn't respond, so they had to take another bus. Then returning from the appointment the mother said yet another ramp wasn't working, so they had to wait for one more bus.
"This happens every single time we go to use the CTA buses. I am very upset and I have complained many times about this. I complained on the 5th of January regarding the same issue with no response," the unidentified parent says in the e-mail. "I was assured by CTA staff previously on prior complaints that this would stop. It is worse than ever!"
This doesn't surprise advocates. The 53-year-old Luna said shortly after the lawsuit was settled eight years ago, he saw CTA employee attitudes improve and it became easier for customers to complain. But things have worsened in the last couple of years and drivers are rude again, he said.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Shelia Thomas-Akhtar, said it's clear problems with the CTA have resurfaced and there's a definite "pattern of neglect." The paralegal who works in disability and civil rights law said she continues to have problems on the bus she takes daily to her job downtown.
The disabled community hoped the lawsuit would improve the CTA's accessibility, said Thomas-Akhtar.
"We wanted to show [CTA] that they had a legal duty to provide the service and make it accessible to people with disabilities," she said. "They had failed to live up to their legal obligation, and because they had failed, they needed to be punished and correct those problems."
Elizabeth Czupta contributed to this report.
Contact: Kaitlyn McAvoy.
* "Investigation Finds Handicapped Accessibility Issues Plague CTA." By Zach Wilmes
Posted on May 12, 2009
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