As reported by the Norwich Bulletin, August 20, 2007.

Travel Proves Major Barrier for Disabled

By Liz Mugavero

In order for Kevin Harkins of Norwich to get to his job as a telephone operator at Mohegan Sun, he must be outside his apartment right on time every day with $2.50 in his pocket to catch the paratransit bus.

Harkins, who is blind, can't readily use regular public transportation. In the winter, the rush to the bus can be tricky.

"The major difficulty is in that weather, not knowing if the bus will come," he said. "I've tried to flag down garbage trucks in the past."

Transportation is a major hurdle the disabled community faces, and experts say there aren't a lot of options.

Jessica Jagger of the University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Disabilities said people with disabilities can use two forms of public transportation: The fixed or flex route bus system and paratransit.

"Public transportation, specifically fixed or flex route buses, presents many challenges for people with disabilities, starting at the bus stop," Jagger said. "The bus stops and shelters are often inaccessible, and when there's snow, people can't get safely from the stop to the bus."

Jagger, who works on the Plan for the Achievement of Transportation Coordination in Human Services project at the UConn Center for Excellence in Disabilities, said the project's findings will address the systemic barriers to transportation and community inclusion for people with disabilities.

Paratransit concerns

A grant through the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities has funded several forums across the state seeking opinions on the transportation system. The forums have brought many concerns to light, especially with the paratransit service.

The Americans With Disabilities Act-mandated paratransit service follows the bus line, usually within a three-quarter mile radius, though some towns have extended the service to a one mile radius or more, Jagger said. In different areas of the state, this is either a curb-to-curb or door-to-door service for people who cannot, due to disability, use the bus system. There is an application and interview process to determine eligibility.

"There are several concerns that we have heard over the last two years about this service," Jagger said. "First, paratransit is difficult to schedule. Riders must allow the drivers an extra half hour or more for most trips, but riders can only be five minutes late before the driver can leave the pickup location."

Riders must provide a street address for their destination, but sometimes have difficulty specifying a particular entrance or building.

Harkins said he hasn't run into major scheduling difficulty, but there are negatives to the system. One of them is the cost.

"The paratransit will service you, but you pay for it," he said. "It's twice the regular fare for the SEAT bus."

Advocates at the Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut say it's far from perfect.

"Transportation is a big issue," said Jodi Furnia, staff coordinator. "To schedule a doctor appointment, people have to call the paratransit system 48 hours in advance. Rural towns don't have access to it and those people have to find other ways to get around."

Evening and weekend service is a problem, too. People with disabilities are limited in their community involvement, social and recreational opportunities because transportation stops by 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. in many parts of the state, Jagger said.

Cathy Ferry, Disabilities Network executive director, said the paratransit system is generally not well liked.

"It's just not reliable," she said.

Vans too expensive

For a time, the Network had a van to transport consumers to appointments, but costs became too high to continue the service.

"The cost to drive one consumer is $200 to $300 plus gas," Ferry said.

Also known as Dial-A-Ride services, these vans usually are exclusive for seniors and the disabled. Driven by the elderly or other municipal agents, they offer transportation for select reasons, such as medical appointments or errands on certain days during specified hours. They usually have a fee or suggested donation of anywhere from $2 to $5 or more one way. With more restrictions and less availability, people with disabilities rely more on the two public transportation options.

Elanah Sherman, advocate at the State Office of Protection and Advocacy, said fixed-route bus systems must be accessible.

"There just isn't enough public transportation for both the disabled and the not disabled," she said.

In most parts of the state, municipalities are responsible for the stops. For some, the newer buses are difficult to board because of the dimensions of larger power chairs and the turn from the door to the aisle. Hub and spoke routing often limits successful use of the various bus systems around the state -- when someone needs to get from one town to another, they will often have to ride to a distant hub and change bus lines.

"This makes what could be a short trip into a very long one, which is a barrier for some people with disabilities," Sherman said.

Bad attitudes

Jagger said a policy also is in place that people with disabilities should board the bus first in order to allow the space needed to maneuver without other passengers blocking them.

"Some bus drivers do not enforce this policy, and some do not address complaints or grumbling among other passengers, making riding the bus an unpleasant experience for the individual with a disability," she said. "Generally, attitudes are still a significant barrier."

Despite the problems, Jagger is holding out hope better solutions are on the way.

"We're working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation and others in helping to shape the state action plan for a coordinated human services transportation system, informed by these forums, trainings and information sessions that have given people with disabilities a voice in the process," she said.