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Wheelchairs on buses not always secured

Part 1 an exclusive series
May 26, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's tough enough for most of us to get around L.A., but imagine if you were confined to a wheelchair and forced to rely on public transportation. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) says safety is its first priority for the millions of bus and rail-car riders it serves every year. But disabled riders who spoke to ABC7 Eyewitness News tell a much different story. In a two-month undercover investigation, we attached hidden cameras to the wheelchairs of some of those riders. We found violations of federal civil rights law, and some drivers putting the lives of their passengers at risk.Judy Griffin has multiple sclerosis and relies on the bus to get where she needs to go, but it's not easy. Buses sometimes drive right by Judy without stopping. Sometimes the wheelchair lifts don't work. And as we found over and over again in this undercover investigation, many MTA drivers are not trained in how to secure wheelchairs like Judy's onboard a bus.

The MTA says their driver training was designed for - and their buses were built to accommodate - an older type of wheelchair and not the more modern, often motorized wheelchairs many disabled people use today. And all too often, the equipment that's supposed to secure wheelchairs to the floor of the bus simply doesn't work.

Judy's 30-year battle with multiple sclerosis has destroyed her body's core strength. So when a bus brakes suddenly, or makes a sharp turn ...

"I'll go flying out because there's nothing to tie me down, nothing to secure me to the floor," Judy explains to an MTA driver in one of the undercover videos.

The MTA's own rules - as well as federal law - require bus drivers to help wheelchair-bound passengers with the securement devices.

"Every single day, they're supposed to be checking their buses to see that they have that equipment," said disability rights attorney David Geffen. "Somebody's not doing their job at the MTA.

"It's federal law. It's state law. It's Department of Transportation regulations, rules that they're well aware of," said Geffen. "They've been sued several times and they know better."

Judy Griffin has documented dozens of violations aboard MTA buses. Here is the text of one such incident:

    Judy: "Could you buckle me in and strap me down?"

    MTA Driver: "Ma'am, park it!"

    Judy: "Huh?"

    MTA Driver: "Put a lock on it and let's go."

    Judy: "What are you talking about, there is no lock. I don't have a lock."

    MTA Driver: "Ma'am, I got a hook that I can hook you up on, that's what I can do."

    Judy: "Two in the back, two in front, a shoulder..."

    MTA Driver: "Ma'am, I don't have time for this."

    Judy: "What do you mean you don't have time for it? It's my right to have it!"

    MTA Driver: "Ma'am, put a lock on it!"

But there is no lock on her wheelchair. Judy continues to insist the driver strap her in securely.

    MTA Driver: "I ... I tell you what."

    Judy: "What?"

    MTA Driver: "Do what you got to do."

    Judy: "I can't do it. How am I going to do it?"

Judy's hands barely move, a result of her multiple sclerosis. Feeling unsafe, she gets off at the next stop. When Judy tells the driver that they are not doing the job right, the driver replied, "I gave you a hook, and I put the strap on the thing. What more you want?"

"Not being strapped in makes me feel very nervous, afraid and not safe," Judy said after the incident.

"So people are riding on buses and basically taking their lives at risk," said Geffen.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law meant to protect the disabled from discrimination. One of its main components is transportation.

"Transportation is key," said Kurt Baldwin, who is an advocate for the disabled with the Independent Living Center of Southern California. "It's always the number one issue. For people to live independently, you have to be able to get around."

We asked the MTA to respond.

"The equipment works if you had brought the right wheelchair in, but we can't control that," said Mark Maloney, General Manager of the Westide/Center Service Sector of the MTA.

Maloney says each driver gets a manual that includes 47 pages of information on how to serve passengers with disabilities, as well as explanations of ADA laws.

Each driver also gets two full days of sensitivity training.

"So we'll blindfold people, or have hearing-blockage type things," explained Maloney. "How to ride a wheelchair, what it's like to be in those shoes so you know what it's like. And drivers get a sense of what that is. The equipment we have is all very solid, it's new."

But that's not what we found in our two-month undercover investigation.

In one of the videos, Judy asked a driver if the MTA ever fixes the buses. The driver claimed that he wrote up a bus the day before and it was put back on the road the next day.

Our investigation started with a letter written to Eyewitness News by 75-year-old Soon Cho. Mr. Cho told us he was "treated cruelly by bus drivers" and that buses often pass him by because they don't want to take the time to deploy the wheelchair lift.

We spent a day riding the bus with Cho and watched as the driver of one MTA bus encouraged at least a dozen passengers to board before the wheelchair-bound Cho.

"They often board the other passengers first and then say there's no room, and they're not allowed to do that," said Geffen.

It happened again and again.

We asked the MTA if the drivers we witnessed telling Cho to take the next bus were following proper protocol.

"No, that's unacceptable. The first thing they should do is try to load the wheelchair," said Maloney. "Obviously, it's not a perfect world. You can't stop a massive crowd all the time."

We asked the MTA if any of their bus drivers had ever been fired for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, or otherwise infringing on a disabled person's rights. It's been two weeks and they have so far refused to answer that question.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Office of Civil Rights is responsible for civil rights compliance and monitoring of public transportation. Those who have complaints regarding civil rights deficiencies by a transit agency may call FTA's toll-free ADA Assistance Line at (888) 446-4511 or through the Federal Information Relay Service, (800) 877-8339. We can be reached by E-mail at FTA.ADAAssistance@dot.gov. A civil rights complaint form is available at www.fta.dot.gov/civilrights/ada/civil_rights_3889.html.

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