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Are MTA buses safer for wheelchair riders?

Part 5 an exclusive series
August 4, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Ten weeks after our investigation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's treatment of disabled riders, Eyewitness News went undercover once more. Our news cameras were on the lookout to see if anything had changed and if wheelchair riders were safer aboard MTA buses than they were before.Since the Eyewitness News investigation first aired in May, the MTA developed a refresher course for drivers on how to use the securements for wheelchairs. The MTA is also hoping to expand its program using undercover investigators aboard MTA buses, looking for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Federal Transit Administration is responsible for monitoring the MTA's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But it turns out the FTA has only conducted one so-called civil rights review of the MTA in the entire history of MTA's existence. That review did not include issues faced by wheelchair riders.

As Eyewitness News cameras rolled, an MTA bus slowed down and then passed 52-year-old Cynde Soto. Soto is a quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair all her life.

"That makes me mad, and also, in a way, it makes me feel like a second class citizen because that's how people treat us," said Soto. "I have no use of my hands. I cannot move anything below my shoulders."

Cynde was at the meeting when Metro board members ordered the MTA to overhaul its treatment of disabled riders as a result of an Eyewitness News investigation.

"I have had drivers tell me to just hold on. I tell them I can't. I can't move," said Soto.

Soto's story is quite similar to that of Judy Griffin, another wheelchair bus rider whose experience was part of our initial investigation. Eyewitness News cameras captured a bus driver telling Judy just hold on to her chair with her hands.

"I don't even eat by myself, so how am I going to hang on to the wheelchair?" asked Judy Griffin.

Failure to provide equal access to public transportation for people with disabilities is a violation of federal law, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other words, MTA buses must be equipped with working equipment to secure wheelchairs. In addition, MTA drivers must be trained in how to use wheelchair securements.

For a second time, Eyewitness News set up hidden cameras to see if the wheelchairs are more secure and if the equipment is being maintained on MTA buses. In addition, the investigation checked out whether drivers were more sensitive to disabled riders.

It seems cameras caught Cynde Soto having the same problems as Judy Griffin in our first investigation. She too has no core control to hold herself up.

"I do not want to be a flying object when they have to slam on the brakes," said Soto.

Dr. Larry Schneider studies wheelchair safety at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Dr. Schneider says that when a wheelchair rider is not properly secured, a person can be seriously or fatally injured.

On the other hand, a city bus crash in Texas last year showed two disabled riders were not hurt because they were properly secured.

Eyewitness News obtained a document from the MTA's Accessibility Advisory Committee that states "the average tip-over of scooters is around three per week". When asked to confirm or clarify the report for Eyewitness News, the MTA repeatedly declined.

Eyewitness news also obtained 957 complaint reports. Each one is an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Complaints ranged from a bus operator failing to open doors for a wheelchair patron, to an operator not giving a blind man enough time to sit down before pulling away, to an operator yelling that he or she did not "pick up crippled people."

"I feel angry because I know my civil rights," said Cynde Soto. "Also it makes me feel kind of small, like I'm not worthy ... I'm not worth the effort to make sure I have a safe ride."

There is a voluntary industry standard for wheelchairs called WC19. These wheelchairs have been designed to make the securement of the chairs inside buses easier, and therefore safer.

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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