Many people with disabilities depend on public transportation to get around in an unsympathetic world.
When University of Oregon student Michael Mills leaves his apartment complex to go to the bus stop, it’s a struggle.
Mills’s gait is awkward, almost knock-kneed. He moves at a slow, staggering pace, regularly pausing to brace himself on walls, windows, door frames, and anything else nearby to regain his sense of stability before continuing. On his way out of the apartment, Mills passes by his adult tricycle, custom-built to allow him to carry groceries home with his limited balancing abilities.
Mills was born with a debilitating case of muscular dystrophy, an inherited disorder that causes muscle loss over time. Simply leaving his apartment complex is a challenge. Traveling long distances on his own is not an option.
While stepping onto the bus, the driver snaps at him for taking too long, unaware that Mills is disabled. Once on the crowded vehicle, Mills sits next to a stranger, who promptly leans away from Mills, pressing his body up against the window for the duration of the ride. This happens twice more before Mills’s daily ride is complete.
None of this appears to faze him though. Mills sits comfortably, content with the ride. He even chats with a rider in a wheelchair about bus routing, impervious to the stares of others.
“People often do look at me strangely,” Mills says nonchalantly.
For Mills, it’s a matter of familiarity—he’s done this many, many times after all. His bike, though convenient, can only carry him so far and isn’t the fastest form of transportation around. For Mills, the bus is one of the only options he has for leading an independent life.
Mills isn’t alone in his situation. In September 2011 alone, there were 10,575 “Mobility Assisted” riders using Lane Transit District (LTD) buses, according to the organization’s monthly review. This number only includes those with physical mobility problems such as wheelchair users; it doesn’t take into account the people with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses who can’t own or operate a car. For these individuals, the bus is their lifeline to the outside world.
These transit-bound individuals—called “transit captives” by many within the mass transit industry—are the people hit the hardest by the routing eliminations and scheduling reductions that often accompany economic recessions.
Many other people can find alternatives to the bus if their particular route is cut or if a change in route schedule makes it difficult to get places on time. This isn’t the case for transit captives; for them, each service reduction makes it more difficult to live independently.
With the economic recession, LTD has seen a dramatic increase in ridership. According to the LTD website, this past April saw just over one million riders—the highest number in the organization’s thirty-year history. In turn, this means riders with mental illnesses or physical and developmental disabilities who have always been dependent on the bus system must share space with more and more people, making it even harder for them when riders display ignorance toward their condition.
For some like Mills, it’s never been more than an odd look or two. Others, however, have not been so lucky.
“We had a client not very long ago who was assaulted coming off the bus, and it was really because someone didn’t like the way he looked,” Full Access Chief Executive Officer Margaret Theisen says.
Full Access is a nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon, dedicated to helping people with mental and physical disabilities integrate into the community.
Theisen says people with disabilities are some of the most abused people in American society, and the offenses against them range from the subtle to the extreme.
“We had an example where someone groped one of our clients in public, and we had someone else who was beaten to the point of nearly being murdered,” Theisen says.
Stories like this, Theisen explains, rarely get mentioned in the media due to the confidentiality of police investigations, but they definitely do happen—and much more frequently than people realize.
Gretchen Dubie is the Executive Director of the Oregon Supported Living Program (OLSP), a nonprofit organization geared toward helping adults with developmental disabilities. She says many victims of this kind of harassment refuse to come forward about what they’ve experienced.
“Sometimes it has to do with people’s perceptions of what’s a valid crime or what’s worthy of taking further,” Dubie says. “Other times, I think things aren’t reported out of fear, or [victims] thinking that people won’t believe them or they’ll get in trouble.”
Both Theisen and Dubie serve as members of Look Me in the Eye, a joint nonprofit project between Full Access and OLSP. Started a little over a year ago, Look Me in the Eye works to end the discrimination and harassment that people with disabilities face on a daily basis. The organization hopes to accomplish this through promoting acceptance for people with disabilities in the community.
“Research and statistics show that if you embrace people in your community, people with disabilities are more likely to feel the natural support within the community,” Dubie says. “They are less likely to have [harassment] happen to them—and if they do, they have the ability to reach out and tell someone.”
While Look Me in the Eye strives to ensure wider community acceptance, Full Access aims to address the more immediate needs of disabled individuals.
Across town from the Full Access building, LTD Accessible Services Manager Terry Parker leans over a map detailing all the bus routes currently offered. The issue at hand: figuring out the possible costs and consequences of cutting a route.
Route cutting is a regular occurrence these days, as the economic recession continues to slash LTD’s funding. Through it all, Parker must make sure people with disabilities get where they need to go.
“My world consists of taking a variety of different funds from a variety of different sources and trying to cobble them together in order to make sure that older adults and people with disabilities get served in the community,” Parker says. “There are people who can walk or ride bicycles . . . but for many other people, mass transit really is their main way of getting around.”
It’s for the sake of those people that Parker’s job exists. She oversees programs mandated by both state and federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which ensures people who have disabilities or illnesses that prevent them from riding the normal fixed route system have an alternative method of transportation in place.
In Lane County, that alternative is RideSource, a program that provides free LTD shuttle rides to those who need it. Unlike many communities in Oregon that only started comparable programs after ADA was passed, LTD began forming predecessors to RideSource in 1985 when the Oregon Special Transportation Fund was created.
The fund, run by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), is granted to all counties in the state for the explicit purpose of helping people with disabilities stay mobile. LTD jumped at the opportunity, examining the best way to serve its disabled population before it became a federal mandate five years later.
Parker thinks LTD was quick to make use of the resources made available by the Special Transportation Fund in order to meet the needs of Eugene’s vibrant and socially conscientious community.
“This is Eugene,” Parker says. “People expect it from us, and LTD really feels that not only would we be violating the ADA, we’d also be violating the trust of our community. We’d be letting them down.”
Mills, who serves as chairman of the Full Access Board of Directors, agrees with Parker that LTD respects the needs of its community.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with an LTD driver,” Mills says. He adds LTD has been very receptive to the needs of disabled riders when a route that was sorely needed got cut.
“As long as a group of people with disabilities speaks up, [LTD] will do something about it,” Mills says.
Regarding the matter of acceptance, though, Mills knows there are problems. And, although groups like Full Access and OSLP are working hard to correct this issue, he thinks the bulk of the burden falls on the shoulders of the community as a whole.
But this responsibility is both simple and crucial, hinging on one important component:
Riders need to speak up when they witness abuse, be it physical or verbal. The only way to make this become a reality is to send a clear message that people with disabilities deserve to be treated with respect.
“If you’re riding a bus and someone is picking on someone, you speak up,” Mills says. “You tell the bus driver (they have a radio) ‘Call someone.’ Or, if you’re the bus driver, you stop the bus and you take care of it yourself. But always speak up.”