`We will ride'. Black civil rights activists wanted the right to sit in the front of the bus. Disabled people want the right to get on the bus - and the subway, and the train, and the plane.

JUDY HUEMANN, who uses a wheelchair, watched as bus after bus in New York City refused to pick her up. She finally halted one by ramming her chair into the steps. An off-duty policeman told the driver, ``You've got to take her. It's her right and it's the law.'' Ms. Huemann, co-director of the World Institute on Disability, points out that the bus had a wheelchair lift. Many still don't. It has been 24 years since the Urban Mass Transportation Act was passed, the first legislation giving disabled people the same rights to public transportation as nondisabled people have. But all too often, people with disabilities still don't have access to mainstream public transportation.

``Transportation is the No. 1 problem facing disabled people,'' says Ed Roberts, president of the World Institute on Disability, in Berkeley, Calif.

A 1986 Harris & Associates survey found that two-thirds of people with disabilities hadn't gone to a movie or a sports event in the previous year, three-fourths did not see live theater or go to a concert. Almost 80 percent of very severely disabled people do not get around on public transportation. And 28 percent said the reason they are not working is lack of accessible or affordable transportation.

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act provides protection against discrimination for disabled people in federally funded programs and requires access in all public transportation over a period of time. After it was signed, the American Public Transit Association (APTA), a trade organization for transportation companies, filed suit on behalf of the Department of Transportation, claiming the regulations were burdensome and cumbersome. The decision in APTA's favor rolled back a provision that would have required lifts on all new buses.

The Department of Transportation spent six years developing the final regulations. The result: Each transit company has ``local option'' to decide how it is going to meet the needs of its disabled population.

``Our position is that local communities know best and should be able to choose the service they can provide,'' says Albert Engelken, deputy executive director of APTA. ``If you're in Fargo, N.D., on a street corner in January, maybe a lift on every bus doesn't make sense.''

``Theoretically, local option can be designed to meet needs,'' says Dennis Cannon, a transport accessibility specialist with the Architecture and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. ``But in reality the transportation company gets to pick what services it wants to provide. In most situations in which plans are presented in public hearings, the overwhelming request is for `fixed route' accessibility - making the entire system accessible over time. Most of the time [the companies] opt for paratransit [door-to-door van service].''

Local option is ``like Mississippi deciding how it's going to treat black people,'' says Wade Blank, co-director of Americans Disabled for Public Transportation (ADAPT), an organization that has been battling for better access for six years. ADAPT, which has chapters in 33 cities, has taken its cues from the civil rights movement. Media-savvy, its members have used civil disobediance tactics like chaining themselves to San Francisco cable cars and pulverizing curbs to make curb cuts. They've also been arrested, in increasing numbers.

Groups like ADAPT and the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association fight for better transportation city by city. In Washington, D.C., some buses are equipped with lifts and some aren't.

``You call 24 hours in advance,'' says Mary Jane Owen, director of Disability Focus Inc., in Washington. ``Then you can have a bus with a lift come to your closest route. Then you have to set up this whole elaborate system of transfers. If your bus is delayed and the driver can't operate the lift, you're in trouble.''

In 1978, Denver had no accessible buses. Now the entire fleet of 730 is equipped with lifts, serving the 20,000 people in Denver who use wheelchairs. Soon 60,000 people in Chicago will be able to ride; 600 new buses with lifts have been ordered. Officials in Dallas; Kansas City, Mo.; and St. Louis all signed agreements with ADAPT pledging that they will start buying accessible buses.

Estimates based on US census figures indicate that 2 percent of the population is mobility-impaired. ``And that doesn't include the elderly or mothers with strollers who might be able to use a lift,'' says Mike Auberger, an organizer for ADAPT.

``There's been some progress,'' Mr. Blank says. ``There are probably 20 cities that are wheelchair accessible that weren't when we started.''

The APTA's Mr. Engelken estimates that one-third of the bus systems nationwide have lifts, one-third have a combination of lifts and paratransit, and one-third have only paratransit.

``Seattle is the absolute best city for disabled people to get transportation,'' says Kitty Cone, who is on the board of the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. She is a consultant on disability issues to the Alameda/Contra Costa transit company. On one bus trip there, she notes, the driver lowered the lift, strapped the rider and chair to it, and raised it, and the rider motored back to a large open spot set up specifically for wheelchairs. Then the driver placed another strap around the rider. The whole process took about three minutes, passengers didn't bat an eye, and the driver was cheerful. Wheelchair riders say the only problem with Seattle is that the buses have space for only two wheelchairs.

And the new ``state-of-the-art'' Lift-U-Lift, Blank says, is quicker and doesn't involve the driver until the rider is on the bus and ready to be strapped into place. Total time involved: less than two minutes.

In many cities, broken lifts and drivers not trained or unwilling to use them are big problems. In Denver, the local union refused to assist passengers in using the lifts. So ADAPT started putting on ``captive riders,'' disabled riders who get on with the help of an attendant, who gets off at the next stop. One woman, says Blank, rode for 3 hours, until the president of the union got her off the bus. His local no longer opposes assisting, he says.

Paratransit systems, sometimes known as ``Dial-A-Ride'' services, are lift-equipped vans that transport disabled people when called. Some riders oppose them because they are a segregated system. Others find them inconvenient: Many services require riders to submit requests 24 to 48 hours in advance and operate only during business hours, trips are expensive, and rides are prioritized; you can go to the doctor but not the movies. Many people with disabilities say that paratransit can't be relied on to get them to work on time.

Despite the disadvantages, for other riders it's just the ticket. ``As a blind wheelchair user, I need something that will come to my house and pick me up,'' says Ms. Owen. ``And there are older women in my building who have failing sight or arthritis. They never leave the building. If there were some way that could meet my need, it could meet their needs, too. It's not that I want something just for me.'' She and other people with disabilities say they would like to see a system flexible and creative enough to meet diverse needs.

``I believe that disabled people should be able to use mainstream transportation, but it's one of the toughest nuts to crack,'' says Gerben DeJong, research director of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. ``I don't know any society that has managed to work it out. The cost issue is a big one. The whole environment has to be accessible. If you have one part of it that is inaccessible, the rest is inaccessible, too. And the number of wheelchair users is really quite small.''

According to Department of Transportation regulations, transit companies haven't had to spend more than 3 percent of their budgets to make their fleets accessible. Which meant that if there was money for 2,000 rides, the 2001st rider might stay home. But in January, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania struck down that provision, saying that ``the cost limitation at issue here permits the burden of cost to eviscerate the civil right.''

Now companies are required to provide the most cost-effective method of providing services to patrons with disabilities. Disability rights activists say that since federal funds provide 80 percent of the cost of installing a wheelchair lift, the cost factor is not a great one.

A certain amount of paratransit will always be needed to serve riders with severe disabilities. But some of the companies, thinking that it was cheaper, have used paratransit as their sole service for all their disabled patrons. Many have found that paying for drivers in the long run is more expensive than replacing obsolete buses with lift-equipped ones.

``The trend is that more agencies are using fixed route services. I think as time goes on that more and more will find out that paratransit is like throwing money down the Grand Canyon,'' says Mr. Cannon.

APTA has set up a task force, in conjunction with disability rights groups, that is developing a policy to promote full access on mainline routes and would have the effect of shifting current local option to federal control.

Next Tuesday: Technology: adaptive aids, high-tech and low, that enable disabled people to live and work more independently.

Next Friday: Civil rights and the culture of deaf people. Previous articles in this series appeared on April 25 (blind), July 8 (civil rights movement), July 11 (families), and July 15 (independent living).

`It's the law'

Key legislation affecting the rights of disabled people to public transportation:

1964 Urban Mass Transportation Act. Gives elderly and disabled persons the same right as other people to use mass transport facilities and services. Requires local jurisdictions to plan and design mass transportation facilities and services to be available to and usable by elderly and disabled persons.

1973 Federal Aid Highway Act. Allows grants and loans to private nonprofit organizations and authorizes up to 2 percent of the Urban Mass Transportation Fund for special transportation services benefiting elderly and disabled individuals. Authorizes use of funds to provide curb cuts across curbs constructed or replaced after July 1, 1976.

Other legislation passed in 1973 decrees reduction of fares on mass transportation during nonpeak hours for elderly and disabled persons and directs Amtrak to make its trains accessible.

In 1977, regulations added to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act prohibit exclusion of people with disabilities from any federally assisted transportation program.

1986 Air Carrier Access Act. Prohibits air carriers from discriminating against disabled persons.

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