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Killing Them With Kindness

The CTA's improved access for the disabled may be just a smokescreen for deep service cuts.



For most of her life, Carlos Clarke Drazen has had to navigate her wheelchair over, through, and around obstacles. But nothing has proved so confusing or treacherous as RTA and CTA rules and regulations, which soon may leave her stuck on a street corner without a way to get to work. "In many ways it's painfully ironic," says Drazen, a 46-year-old native Chicagoan. "I may have to give up my job--not because of any condition, but because I can't get there."

Her condition is a bone disorder called vitamin D resistance, which, as her doctor, Karen Ekwueme, wrote in a letter to the CTA and RTA, "prevents her body from processing calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D into bone mass." As a result, her bones "are very porous and brittle, and can fracture (break) if she is struck a sharp blow or shaken very roughly."

"In my younger years I was breaking bones at an unbelievable rate," says Drazen. "I once turned around in bed and broke my hip, knee, and ankle. I was in traction that whole summer. I spent most of my early life in and out of hospitals."

Still, she graduated from Jesse Spalding High School for Handicapped Children and Southern Illinois University. Then she came home to Chicago to establish a career as an expert in disability-rights law. In 1995 she took her current job as a project coordinator with the Department of Disabilities and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The job forced her to figure out how to get from her apartment on the 1300 block of North Cleveland to her office on the 1600 block of West Roosevelt. "I can't drive," she says, "and I can't just hop on a bus, because it's very difficult for me to get on and off without threatening to break my bones."

She soon learned that the CTA provides door-to-door "paratransit" service for disabled commuters, as long as the RTA approves them for such services. So she had her doctor send a letter explaining her condition to the RTA. "They signed me up without any problem," she says. "The van comes at 7:30. I wait in my lobby. When I see it, I roll out. It drops me off at work, and then it takes me back home in the afternoon."

But early last year Drazen received a notice from the RTA telling her that she would have to be "recertified" for home-to-work service. "Only now," she says, "the recertification procedure had changed."

A doctor's letter was no longer enough. "I had to fill out a longer form and come out for an interview of sorts," she says. "They sent me out by paratransit to an RTA office somewhere out on Higgins Road. They asked me a lot of questions. They asked me if I could roll onto a lift ramp and roll off of a lift ramp. They asked if I could turn my wheelchair around. They asked, how far I can roll my wheelchair? One block? Two blocks? Did I find it easy to roll my wheelchair? Can I back up a short distance? If the weather is nice, can I sit outside and wait for the bus? Then they took me upstairs to a corridor and asked to see me roll back and forth along the corridor."

To Drazen, the exam seemed senseless and irrelevant. "Of course I can roll in my wheelchair," she says. "It's a motorized chair. I push a joystick, so I can go as far as I want--until my battery wears out. If the weather's nice I can sit and wait. That's not the point. The real issue is whether I can get on and off a crowded bus, pay my fare, get my transfer, roll to the wheelchair locking device, weaving between people who are standing if I have to, and then turn around--a 180-degree turn--and lock myself in the locking device. I can't do that without fear of an accident that could break my bones. The test they gave me had nothing to do with whether I can negotiate this sort of obstacle course--which I would have to do four times a day if I were riding the bus to work."

Nonetheless, the RTA sent her a letter explaining that her certification had changed. She was now certified as a "seasonal rider" instead of a full-time rider, which meant that she was eligible for service only during the winter, between November 15 and March 15. She quickly learned that even during the winter months she now couldn't automatically get daily service. Instead she had to arrange for a pickup each day by calling the CTA 24 hours in advance. "If you want to be picked up Monday morning at 7:30, you have to call them on Sunday morning by 6 AM," she says. "If you want to be picked up on Tuesday, you have to call on Monday--and so forth."

Drazen wrote back to the RTA requesting an appeal, as its regulations allow. Several months passed, and then on March 13 she got a telephone call from Nancy Corral, a CTA official. "She left me a message on the office phone informing me that my paratransit ends as of Friday, March 16," says Drazen. "Needless to say, I was in a panic."

She'd experimented with the regular buses last summer, rolling south on Cleveland to Division, where she caught the number 70 bus to Ashland. At that corner, she caught the number 9 bus south to Roosevelt. "I went with Patrick, my husband, who would not be there for me every day of the year because he has his own job," she says. "I couldn't have done it without him. Not only did I have difficulty getting on and negotiating my way to the locking device, but the service was unpredictable. My husband and I sat at Ashland and Division for two and half hours one time. Drivers would stop and say, 'My lift's not working.' Or they would just drive by."

Based on those experiences, she concluded that she would be unable to get to work every day on time if she had to rely on regular buses. So she began calling CTA and RTA officials, bouncing back and forth from one to the other. "I called Nancy Corral back, but I couldn't reach her. I got her voice mail. So I called James Payne, who works with disability services--he's been a prince through all of this. I explained what had happened, and he gave me the number of Ann LaFever, with RTA certification. I called her and got her voice mail, and wound up talking to one of her assistants."

At times she found herself engaged in wide-ranging philosophical debates with transit officials on the logic and purpose of encouraging the disabled to ride regular buses. More and more buses and trains are equipped with lifts as a result of a successful lawsuit filed in the 1980s by disabled activists. Strangely enough, CTA and RTA officials now parrot much of the accessibility rhetoric they once scorned, arguing that disabled commuters no longer need to depend on paratransit.

Indeed, some disabled activists are reluctant to lend Drazen support, fearing it might undermine the movement toward full accessibility. Yet Drazen says the rhetoric is worthless if the lifts don't work or the drivers won't cooperate.

That issue is now the subject of a lawsuit filed against the CTA by Equip for Equality, a disability-rights advocacy group. "Our suit focuses on those buses and trains that the CTA alleges are accessible," says Barry Taylor, Equip's legal advocacy director. "We've put together about 300 complaints. It could be that drivers refuse to deploy the lifts or pick up disabled passengers, or there could be gaps between the trains and the platform, or the elevators at train stations are broken. This is an enforcement case. We're trying to make sure the CTA's following the law that already exists."

Drazen says she wants the CTA and RTA to aim for full accessibility. "But they have to be logical about how the system works," she says. "I got one CTA official on the phone who told me I needed to appeal the RTA's classification of me, and I told him, 'If the appeal is like the first certification review it's not very relevant--because it won't determine my ability to board a bus under normal rush-hour circumstances.' He said, 'We don't have to worry about anything other than whether you can roll onto the lift platform. We make the assumption that the driver is going to help you on and off.' I said, 'But there's no guarantee that the driver will even stop, much less help strap me in.' And he said, 'We have to make the assumption that he does. And if he doesn't, you will report him.' I'm thinking, great, I'll report him. A lot of good that does for me when I need to get to work."

After many phone calls, Drazen got a break when an RTA official granted her the right to appeal her seasonal classification. But while she and the RTA were working out scheduling for a hearing at the RTA's downtown offices, she got a call from a CTA employee. "He said he was a 'trip screener'"--someone whose job is to keep ineligible people from riding paratransit. "He said that since I was registered as 'certified seasonal' I was not eligible for paratransit to RTA's headquarters for my appeal. I said, 'But if I can't get there I won't be able to make my appeal. And if I don't make my appeal I won't be able to change my certification. And if I don't change my certification, then I won't be able to get to work.' He came back with the same old argument. He said they had looked at the trip I would have to take from my office to the RTA's office, and they had determined that there was a bus I could take from Roosevelt Road to Racine. And then I can transfer to, oh, I forget where, but somehow or other I'd end up near the RTA headquarters on Wells. In other words, I was trapped in a catch-22."

She broke down, telling friends she was going to quit. "But they talked me out of it." She called the RTA, finding her way to an employee named Lillian Wallace. "I explained to her what the CTA had told me, and she said that doesn't make any sense because we, meaning the RTA, are the ones who set up paratransit. She said she would call the CTA and straighten things out. I was thinking, OK, this is wonderful--you have two agencies and one doesn't know what the other one's doing."

On March 30, Drazen got another break when the RTA assured her that it would ask the CTA to send a van to carry her to her appeal. "On the issue of whether she can take paratransit to her appeal," says Dave Loveday, the RTA's director of communications, "that was a mistake to say no, she can't." But, he adds, "If there are fixed, accessible routes from her house to her work, she's not eligible for paratransit."

Noelle Gaffney, spokeswoman for the CTA, says a CTA inspector rode Drazen's route, taking the Division Street bus to Ashland and the Ashland bus to Roosevelt. "We examined her route," she says, "and determined that it was accessible."

Drazen says the CTA is missing the central point. "Let me guess--they sent an able-bodied person on a bus from my house to my job?" she says. "What's the point of that? Where's the logic? I think it's amazing that I could end up losing my job and be poor and out of the mainstream because they cling to this notion that they're providing accessible service when they're not."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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