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Buses for Every Body

Wheelchair-bound activists vs. the CTA: Don't give us rides, give us lifts.

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Mike Ervin has just finished brushing his teeth and washing his face when the bus arrives.

"My God," says Ervin, "it's early. It's only 15 minutes late."

Ervin looks at his watch. It's 8:45 AM. He pushes a button that controls the battery that operates his wheelchair, which whizzes to the front door, where the bus driver stands somewhat sheepishly, ready to take Ervin to work.

Actually, Ervin's trip to work began the night before. That's when he called the bus company to ask for a ride. The mainstream buses in the CTA fleet cannot carry wheelchairs, so Ervin relies on the special "paratransit" service -- a subsidized taxi service, is what the CTA calls it -- as do some 13,000 other disabled riders (though few use it on a daily basis, as Ervin does).

Which explains why the line was busy when Ervin called the night before. He hung up, and tried two more times, before he was put on hold. After which a dispatcher warned him to be ready at 8:30 AM sharp.

"How ya' doin', sir?" the driver begins, ready, it seems, to apologize for being late.

"I'm ready," says Ervin, his eyes blinking in the sun.

He whizzes past the driver to the bus, a 12-seater, and stops atop a metallic ramp. It's the lift.

The driver pulls a lever, and with a wheezing, grinding sound the lift rises, slowly, almost tentatively, as though it might not reach the top, before depositing Ervin into the rear of the bus.

"I'm in," says Ervin, "I'm in."

He turns to his companion. "You ever drive in one of these before? Well, hang on."

Some of these vans are older, with thousands of stop-and-go miles on them, Ervin explains. They have no cushions to absorb the pounding of the lift, and the shocks are well worn.

His words are barely out before the bus lurches forward with a jolt that almost knocks the companion to the floor.

"I told you, hold on," says Ervin. "Especially after we come to stops. That's when it's the worst."

The bus hits a bump and pops up and then slams back to the ground.

"I'm fine," says Ervin. "It's you I'm worried about. My seat's bolted down. It's a bumpy ride."

It's also a circuitous one. Ervin lives on Halsted Street, near Fullerton; his office is on the near west side.

But the bus has another passenger -- an able-bodied fellow with blond hair, his handicap is presumably mental -- bound for Cook County Hospital. So it does not head straight south, as does the Halsted Street bus Ervin would like to be able to ride. Instead, the driver turns west onto North Avenue, where he's greeted by a solid wall of traffic.

For five minutes, the van waits in traffic. Then the driver shifts into gear, hurdles over a railroad track, across a pothole, and around a curve, the lift all the time slamming hard -- bang, bang, bang -- against the metallic floor.

Wham. The bus hits another pothole. It's too noisy to continue conversation. So Ervin and his companion sit quietly as the bus winds its way through the stolid brick factories and warehouses of the near west side, dropping its other passenger at the hospital. Up ahead, a green light has changed to yellow; if the driver hurries, he'll beat the red. So he shoves the van into a higher gear, storms through the intersection, and jerks to a halt. Mike Ervin has made it to work.

The driver hops out of the seat, secures Ervin in the lift, and lets him down. All told, the ride, which on the regular bus might take at most 30 minutes, has covered almost an hour.

"Now you understand what I've been trying to tell you," Ervin finally finishes. "This ride is why we need lifts on buses."

He smiles when he says it, though he finds little pleasure in the issue. Along with about one hundred other disabled activists, Ervin has mounted an aggressive four-year campaign, demanding lifts on regular buses.

Their efforts have included several high-spirited protests. They've blocked buses with their wheelchairs and disrupted CTA board meetings with chants and catcalls.

The results have been a rigid standoff. On one side are the disabled activists, a gutty and determined lot. They have to be. The traumas they must overcome -- from heart attacks to paralysis -- just to get around each day are monumental.

"We are determined not to allow a disability to confine us," says Judy Benson, a leader of the struggle for lifts on buses.

On top of the inconveniences of the service, the activists insist that the dial-a-ride is inadequate. It does not offer late-night service, and has few suburban routes. The fact that the CTA clings to it, say the disabled activists, proves that the transit leaders regard them as a bunch of freaks. They would rather shove them into the back of the bus, or, more precisely, off it altogether, than treat them like equal human beings.

On the other side is the CTA, whose leaders plead their case with almost as much passion and conviction.

Lifts don't work, the CTA insists. No, that's not strong enough. Lifts cannot work. Period. End of discussion.

During our cold winters, the lifts would break; they'd cause buses to stall and traffic to snarl. Before all was said and done, we'd wind up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on those damn lifts. Look at lifts in any other town and you'll see. They're impossible. That's just the way it is.

The last point the CTA raises is a telling one. Chicago is the last of the big-time cities without lifts on regular buses. New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, they all have lifts on at least some of their buses.

And yet the CTA persists. You would figure they would concede just a little bit, at least agree to experiment with service, if for no other reason than to get the activists off their back. But no, board members -- black, white, Hispanic, Republican, Democratic, city, and suburban board members alike -- come and go and the final answer is always the same. Only one board member (Jim Charlton) has ever voted for lifts on buses. But then, Charlton, appointed last year by Mayor Washington, is disabled himself.

And his vote makes no difference. He's just one of seven board members (four appointed by the mayor, three by the governor) who make transportation policy for the city and a few closely linked suburbs.

And now the whole shebang is in the hands of the Illinois Human Rights Commission -- specifically, Patricia Patton, the commission's chief administrative law judge. Let her decide.

The activists filed suit, seeking to force the CTA to buy lifts, in May of 1985. Two years ago. And last year a Cook County Circuit Court judge enjoined the CTA from buying any more buses until the Human Rights Commission case was resolved. Prolonged litigation could make it a matter of years before an aging fleet of buses is replenished, all at a cost (in litigation, that is) not yet known.

Joyce Hughes, the CTA's chief attorney, won't say how much the CTA has spent fighting this little legal war. Robert Paaswell, the CTA's executive director, says he does not know (in his defense, the decision to go to court was made before he took over). And most board members won't comment, except Charlton. He estimates the tab on outside legal fees for the case is over $1 million and rising. That's enough money to outfit dozens of buses with lifts.

"It costs them more to keep us off buses," quips Kent Jones, lead plaintiff in the case, "than to put lifts on."

This is bureaucratic bullheadedness at its worst, the activists say, or, the CTA counters, at its best. For some CTA representatives convey a sense of pride in their stubbornness.

"We're right; I know we're right," says John Hoellen, appointed to the board by Governor Thompson in 1979. "The courts will eventually agree with us. The other side's point is ludicrous."

The CTA figures that its rigidity defends taxpayers from every fool idea that rolls down the pike (like air conditioning on buses -- a monumental failure when the CTA eventually gave in and installed it).

But are lifts destined to fail? Will they inevitably lead to added inconvenience and cost? And should such practical considerations hold sway over civil rights principles, like equal access?

To all of these questions, the CTA's answer is a resounding yes. The disabled activists' response, of course, is no. Or, at least in regard to the first few questions, "Who knows?" After all, we will never understand how lifts operate unless we try them.

"Sometimes I wonder why it is that they [the CTA] fight us so much," says Mike Ervin. "Maybe it's macho. They don't want to give in. They sort of remind me of those old sheriffs who fought the civil rights movement in the south. You know, 'Ain't no outsider gonna come in and tell me how to run my town.' Well, the CTA isn't going to let no guy in a wheelchair tell them what to do with their buses."

His analogy to the civil rights movement is revealing. The disabled movement evolved from the political dissent of the 1960s. In those days, few of the accommodations we now take for granted (handicapped parking spaces and large bathroom stalls, for instance) existed. The disabled were treated like a nonentity. They looked different. Their appearances shocked our sensibilities and their apparent helplessness embarrassed us; better we kept them out of sight.

That attitude changed, in part because the disabled rebelled. They began to view equal access as a civil right. They insisted that to deny a man in a wheelchair access, say, to a bus bound for the Loop meant, among other things, denying him access to jobs and economic opportunities. You've got to build ramps on sidewalks, install lifts on buses, widen toilet stalls, activists insisted. Otherwise you might as well slap a big sign across the business district reading: "People in wheelchairs need not apply."

Nonsense, the establishment retorted. The disabled are not like blacks, Puerto Ricans, or other minorities. You can't approximate equality between a man who can use his legs and arms and another who cannot. If you did you'd be installing ramps and lifts and widening toilet stalls all over the place. It would cost a fortune. Where would it stop?

No matter, the disability movement persisted; and indeed, it expanded, bringing together a diverse coalition of gutsy and determined survivors. Survival is indeed the appropriate word, for most have survived catastrophic injuries or muscle-paralyzing diseases. And by 1973, they'd waged enough protest and mustered enough clout to force President Nixon to enact a federal law banning discrimination against the "handicapped."

What that meant in practical terms was open to debate. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter dragged their feet on writing specific regulations. Their delay helped galvanize protest, and led to perhaps the most glorious moment in the struggle for disability rights.

That came in April of 1977. Hundreds of activists, most of them in wheelchairs, invaded the regional headquarters in cities across the country of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. They demanded that Joseph Califano, the secretary of HEW, immediately establish and enforce regulations prohibiting discrimination against the handicapped.

It was a heady moment. Other activists embraced their cause. The sit-in at the San Francisco office lasted nearly a month, "the longest occupation of a federal office by protesters in U.S. history," Ervin recalls. Eventually, Califano responded, ordering, among other things, that buses purchased with federal moneys be fitted with lifts.

The rule threw the CTA into a near panic. At the time, it had no service for the disabled. If a disabled fellow wanted to go from his apartment to the hospital, he'd either drive (if he could), ride a cab (if he could -- most wheelchairs can't fit into cars), or call for an ambulance, an expensive proposition even then.

The CTA tried to figure out what to do next. Not that the new regulation was the first of its concerns. It had other problems, more pressing and of wider concern, like strikes, pending bankruptcy, and public outcries over fare hikes.

Years passed, and little had been done by 1981, when the board got a reprieve. Ronald Reagan marched into office and decided that lift requirements were but another example of excessive government regulation. He replaced that regulation with the theory of "local option." Hereafter, Reagan ruled, municipal transit companies could do what they wanted for the disabled, so long as they spent at least 3 percent of their total budget doing it.

"It's a silly stipulation, when you think about it," says Kent Jones. "It means that if the CTA wanted to, they could spend the money installing elevators at train stops. That wouldn't do most wheelchair people any good, since we still could not get on the trains, but the CTA would satisfy their federal requirements."

The CTA board opted for para-transit, or dial-a-ride service. Its first supervisor, Jim Charlton, routed and scheduled the service to satisfy an intense demand.

"It was a real headache," Charlton recalls. "We had a fleet of 20 buses that we had to coordinate all over the city."

The first budget was about $2 million. The service ran on weekdays from six in the morning to ten at night, and from 6 AM to 6 PM on weekends. It worked then, in essence, as it does on an expanded basis now. Applicants solicit certificates from their doctors, testifying to the fact that they are incapable of riding mainline buses. The CTA, after a proper amount of paper shuffling, sends back a plastic ID (complete with picture) and pounds the applicant's name into some giant computer.

From the start, there were problems, mostly dealing with the logistics of routing. Charlton had to service the entire city. It was not rare for a bus carting riders from Lincoln Park downtown to first cut west to Wicker Park and then south to Douglas Park before heading east to the Loop. A trip normally a half hour long often took more than an hour on the para-transit line.

At first the riders' protest was haphazard and without focus. But gradually a group emerged. Among others, it included: Kent Jones, an engineer with the Metropolitan Sanitary District; Mike Ervin and his sister Cris Matthews, both writers; Susan Nussbaum, a playwright and actress; and activist Judy Benson.

Some had sustained serious injuries in accidents, others suffered from congenital diseases. Most were affiliated with Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago -- a not-for-profit "human service" and counseling agency that teaches independent living to the disabled.

"We shared a philosophy that we could not allow ourselves to be shoved outside of the mainstream," says Matthews. "We figured that if the mainstream wasn't going to accept us, we would stand up for our rights anyway."

They met frequently to plot strategy and exchange horror stories. Like the time Jones stood up for his rights to have equal-access toilets installed in the washroom at the Metropolitan Sanitary District's main office.

"The state law says the toilet should be five feet by five feet. You've got to have grab bars and doors that open outward," says Jones. "Well, we didn't have that. So I raised hell, and they made the adjustment. There was the usual amount of grumbling. People said you'd really got it made. 'You have your own toilet.' Isn't that something! I'm supposed to be thrilled because they finally adjusted the stall so I could use it."

Or the time that Matthews called a state legislator, seeking help on some bill in Springfield.

"He told Cris, 'I'll support you, honey,'" Ervin recalls. "'But I'll tell you this. Everybody wants to do something they can't. I'd like to dunk a basketball, but I can't.' I mean, he's Mr. Sensitivity, right? They feel, 'Hey, you're in a wheelchair, that's tough but that's life. What can I do about it?'"

In time, the group's loose structure became more coherent. Jones, in particular, pressed them to organize. He had been to Denver and Seattle and other cities where the disabled community had demanded equal access, and he was impressed.

"Chicago was really behind the times in a lot of respects," says Ervin. "Folks out in Denver didn't just ask their state representative for help, they demanded it. It was classic Alinsky organizing. Kent Jones really got us together. He said, come on let's try it, you know, what the hell else do we have to lose!" So they picked the most likely target, transportation. It was, after all, the bane of their life. Because as long as they were immobilized, they could not work. They couldn't socialize. They couldn't establish an identity in the world outside their homes.

"I'm a pretty strong guy," says Ron Hawkins, whose back was broken in a childhood accident. "I can wheel all over town. But when I can't I get really frustrated. I get angry. I hated being immobile. It's a feeling of helplessness."

Others in the group shared their feelings. One by one they chronicled their frustrations.

"The eight-hour rule is the worst," says Jones. "Just try figuring out to a T what you are going to be doing at this time tomorrow. It destroys spontaneity. You become a prisoner of the dispatcher. You're at a party, and you're having a good time, and then right in the middle, you have to leave because the bus is picking you up. And then, chances are, the bus will be late. So you sit and wait outside as the party goes on, and after a while you feel less like an adult and more like a child, because you're so helpless."

"I had to go to a bar and make arrangements for a party," Ervin recalls. "I had the paratransit drop me off, and then I was going to have a friend pick me up in a van. Only the van broke down. I called the paratransit and asked for a ride, but they said, 'Sorry, you'll have to wait eight hours.'

"So I wheeled home. It was cold and snowy, but what was I to do? Wait eight hours at the bar? I had no choice. I couldn't take a cab. I'd stop for a rest at a bar or store and people would ask is there anything they could do. And I said, 'Yeah, tell the CTA to put lifts on buses.'"

Several of the women told of being sexually harassed by paratransit drivers. One driver had propositioned Judy Benson while she was alone in the bus, her wheelchair bolted to the floor. It had been a terrifying experience. And yet, when she complained, to the CTA as well as the private carrier, nothing happened, Benson says.

And so it was that lifts on buses became a clarion call for disability rights in general. The disabled took a name, ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, the group being a local chapter of a national organization). Publicly they protested, while privately they called on Kathleen Yannias, an attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. ADAPT was ready to file a suit.

Yannias told them that they had a good case, though not in the federal courts. It would be tough to prove that the CTA was not complying with federal law, particularly as the law was established by the Reagan administration.

State law was another matter. The state human rights code, adopted in 1980, stipulates that the handicapped not be denied "the full and equal enjoyment of the facilities and services of any public place of accommodation," which includes buses.

They could claim the CTA had violated the human rights code, a charge that would be heard by a judge of the Human Rights Commission. Now, all they needed were lawyers.

"We have [just] four attorneys. We can develop a case but we can't litigate it. At least not alone," says Yannias. "What we have to do is get assistance -- pro bono -- from the major law firms."

And that wasn't so easy. The CTA is an ample supplier of legal business (some call it pinstripe patronage). Take them on, even for a cause that seems "morally correct" -- and, well, as Yannias puts it, "the CTA doesn't forget. They have long memories. You may never work for them again. On top of that, the law firm that represents the CTA gets paid as the case proceeds. But our lawyers only get paid if we win and the judge assigns legal fees."

Not surprisingly, several firms turned her down before two firms -- Sachnoff Weaver & Rubenstein, Ltd. and D'Ancona & Pflaum -- signed on.

"Our firm has no CTA business, so I can't say how that would have affected our willingness to take the case," says Robert Gettleman, one of two attorneys from D'Ancona who worked on the case. "The lawyers' committee asked me to get in. We studied the case and decided the CTA was wrong. We never thought twice about it."

"It was a daunting task," says Jeffrey Gilbert, the lead attorney on the case from Sachnoff. "We had two lawyers working almost full-time for a month. We reviewed thousands of documents to shape our argument. We took it to court, and then, bam, they ask for a delay."

The fact was that on the eve of the trial, the CTA wasn't ready to present its case. Its lawyer had limited experience in such complex litigation. Almost all the plaintiffs are sure they would have won the case hands down -- when into the court strode Barry Alberts.

"I have to admit that when I saw Alberts come in, I said 'Oh, shit,'" says Yannias. "He's one of the best litigators in town."

Alberts immediately requested a delay, telling the judge he had not had enough time to review the case. The judge turned him down. So Alberts, apparently undaunted, launched a second salvo. He moved to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs, though disabled, were not, technically, handicapped.

"We have argued that the Illinois Human Rights Act was not intended to require owners of public accommodations to undertake affirmative steps to enable people with disabilities to enjoy their facility," says Alberts today.

In other words, the law requires that the CTA (and any other public entity) not discriminate against the handicapped. They cannot, for instance, erect a sign that says, "Handicapped not allowed." Thus, if a person with a handicap -- blindness or deafness, to give two examples -- wishes to board a bus, the CTA must allow him to. Similarly, if a paraplegic can somehow or other figure out a way to fold his wheelchair, stuff it into his pocket, and then wriggle aboard a bus, the CTA cannot prevent him from riding either.

But if the paraplegic is physically incapable of mounting that bus on his own, well, so be it. Life's tough. The state law does not, Alberts concluded, specifically encumber the CTA with the "undue burden" -- either financial or logistical -- of helping that disabled person to mount the bus.

"He was arguing that only those people who can utilize and benefit from a bus without lift assistance [like a blind person] are legally handicapped," says Yannias. "But since the disabled are not physically able to get on the bus themselves, they are not handicapped, and therefore not subject to protection under this law."

"You've got to give him credit," says Gilbert. "It's a hell of an argument -- the ultimate catch-22."

Unfortunately for Alberts (and the CTA), Judge Patton didn't buy it. She denied his request for dismissal, passing her ruling to the full Human Rights Commission for approval (as the procedure requires). They agreed with the judge. But their determination took all of three weeks. Barry Alberts had gotten his delay.

What followed were three months of testimony -- some passionate, some drab and redundant -- filling up more than 10,000 pages of transcript, and involving witnesses flown in from across the country.

Alberts hammered hard at the issue of expense. He called to the stand Robert Paaswell, then director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Michael Ferreri, a transportation analyst and planner. They testified that the up-front installation costs (which they put at about $12,000 a bus) were but one expense that lifts would entail.

Lifts, they testified, generally fold out from the bottom step of the bus to form a platform large enough to fit a wheelchair. The driver then pulls a lever that raises the lift into the bus, whereupon the passenger pays his fee and moves to one of two positions, on the left and right sides of the bus, that are reserved for the disabled.

The problem, Alberts and his witnesses argued, is that a multitude of breakdowns are possible with this arrangement, particularly in the winter when the lifts can be clogged by snow, ice, and salt. Surely they will break down at least once. And about 100 full-time mechanics, at an annual salary of at least $30,000 each, will have to be hired to maintain and repair them.

A further inconvenience of breakdowns was described by witnesses who had seen lifts fail in other cities.

"What happens in many cases," says Paaswell today, "is that they don't rise. And that stalls a bus. Can you imagine what kind of backups that causes?"

And then Alberts unveiled perhaps his most compelling argument -- which was for fairness, or, to be specific, against reverse unfairness. It would do no good to outfit but one or two buses with lifts, he said. That would defeat the whole purpose of equal access. If you had only a couple of lift buses, where would they run? If they ran along the lakefront, for example, you'd discriminate against the west side, or the south side or the far southeast side, and so on and so forth.

No, you'd have to go all out and install lifts on all buses. And for what purpose? To satisfy the demand of a limited portion of the population? Oh sure, Alberts argued, the activists who brought this case to trial would use the lifts. But the activists are an exception. Most disabled residents prefer paratransit service (and here he called to the stand several disabled persons who said just that).

The result would be more than 2,000 lifts (for that's how many buses are in the CTA fleet) rarely used. And even if they were used, at most the buses could fit two wheelchairs. You'd have two riders potentially inconveniencing a bus load of people.

And why? So that a minority of activists could make a point about equal access. Well, the CTA is against discrimination. And we believe in the concept of fairness. But the number of trips taken every month on Chicago's paratransits -- some 50,000 -- exceeds the number of trips by the disabled on lift buses in 11 cities combined, including New York and Los Angeles. Lift buses simply are not what most disabled people want.

If we project a cost per ride, basing patronage on the experience of other cities and accepting low-end estimates of the price of installing and maintaining lifts, it amounts to about $300. And that, the CTA has long insisted, is a price far too high to pay to maintain a principle for a few.

"I believe it is not accurate to consider the question of cost without use," says Alberts today. "I do not see how questions of use can be divorced from cost. If you take use-cost into account, lifts are astronomical. And we have to ask ourselves: where do we get the greatest volume for our dollar? The answer is paratransit.

"Their [the plaintiffs'] greatest emotional appeal is the question of being kept out of the mainstream. But lifts on buses is only a small part of that issue. The point of transportation is to deliver people from point A to point B, so users can participate in intended functions. For disabled people to be integrated they have to get out of their homes and move. To do that, they have to use the system."

It was his most compelling argument, one that forced the plaintiffs to follow with testimony from experts who insisted that paratransit service was far more expensive than lifts would ever be.

The average cost of a subsidized ride on the CTA's paratransit line is about $15, Gilbert and his colleagues argued. The annual budget for paratransit service is now about $10 million, up $4 million from two years ago.

(The lawsuit may explain why the CTA has increased its paratransit service, many plaintiffs insist. Expanded service -- more buses, longer hours, some suburban destinations -- was announced on the eve of the trial, in hopes, the plaintiffs allege, of influencing Judge Patton or getting the plaintiffs to drop their suit.)

However, the plaintiffs continued, the CTA still cannot handle all the demand. The buses still don't go to most suburbs, including Evanston. They don't run past 1 AM. And the system is marred by errors; indeed the CTA complains that some of its contractors may bill for trips never taken.

As demand increases, so will cost. If all things remain equal, the CTA can expect to spend over $200 million during the next 20 years on paratransit service.

Now, what would happen, the plaintiffs and their lawyers have suggested in and out of court, if the CTA supplemented paratransit service with lifts? They could maintain a minimum of paratransit for those disabled riders who refuse to ride the main-line buses. The money saved could buy lifts.

"It makes no sense to go the way we are going," says Charlton. "We're almost up to $10 million a year for paratransit. And we don't have a piece of equipment to show for our investment.

"In addition, we're undercutting our system. Paratransit is the inversion of public transit. With buses and trains, the CTA gains when people ride. With paratransit, it's the opposite. Every time someone rides, the CTA loses money. The greater the ridership on paratransit, the higher the cost. It puts us in the position of discouraging disabled ridership, while promoting it for everyone else."

As for the inevitability of breakdowns, the plaintiffs called witnesses from other cities who chastised the CTA for assuming the worst.

"In my experience, the new generation of lifts can be made to work," says B.J. Carol, who oversaw the initial installation of lifts on buses in Seattle and testified for the plaintiffs. "I was told there would be a terrible backlash. That the able-bodied people would resent the disabled. But I didn't see it. Sure, we had our failures at times. But you treat it like a normal part of operations. If you get a bus and the door doesn't work, you fix it. You just don't assume that they were made to fail."

Furthermore, the plaintiffs argue, who is to say that the disabled absolutely will not use lifts? Ridership counts from other cities are unreliable, as transit officials there admit they do not keep accurate records.

"It seems like such a self-fulfilling prophecy to say that no one will take these lifts," says Gettleman. "We know for sure that there is a core of people who would use the lifts right now. Maybe it will take a generation or two, but other people will use them as well."

The point, Gettleman and Gilbert maintain, is that we have to recognize that society must change its attitudes about the disabled, if for no other reason than that the disabled are changing their attitudes about themselves.

There are an estimated 100,000 disabled residents in the Chicago area who could benefit from lifts, the lawyers contend. More and more, doctors and therapists are encouraging the disabled to participate as much as possible in mainstream society.

"I'm sure the CTA could find people who say they don't want to ride on buses," says George Stortz, director of physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "And I'm sure they have good reasons and that these people are sincere. But a major part of therapy is reentry. The idea of sheltering people is a crock. It's ludicrous. In the long run, society can't afford to do that because it means more people on welfare and less people working."

"The CTA called this one disabled woman to testify that she would be afraid to wait at a bus stop," says Gilbert. "And then during cross-examination, she admitted that she moves around the community all the time in her wheelchair. She said that she wheels down Stony Island Avenue to go to the currency exchange to cash her check. And this is a woman who's afraid of getting on a bus? I think it's fear of the unknown, more than anything else, that causes a lot of disabled people to fear riding the buses."

To close their case, Gilbert called to the stand Tom Shworles, an educator who lives in Evanston, where the CTA's paratransit does not operate.

"The corner [where I live in Evanston] is a shrine," Shworles said. "There is a bus stop there, and I want to walk out that door, roll out the back door with my wife, my kids, my friends, with nobody, and go, because I think I belong out there . . . and have the right to be out there, and we are wasting a lot of precious time in life forestalling the real solution to the problem."

The trial ended in early August. Since then the plaintiffs have filed a posttrial brief, Alberts has responded, and the plaintiffs have filed a final response -- more time, more paper.

During that time, the CTA board's lineup changed a bit. It now includes several appointees of Mayor Washington, a self-proclaimed advocate of lifts. Except for Charlton, the mayor's appointees oppose them.

"If we had adequate resources, we should have lifts," says Natalia Delgado, whom Washington appointed to the board last summer. "But we're operating on inadequate resources. And that presents a question of how these resources should be divided in a way that represents the whole city. I'm sensitive to the needs of minorities. But there's a difference between a black person not being able to sit at the front of the bus and making expensive accommodations like lifts."

It's a position guaranteed to ignite old arguments. Delgado, disabled activists note, is a Cuban woman whose appointment was an accommodation to demands made by Hispanic activists. The day she was appointed, Alderman Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican, stood by her side and cheered. Gutierrez was elected after a federal judge redrew the boundaries of his near-west-side ward to give Hispanics not just a simple majority but a "super" majority of at least 65 percent. After all, the judge noted, Hispanics have never voted in the same proportions as whites. So to accommodate their need for equal rights, a special concession must be made. It was a costly concession, too. Whites were angered, special elections, costing extra tax dollars, were required.

"We support equal rights for other discriminated groups," says Ervin. "It's a little discouraging that some of the black and Hispanic board members don't feel the same way about us."

Delgado says the two issues -- voting rights for Hispanics and equal access for the disabled -- are not the same. The main difference is that equal access, in this case lifts, costs much more than special elections. And she leaves it at that.

The activists counter that society should not put a price tag on principle -- the very issue Judge Patton must decide. Anyway, the activists continue, their argument is not with Delgado. She, at least, will discuss the matter. The two black members of the board, Walter Clark, its chairman, and Howard Medley, won't even listen. (Indeed, neither would return phone calls for this article.)

Meanwhile, the CTA board held another vote on lifts on buses. It was held on April 1. About a dozen protesters showed up. Once again the board voted no. Once again the demonstrators chanted and took to the streets.

In a sense, the CTA's final argument boils down to a confession of failure. Lifts for the disabled cost too much. They cost too much because people won't use them. And the reason people won't use them is that they plain won't work. Or, at least, the CTA cannot or will not get them to work.

"We can't operate an air conditioner on a bus," says Hoellen. "I don't see how we can operate lifts. It would be a disaster."

Perhaps he's right. Judge Patton might agree. The Circuit Court may even lift the ban on buying new buses.

And if it doesn't, the CTA can always appeal. They've got plenty of lawyers, and apparently lots of money for trials. Maybe they can just wait the demonstrators out. Time, they must figure, is on their side.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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