I'm very concerned about this problem because I used to work in HR and wasn't always challenged – I have always had a mild hearing deficit but I was able to overcome it by lipreading and using hearing aids. Now it's more profound and I also have a vision issue. I was a working person, but as time went on I found I had to use public transportation more and more because I couldn't drive at night and then during the day.
When I started to use public transportation to get to and from work, it wasn't a happy experience. At that time, I was in San Diego, California. They had a lot to offer but one of the biggest problems was that everything kept breaking down. That creates a lot of problems for people who are disabled because then you're late to work, a lot – you don't get promotions and you might get fired over something that's out of your control. Employers frown upon that. I was lucky because I was exempt and had more flexibility in my comings and goings at work, but a lot of people don't. It's not bad for someone like me, but for someone who is an hourly worker, people are expected to be there on time. It's really difficult.
The other piece is, the shared ride service was stretched. I tried using that for a while, but it didn't work. Getting to work on time and getting to work at all, some days, because it didn't have spots open that day, they were maxed out most of the time. So, shared ride service didn't work well, buses broke down, the trolley had automated announcements for each stop – well, they weren't calibrated often and for someone who is hard of hearing and visually impaired, I can't always see landmarks, and I can't hear garbled automated announcements. Fortunately, I was experienced enough to count the number of stops. Sometimes people near me would tell me, but you can't always depend on that because people get distracted… well, it's a challenge.
Then I tried using the bus. In San Diego, we had lovely weather most of the time, but that's not the case in my current location. One of the first things I noticed when I came here to look for a place to live is the sidewalks. I use a service dog. The entrance to my community is a quarter mile from my house and the buses are diverted to the entrance of my community. The first time was fine because I went out with a travel trainer and he walked me through the whole thing. The other piece of it is, when you're with a service dog, the dog is on your left side, your purse or money is in your right hand to pay, the bus starts moving before you get to your seat and you're trying to balance yourself and your dog. Then, people are sitting in the disabled seats, so I have to search for another seat. The dog had lie down because the bus kept jerking because it's not a smooth ride. I had to carry things with me to clean the dog when I got to work because the floor was disgusting. People who are disabled have enough to get through the day without being challenged at every corner to get to work. You have to be dedicated to put up with all of that.
I didn't use Metro, but I used the People Mover in Detroit at rush hour. People step on and bump into my dog – they're not considerate. People don't give up their seats when you're trying to balance yourself, your dog and your briefcase.
I don't think there's any easy solution, but not having sidewalks, not having shelters, especially if you're someone in a wheelchair sitting there in the rain, or you have arm mobility problems, siting out on the side of the road isn't a good place to be. You can't sit in the grass because then you get stuck in the grass. In my neighborhood, most of the streets are lined by ditches so walking to the bus stop isn't an option.
The main thing that I saw when I looked through the dialogue was that most of the infrastructure things were happening at the train station, at the bus station, at the destination, but nothing before that. The shared ride services, there's no mention of sidewalks and that kind of infrastructure. It doesn't matter what you do at the bus station or train station if you can't get there in the first place. You're stopped right at your front door.
My suggestion, to really make things happen right away, is to give a hefty boost to the shared ride service. And that's only a temporary fix, but it's a workable one to get people to the train station, the commuter train, the bus station or wherever they need to go to make their connection. Getting from home to those points, that's the whole problem. In rural areas, people can't get out of their communities to get to the transportation they need to get to work. We've learned a lot in the last few months about remote work, but there are jobs that you just can't do that.
For people who are disabled, quite frankly, we don't have the money to buy equipment. I am fortunate to because I worked for many years before going on disability. My work showed me quite plainly that most people don't have the advantages I had. When I met with advocacy lawyers, transportation was at the top of the list before jobs, education, everything, because if you don't have transportation, the jobs, housing, everything else is immaterial. That's been my experience, that its great to talk about auto travel like Google cars – that's in the future – but the reality is that people with disabilities can't afford those kind of cars unless they're available as commuter cars where one person picks up multiple people. The bar to get technology to live independently is very, very low. Not many people quality for technical assistance because they make too much money or have too much money. It's really a money issue – how much of an investment are individuals, the government and corporations willing to invest in making this happen? It can't just be one entity; it has to be spread around because it's a huge undertaking.
I would encourage creating a plan that has everybody buying into it because otherwise, its not going to work. It's a good effort, but the problem is that – people with disabilities are given what people feel they need, but not what they ask for. It's a mindset, its well-intended and well-meaning, but it's useless. There needs to be more than an advisory capacity for people with disabilities; there needs to be someone in the decision-making part of it who can provide oversight for what's being done. Because sometimes things that get delayed, pushed back on or minimized are very important to the whole thing, but a person who can see, hear and be mobile can't realize that because they've never experienced it.
The infrastructure – not at the point of destination, but at the point of transit, whatever it is, there has to be a connection to that point from the front door for someone with a disability. The shared ride service at this point is the only viable option, but it has to be increased exponentially to make a difference. I've talked to a lot of the drivers all over the country, and it's the same – they're paid poorly, they don't last long and there's a lot of turnover. They're also often not treated well by the riders, and this adds to the high turnover rate and recruiting problems for the service.
Public transportation is wonderful when it works. But when it doesn't work, it's hell. There's no safety net.