CIL Advocates Take Bumpy Road to
an Accessible Transit Triumph
By Janine Bertram Kemp
Teresa Torres is one of those advocates who kicks a** and
takes names. She is in for the long haul and will not quit until the poorest
and most excluded among her community receive equal rights and services. If
Torres focuses her high beam of change on you, be very wary or quickly
surrender and go along peacefully. She is (almost always) in the right and will
most likely exhaust you and win.
Torres is executive director of Everybody Counts, a CIL
(center for independent living) in northwest Indiana, just 30 minutes by car
but worlds away from Chicago. Everybody Counts is known as a CIL that serves
people of color with disabilities who have minimal incomes. She started a
battle with the transit system in the 1990s that culminated in a lawsuit and
2006 consent decree.
Currently, the disability community is seeing the erosion
of the right to accessible fixed-route and paratransit systems. Public transit
was a key issue disability rights activists began fighting for in 1985 and one
of the driving forces behind the passage of the Americans with Disabilities
Act. As the 22 nd anniversary of the passage of the ADA approaches, that
hard-won right is being threatened.
The National Council for Independent Living, or NCIL,
recently issued a call to action against H.R.-7, the American Energy and
Infrastructure Jobs Act, sponsored by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the
House Committee on Transportation and Energy Infrastructure. The bill would
eliminate all federal funding for public transit. If it becomes law, disability
advocates say that states and counties will use funding cuts as an excuse to
eliminate accessible public transportation. Even without the bill, many locales
are pointing to the economic downturn as a reason to cut that service.
Everybody Counts has made a concerted effort over the last
two decades to increase affordable, accessible transportation in its
That area has several unique aspects.
Northwest Indiana has the highest unemployment and the largest concentration of
minorities in the state. It is a blue patch in an otherwise red state. In one
county, there are 19 communities. Elected politicians find it difficult to work
with each other. Sixty elected officials have been convicted of corruption
there, and many acknowledge that there is, in fact, a culture of corruption
that may be worse than the infamous days of New York's "Boss" Tweed and
Chicago's first Mayor Daley.
There are no local television or news stations, radio
stations or local newspapers. In this environment, we are all segregated
from one another, Torres said. So when you add the issue of needing
to access public transit to get from one community to the next or sometimes one
county to the next, you hit next to impossible.
Everybody Counts had to contend with three urban
communities in the north, including 19 fire departments and 19 police
Each of the area's three cities East Chicago, Gary
and Hammond -- had fixed-route transportation and paratransit within city
limits. The vast majority of businesses, jobs and medical offices were in those
three communities. There were five demand-response providers that sometimes
doubled as contract providers and often did third-party billing.
That section of the state also had an isolated population
generally unaware that transportation both fixed route and paratransit
-- was supposed to be accessible and legally available to everyone.
Add to the above picture the largest black and Hispanic
population in the state, and you have a tremendous racial divide. People with
disabilities had virtually no transportation. They could not get to county
government or city hall and had no way of knowing what was going on. Everybody
Counts staff members were constantly out and about in their communities and
reached out to the media. Nonetheless, they were unable to get help for a whole
population of potential riders who had no way to leave their homes. Cab company
providers were charging wheelchair riders up to four times the cost of rides
for others, some claiming that was not discriminatory because the extra cost
was for transporting wheelchairs.
Torres and her staff of advocates tried to negotiate and
encourage officials and transit providers to obey the law and provide the right
to ride. County and transit system officials, however, would not budge and
openly disparaged the ridership at public meetings.
One example of the tactics employed against the disability
community involved Raymond Fletcher. Fletcher is an African-American wheelchair
rider whose hands come out of his shoulders and whose legs are very short. In a
conversation with a member of the Regional Bus Authority, he told her that she
had no idea what life was like for a wheelchair user. The RBA member then
claimed that Fletcher threatened to put her in a wheelchair and had
a restraining order filed against him. That kept Fletcher from attending key
Finally, in 1998, Torres and other advocates received pro
bono support from attorneys Jenner & Block and filed a federal class-action
Torres regrets the years spent waiting for the outcome of
that suit. From 1998 until 2006, when consent decree was filed, a lot of
our veterans died waiting for a ride, she said.
Defendants in the lawsuit were each of three fixed-route
providers, all the demand-response providers and the Northwestern Indiana
Regional Planning Commission
The 2006 consent decree is now finally being implemented.
Torres made sure it was done so in a way that was both creative and could be
replicated by CILs in other locales. One of the decree requirements was that
transit providers fund Everybody Counts to provide three-day transportation and
advocacy workshops. To ensure that everyone could come to the training, the
consent decree required that RBA and transit officials pay the trainers air and
ground transportation, hotel and meal costs, along with transportation costs
for participants. Interpreters and other alternate formats also were funded.
Torres and her co-facilitator, Emma Lewis Sullivan, held
the training for Gary and East Chicago officials. Hammond officials, however,
refused to participate. A spokesperson for Hammond, We are not convinced
they have the best interest of the handicapped in mind. The training for
Hammond advocates is scheduled to be held in May 2012. In order to get Hammond
to agree, Torres had to pledge to say nothing negative about the powers that
be. Transit officials are invited to attend only the beginning and ending of
Torres brought in trainers who had more than 150 years of
combined experience in disability rights and transportation advocacy: Frank
Lozano, Anita Cameron, Lopeti S.
Penima'ani , and Tom Olin. The first three were part of the initial ADAPT
group in Denver, Colo. Olin, a social documentarian, has been photographing the
grassroots disability rights movement since 1985. Together, the four trained
advocates in the history of the disability rights movement as well as current
advocacy tactics in negotiation and direct action.
The transportation training succeeded beyond Torres's
wildest dreams. Thirty- eight people signed up, and 28 attended the entire
Out of that number, we are usually lucky if we get
30 people who come, 15 stick around and 8 stay involved, Torres said.
Twenty-three have come to every meeting since the training, and nine of
them became part of the elected Council for Accessible Transportation (CAT)
The trained advocates also attended public hearings and
testified about what people have gone through to affect the system in their
I had no idea that there would be this level of
involvement," Torres said. "I knew there would be some who would stay involved,
but I had no idea how hungry they would be. So much of what is going on with
transit is what is going on with the rest of the community. They are connecting
Linda Outlaw, one of three co-chairs of CAT, learned a lot
at the sessions.
Two different parts of the training were most important to
me," she said. "First, it made me aware of what has been done so far. We
learned from pioneers in the movement. Many of them gave their lives to
furthering the cause of accessible affordable transportation. Second, it
provided the chance to meet others in the community and discover we had a lot
in common. Often nondisabled people don't understand. When you are with someone
who is disabled, they understand it better. You can understand their struggles.
We were all people experiencing problems with transit (who were) trying to make
Renae Jackson of Gary, Ind., is another co-chair of CAT.
She noted that CAT is working on setting goals and a policy paper to clearly
communicate its position to others.
The training was a reaffirmation of how important
the lack of affordable, accessible transportation is and a history lesson on
our civil rights," she said. "Through CAT, we can educate both disabled and
nondisabled people in our community that we are not asking for a thing beyond
our rights. First, we will educate and negotiate. I won't tip our hand about
Torres believes that much of what was taught through the
lawsuit and training can be replicated by other CILs or advocacy organizations.
It is important not just to teach people their
rights but also to connect people to our history and where they are as a part
of our community," she said. "What are the strengths and problems? What is
happening in their back yard? This was not just telling stories. Such
well-trained speakers could jump in give pertinent facts and background.
It was rewarding to find so many new and amazing
leaders out there through this training. It is awesome to watch them start
changing the system.
Janine Bertram Kemp, a writer and activist, took
refuge from Washington, D.C., in the wilds of Zigzag, Oregon. She is president
of the Disability Rights Center and a member of ADAPT and Not Dead Yet.