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CIL Advocates Take Bumpy Road to an Accessible Transit Triumph

By Janine Bertram Kemp

Theresa Torres speaking into a microphone

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 surrounding area.

Theresa raisimg her hand at a meetingThat 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 departments.

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 meetings.

Finally, in 1998, Torres and other advocates received pro bono support from attorneys Jenner & Block and filed a federal class-action lawsuit. But

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 the training.

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 workshop.

“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) board.”

The trained advocates also attended public hearings and testified about what people have gone through to affect the system in their community.

“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 the dots.”

Linda Outlaw, one of three co-chairs of CAT, learned a lot at the sessions.

Theresa portrait picture“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 it better.”

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 other strategies.”

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.

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