Tuesday, August 13, 2002
by Karen E. Crummy
Charging they are routinely ignored by bus drivers and forced to use filthy, unsafe elevators, disabled people have filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to fix the problems.
The plaintiffs, whose disabilities range from blindness to multiple sclerosis, allege MBTA buses often intentionally pass by them and consistently have faulty equipment, such as wheelchair lifts.
They also contend elevators in T stations are either broken or contaminated by human waste, and emergency calls from disabled people are often ignored.
"This case is about common decency and the way we treat disabled people," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Taramattie Doucette of Greater Boston Legal Services. "The MBTA has made empty promises to these people over the years but hasn't come through with concrete results."
The plaintiffs are not suing for monetary damages, only for the MBTA to fix the problems. How many people will be affected is unknown, but the 1990 U.S. Census found 125,889 people with disabilities lived in Suffolk County alone.
MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern admitted there are some problems, but said remedies are already in the works.
"We take these allegations seriously and we're doing a tremendous amount of work on the situation," Mulhern said, noting that over the next two years the MBTA will have 400 to 600 new buses with low floors and automatic stop announcements. He also said automatic fare collections would free up booth workers for maintenance operations, and a new training program for drivers would increase sensitivity toward the elderly and disabled.
"We have a focused plan in motion and we want a chance to tell the story in the court room," he said of the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court.
But the plaintiffs contend the MBTA, the fourth largest transit system in the country, is all talk and no action. Blind plaintiffs allege bus drivers fail to announce stops or pull close enough to the curb.
Those in wheelchairs say they are often left waiting in the snow, rain and heat for extended periods of time because buses pass them by or wheelchair lifts are broken.
When Janis Harris, who has multiple sclerosis and uses an electric wheelchair, takes the T, the gap between the train and the platform makes boarding difficult, she said.
With no bridge plates, her wheelchair sometimes gets stuck in the gap.
"Now I start way back from the train and get as much momentum as I can so don't get stuck," Harris said.
When community activist Matlyn Starks, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, takes the elevator from the train to the street, she said she is forced to endure disgusting and unsanitary conditions because of the human waste.
"You have to hold your breath, try not to breathe at all," said Starks, the executive director of the Vivienne S. Thomason Independent Living Center in Boston. "And when I get to work, I have to get someone to help me wash the wheels to get off the urine and feces."
The elevators are often out of the way down dark corridors and, most of the time, the plaintiffs charge, they don't work.
"No one fixes the elevators and if you push the emergency buttons for help, even those don't usually work," said Eileen Brewster, 45, who uses an electric wheelchair because of multi-joint arthritis.
Sometimes there simply aren't any elevators.
John Alleyne of Brockton, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, said he stopped going to Massachusetts Eye and Ear because there isn't an elevator at Charles Street station on Red Line.
Gene Smith of Dorchester was a student at Bunker Hill Community College. She said on her first day of classes, she arrived on the Orange Line's Community College Station and found there was no elevator for the scooter she uses due to her multiple sclerosis.
"Why can't they do something?" she said. "I'm just trying to get
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