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Nothing False About This MetroAccess Complaint

WashingtonPost
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; A18

To the Editor:

Outgoing Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White told his board of directors that some complaints about MetroAccess service were fabricated, according to a Jan. 27 Metro article. He cited Robert Coward's account of how a MetroAccess reservation operator could not locate an address for Ronald Reagan National Airport.

Mr. Coward is an Air Force veteran and one of two veterans featured this month in Paralyzed Veterans of America's PN magazine. The article is in a section called "Black Valor & American Independence." Mr. Coward was paralyzed in 1992 at age 41 after being struck by a D.C. police car involved in a high-speed chase. Today he operates a nonprofit organization in the District that helps individuals with disabilities coordinate their care. He has extensive experience assisting others with disabilities in navigating transportation systems, including services under MetroAccess.

And about MetroAccess service: I recently received a call at work from a "dispatcher in training," asking if I could provide her with directions to the home of a former employee. I used Mapquest's Web site to direct her to the person's home, an address that MetroAccess had on file. I asked for the name of the trainee's supervisor, but she said that she did not know it. Finally, she connected me to an extension where the phone rang unanswered for 15 minutes.

Having had this experience with MetroAccess just one day before Mr. White claimed his MetroAccess service was a victim of "fabrications," I'm comfortable saying that I believe Mr. Coward.

MICHAEL J. COOPER
Executive Director
ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia Inc.
Arlington

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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MetroAccess Still Broken, Disabled Say

By Lyndsey Layton and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 25, 2006; B01

Scores of disabled MetroAccess riders say they continue to struggle with poor service, casting doubt on claims by Metro that things are getting better.

Metro officials said yesterday that phone lines are fixed, fewer riders are being stranded and trouble is easing. MV Transportation, which began providing MetroAccess service this month under a four-year, $210 million contract with Metro, said most rides were on time Monday.

MV executives blamed faulty data from the previous contractor, LogistiCare Inc., for some of the mishaps that have befallen frail and sick riders across the region. But several riders trace their trouble to MV's faulty scheduling software, weak communication and poor record-keeping.

They tell tales of bureaucratic bungling, in which confirmed reservations for rides suddenly disappeared from the database. Others talk about trip patterns that defy common sense, when they ride for hours because the drivers must collect others in far-flung locations and cannot stop to let them off even if they are going past their destinations.

"It's getting worse. There are no signs of getting better," said Veronica Payne, 60, a College Park resident who has hip and spinal problems and uses a cane.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has requested a meeting with MV and MetroAccess. "Everybody dropped the ball," Van Hollen said, adding that LogistiCare, MV and WMATA share responsibility.

MV Transportation executives said part of the difficulty stems from the difference between what the company is required to provide and what riders expect.

Under LogistiCare, drivers would call passengers to let them know they were en route and enter buildings to assist customers to the vehicle, even though they weren't required to do so. But MV has instructed drivers not to leave their vehicles. They also have told drivers not to call passengers, according to MV's chief executive, Jon Monson.

Metro's new contract requires vehicles to carry more than one rider, which lengthens travel times. Although he acknowledged that "errors are occurring," Monson said his company is being unfairly tarred. "Somehow, we're being the bad guys," he said.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency crafted the contract to "provide more cost-effective service for us."

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, all transit systems must provide equivalent service for people who are physically unable to ride a regular subway or bus system. About 16,000 people across the Washington region are registered to use MetroAccess.

Metro replaced LogistiCare with MV after The Washington Post reported that MetroAccess service was poorly managed and that Metro handed out performance bonuses to LogistiCare based on questionable data.

Advocates for the disabled, who filed a federal lawsuit last year claiming that MetroAccess does not meet the ADA requirements, said yesterday that they will seek a preliminary injunction to force quick remedies. "These MetroAccess riders' jobs, health and their very lives are on the line," said attorney Elaine Gardner. She said she has evidence that MetroAccess violated federal law by keeping passengers on vehicles for long periods.

Veronica Payne's trip on Monday befitted a Franz Kafka novel. She was picked up by MetroAccess at 5:49 p.m. in Anacostia and was to be taken to the Shoppers Warehouse grocery near her home in College Park. She also had reserved a return MetroAccess trip at 7 p.m.

After Payne boarded, the driver's schedule sent him to downtown Washington to pick up a woman on Rhode Island Avenue NW and take her to Silver Spring before driving Payne to College Park. By 6:50 p.m., it was clear that Payne would not reach the supermarket by 7 p.m., so the driver and Payne informed a MetroAccess dispatcher.

When they arrived at the supermarket at 7:30 p.m., Payne called MetroAccess to arrange a ride home and was told that because she was not there at 7 p.m., she had been labeled a "no-show." If riders accumulate no-shows, they face suspension from the program.

Payne's original driver waited and took her home, defying orders from the dispatcher to first pick up another passenger in Laurel, Payne said. When she called MetroAccess to say that she had secured a ride home, she was told that the 7 p.m. pickup ride at the supermarket had never actually been scheduled -- despite the fact that MetroAccess gave Payne a confirmation number.

"This is just craziness," Payne said.

Another rider, Robert Coward, was unable to reserve a ride Thursday to Reagan National Airport because the MetroAccess operator could not locate an address for the airport. "That blew my mind," said Coward, a resident of the District. After 20 minutes on hold, he was told that he would get a call back from MetroAccess. He never did.

Coward, who uses a wheelchair, took the subway to the airport, leaving five hours before his flight. To get from his East Capitol Street home to the Benning Road Station, he strapped his four bags to his motorized wheelchair and dragged them on the sidewalk.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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Disabled Yearn For Safety, Access

By Arthur Santana
Washington Post
District Weekly Section
Thursday, March 25, 2004

Gliding along the downtown street in his motorized wheelchair, Robert Coward knows he's taking a risk. Vehicles are approaching fast, and when drivers spot him, they swerve out of the lane, yielding to the paralyzed man.

But Coward, moving in his chair at its maximum speed of 8 mph, is unapologetic about forcing vehicles to go around him. He has no choice.

The stretch of sidewalk on New Jersey Avenue at H Street NW is utterly impassable to anyone who uses a wheelchair. Two metal signposts block the only way around a Metro bus stop. Even pedestrians have to step off the curb to get by.

That is not an option for Coward and scores of physically disabled District residents and visitors. Despite long-standing federal and local laws designed to guarantee equal opportunities, disabled people routinely encounter hundreds of barriers across the city.

For them, Coward says, the District -- not unlike other cities -- is a maze of closed doors, steep drop-offs and sidewalks that inexplicably end. And for someone who uses a wheelchair, he points out, one step is no different from a stairwell. A five-inch drop off a curb might as well be a cliff, and unautomated doors can be like brick walls.

Coward, 40, who broke his neck in a traffic accident in 1992, is all too aware of the barriers and brick walls, even in public buildings around the city.

"You see that?" Coward asks, punching the automatic door button at the John A. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue with his right hand, the only limb over which he has partial control. "Nothing." He keeps pressing the blue square, but the large door to the building that houses the D.C. Council chamber isn't budging. "This is what I'm talking about."

Getting Around

Since becoming paralyzed 14 years ago, Coward, a member of the capital area chapter of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, has made it his mission to find homes for disabled District youths forced to live in nursing homes because of a lack of accessible housing and care.

His advocacy work has given him painful experience with the inaccessible. There are places he knows he should avoid but, because of his work, cannot. Some police officers on Capitol Hill, which he visits often, know Coward by his habit of taking up a lane of roadway when the sidewalks are impassable.

"They tell me, 'Hey, get off the street,' and I tell them, 'Where am I going to go?' " Coward said.

Even when visiting city government offices inside the Wilson Building, Coward is confronted with tight corners and a host of nonautomatic doors, including one that leads to the council chambers. Often, Coward says, waiting in his "prison" in the hallway, he's forced to bang on office doors to get someone's attention.

"I'm outraged that this is where I go to get change implemented," Coward said, "but the very place I'm arguing for change is the place where I'm discriminated against."

The Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington -- a nonprofit, cross-disability organization -- won a concession from the city last year when officials promised to survey more than a dozen city buildings to see how access can be made easier.

Gaining access to government buildings has been "a real problem," said Marc Fiedler, chairman of the council. "But we have started a process of resolving those problems."

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by "private entities" operating places of "public accommodation." Title II prohibits discrimination by state and local government agencies.

Fiedler, who, like Coward, uses a wheelchair, said, "Last year, I went down to the Wilson Building to testify . . . on accessible polling places . . . . I couldn't get into the building. I was sitting out there on the sidewalk trying to figure out how to get in."

Coward likes to take credit for getting automated doors at the main entrance of the public building at 825 N. Capitol St. NE. At the square there, however, he points out nearby cement steps that prevent him from accessing First Street.

"I have to go five blocks out of my way because of those few steps," Coward says. He says there's a ramp that allows wheelchair users access to the First Street side of the building, but nothing on the other side.

Another common -- and frustrating -- sight, Coward says: sidewalks that allow someone who uses a wheelchair to get onto one segment with a so-called "curb cut" but lack a cut at the other end.

For people like Coward, such drop-offs are dangerous. At worst, Coward said, if he failed to spot a curb, such as the eight-inch one at D and Second streets NW, he'd be liable to "break my neck again." At best, people who use wheelchairs must double back and negotiate the labyrinth of sidewalks.
"The barriers let me know that I'm not fully integrated into District society," said Coward as he paused at the precipice of a curb. "I'm not included. I feel as if my civil rights are being violated."

The city's Department of Transportation is responsible for installing at least 24,000 cuts at its 8,000 intersections, said spokesman Bill Rice. The city relies on citizens and its own inspectors to report sidewalks with curb cuts at one end but not the other.

"We want people to report them," Rice said, encouraging people to call the city-wide call center at 202-727-1000 if they encounter such sidewalks.

Rice said the city is about to begin a survey of how many cuts have been installed and how many are needed. "It's information we should have," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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