BART has long had an arms-length relationship with the Bay Area's disability community, even though we are a legally-protected class. Several years back, the disability community sued BART to get them to repair and regularly clean elevators. Even so, if you've used a BART elevator lately, I'm sure you will be able to smell just how successful we've been in holding BART's attention.
To make matters worse, BART regularly closes those same dirty elevators during police actions and civil disobedience demonstrations, leaving professionals who use wheelchairs, parents who are blind, seniors with arthritis and scores of others with disabilities stranded. We are, on the whole, people who do not have other transit options and are therefore dependent on BART — a fact that does not seem to interest them further in our plight.
The passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the increasing availability of ever-more accessible technologies and the growing number of aging seniors (often referred to as the “silver tsunami”) are all excellent reasons to consider people with physical limitations and our place in society in all transportation decisions.
More and more of us are paying taxes and thriving, but bureaucracies, such as BART, seem to view our concerns as though we're coming to the table with a cup in hand. Instead of being seen as a constituency, we are viewed as a PR problem.
Take, for instance, the new car design this spring. BART's mock-up showed several problems for people with various disabilities. It included floor-to-ceiling poles in locations that would make it even harder than it already is to get on and off of the train. These poles would lead to crowding in the area near the entrance doors and would be positioned so as to encourage passengers to stand right where wheelchair and scooter users need to travel to get to and from the designated wheelchair seating space.
It is already a problem for wheelchair and scooter users to get on and off BART cars due to this congestion at the doorways so adding the poles would make this problem much worse. Poles are also dangerous because they are in the way of people who are blind or low-vision who are trying to quickly enter and exit the train.
Despite a major outcry from the disability community on these issues, one article included a picture of people with disabilities touring the mock-up with a caption that read, “Access issues in an earlier mock-up have been fixed.” Media bias such as this only feeds BART's dismissal of our concerns. It was certainly NOT the consensus among people with disabilities who toured the mock-up or who were pictured in BART's PR blast that the problems had been “fixed.”
BART's actions are especially troubling in light of the U.S. Department of Transportation's regulation regarding interior circulation, handrails, and stanchions, which states that:
“Vertical stanchions from ceiling to floor shall not interfere with wheelchair or mobility aid user circulation and shall be kept to a minimum in the vicinity of doors [Code of Federal Regulations Title 36 Section 1192.57].”
There is no question that the floor-to-ceiling poles that BART has proposed directly violate this regulation. By way of recent example, Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail will not include any floor-to-ceiling poles in its new series of train cars but will, instead, place seatback-to-ceiling poles to alleviate the exact same barriers at issue with BART's design. In short, BART's actions even ignore the federal government's regulations!
Disability does not discriminate based on race, class or gender. We will all be people with physical limitations at some point on our life's journeys, whether you break a leg, or wind up lucky enough to live long enough to lose some mobility as an elder. The question is: What kind of transportation system will take us all into the future? Don't let BART leave people with disabilities behind.
Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco.