Donna Powers was terrified by something as simple as taking the bus.
Powers, who was left a quadriplegic after a 1988 motorcycle accident, needed mass transit to get to a class she was taking at Arizona State University, but her first attempt at pushing her wheelchair onto a bus was too intimidating.
So she gave up, dropped the class and didn’t find the courage to try again for another two years. It wasn’t much easier.
“It was like backing my wheelchair through a drinking straw,” she said of the challenge of pushing herself onto a bus. As she struggled, “The other passengers seemed so stressed that I was making them late.”
She ultimately found the courage to try that day, and every day thereafter. These days Powers regularly takes mass transit — two buses and the metro light rail — to her job as an independent living specialist at the Center for Disability Law.
And these days, other disabled Phoenix-area residents don’t have to go through what Powers went through.
“At that time I had to learn on my own,” said Powers, of the challenges of mastering mass transit as a disabled person.
Today, she could test her abilities at Valley Metro’s Mobility Center, one of two Phoenix-area programs highlighted in testimony to a Senate subcommittee in late June as prime examples of efforts that address transit options for disabled and elderly populations.
The Mobility Center simulates various outdoor and indoor transit challenges for those who are looking to get certification under the Americans with Disabilities Act to take Dial-A-Ride and other services. The center, which opened in February, simulates streetscapes, bus and light-rail accessibility ramps and station seating.
In it, disabled people can test themselves against the obstacles they will face in the real world instead of having to run the real-world obstacle course that Powers faced alone.
“We brought the outdoors indoors if you will,” said Scott Wisner, the center’s community service manager.
A second Valley-area effort highlighted to the Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development was the Maricopa Association of Governments program to bring together disabled and elderly riders with transit service providers.
DeDe Gaisthea, human services and transportation planner for MAG, said the program started as a way to collaborate with service providers. Now the program is 300 people strong, and includes participants across the region from seniors and municipalities to taxi companies and transit planners.
Gaisthea said the group meets four times a year. The result is a “cross-fertilization of organizations” that builds partnerships between service providers and results in more transit options for users.
She said the program “is looking at what we have in place and how we can make the most if it.”
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, affording civil rights protections to the disabled and requiring accommodations in public places, accessibility for disabled riders has improved across the board.
But Powers said Phoenix was ahead of the curve. Before the law took effect, she said, the city was already putting ADA standards in place.
Congress is currently evaluating how to improve transportation for elderly and disabled populations because demand for good mobility options is expected to rise as baby boomers age.
Groups like Transportation for America and the AARP said the aging baby boomers are going to shock the United States’ car-centric transportation system as they age, as rising gas prices and health issues make them unable to drive. And they are expected to live longer than any previous generation.
Transportation for America spokesman David Goldberg said that this is becoming a serious concern for communities across the nation.
“Some communities have started to think about it,” Goldberg said. “It is going to be an increasingly bigger issue.”
Transportation for America recently released a report that said baby boomers tend to age in place, and that about 15.5 million Americans 65 and older will live in communities with poor public transit. Suburbs often lack mass transit options to help these groups maintain levels of mobility they may have enjoyed earlier in their lives.
Goldberg worries that many of those groups may see a decline in quality of life, as they face difficulty getting to doctors and staying active.
“Less than 5 percent move from their homes,” Goldberg said. “They stay where they are.”
At the Center for Disability Law, meanwhile, efforts continue to increase public awareness of disabilities. Powers said the center gave sensitivity and awareness training to 650 Phoenix bus drivers. The importance of this program was to create a “disability-friendly” atmosphere, she said.
“Transportation is one of the biggest barriers to those with disabilities,” Powers said.
Anthony DeWitt is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.