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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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Damaged wheelchairs, delayed rides: Accessible transit an ongoing challenge at UW-Madison

Among the moving mass of walkers, bikers and bus-hoppers on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is a population of students with disabilities who face difficulties accessing paratransit and accessible shuttle services with ease. This comes with a fearful uncertainty on whether their mobility aid will be kept safe by service providers.

“We've seen problems reported from drivers not knowing how to properly load wheelchairs and other mobility aids into their vehicle to drivers being late and students missing classes,” Associated Students of Madison (ASM) Equity and Inclusion Chair Emmett Lockwood told The Daily Cardinal. 

According to Lockwood, even general Madison Metro buses like the 80 being equipped with accessibility features still fails to ensure accessibility for students with disabilities. 

Specialized accessible shuttle and paratransit services for students with disabilities form the only alternative to the metro-accessible buses and paratransit services on campus. This involves the installation of lifts on Madison Metro buses for riders using wheelchairs, crutches, mobility devices or those who simply need a little help making it onto the bus, according to ASM.

“We think of how packed the 80 [buses] are in the fall between any passing period, and the fact that often students have to push to get onto the 80 bus,” Lockwood said. “For our students who have mobility-related disabilities or sensory-related disabilities, the 80 is broadly inaccessible.”

UW-Madison currently contracts with two accessible transportation services that are exclusive to students with mobility impairment. These services exist as supplements to standard campus bus services, including the 80 series bus routes. 

For transit within a limited section of the campus area, the university subcontracts the services of GO Riteway to provide accessible circulator shuttles available after scheduling a ride one hour in advance. While students using Riteway’s accessible shuttle service are not required to certify themselves as eligible, they have until an hour before their desired travel time to make a reservation, according to ASM’s webpage on paratransit details.  

On the other hand, the Metro Transit Paratransit Service offers services to non-campus buildings and locations outside Riteway’s shuttle boundary. However, students intending to use this service are required to fill out an application form and then schedule a future in-person assessment. 

Regrettably, reserving Metro's paratransit service necessitates making advance bookings, with a deadline of 4:30 pm on the day before your intended ride, according to ASM’s webpage

One of the major challenges with accessible shuttles and paratransit for students on campus is easily accessing their services, let alone finding service reliable enough to accommodate the time commitments they face through the day, according to Lockwood. 

“Last spring, I started in the diverse engagement coordinator role, and I started to hear complaints from students who were part of the Disability Cultural Center Coalition. Things like, ‘Hey, I'm late to class today because Paratransit didn't pick me up,’ or, ‘I'm not sure if I'm able to get to this meeting on time because of paratransit,’” Lockwood said. 

Lockwood also noted that another major issue for students with disabilities is the improper securement of mobility aid by accessible circulator shuttle drivers.

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“I started to hear about students having problems with drivers not knowing how to use the ramps on their vehicles,” Lockwood said. “A big part of paratransit vehicles is that they should be able to accommodate students with wheelchairs.”

Brelynn Bille, a senior at UW-Madison and disability rights advocate, started using Riteway’s accessible shuttle service in fall of 2021. 

“I had heard some hit-or-miss stories of the shuttle missing rides and not showing up sometimes,” Bille told the Cardinal. “But I wasn't experiencing that at first. It was actually pretty smooth. Everything was fine, and then when I started using a wheelchair it got a little harder because I started noticing that not all of the drivers were properly trained on securing it.”

Bille, whose first wheelchair of $700 was damaged when riding with Riteway’s accessible shuttle service, also detailed how mobility aids such as wheelchairs are expensive and take time to get processed for insurance.  

“You have to use a normal standardized wheelchair for a year before insurance will consider covering a customized one, and we have to wait and do all the different processes to get approved for it and then actually get measured,” Bille explained. “The whole process took me about 14 or 15 months, so I don't have that time to do it over again.”

As a paratransit and accessible shuttle user himself, Lockwood also identified how scary it is for students with both short-term and long-term disabilities to see their mobility aid at risk of damage. 

“Foldable wheelchairs [or] any mobility aid really cost a lot of money. Many people have to go through insurance to access these aids,” Lockwood explained. “I know for many wheelchair and mobility aid users, our aid getting damaged in any way is our biggest fear.”

As of spring of 2023, Lockwood and ASM set up the first way for students to file complaints about the paratransit and shuttle service they received on campus in a manner that shares information across the various organizations involved in setting up accessible transit on campus. 

“Before then, ASM was getting complaints, McBurney was getting complaints, Riteway was getting complaints, University Transportation Services was getting complaints and none of us really had a way of sharing them. Now, on the campus paratransit website that explains for students how to use Riteway services, there is also a form where they can report problems,” explained Lockwood. 

To voice her issues with how Riteway handled her mobility aid, Bille first reached out to her access counselor at the McBurney Disability Resource Center. 

Ultimately, Bille found herself in contact with Riteway’s aid securement trainer, who arrived on-site to monitor the handling of her wheelchair. 

“It still feels like if I don’t have one of the two drivers that are very well trained and typically do all of my rides, it’s like I have to coach them through how to secure my wheelchair, or I end up having to file a complaint because they don’t secure it properly,” Bille said. 

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