Thursday, July 7, 2011

Disabled people in Austin, Texas, left without rides when transportation service eliminates taxi vouchers

The intro to The Austin Chronicle story:

Life has never been easy for Marie and Bill Chandler. But it used to be easier.

Both are blind. Both are elderly. And for the past 48 years, they have cared for their daughter, Debbie, who suffers from profound mental retardation, autism, and blindness. Debbie lives at the Austin State Supported Living Center in West Austin. For many years now, the highlight of her week has been getting to check out every Friday and visit Mom and Dad at their Allandale home.

The trips used to be fairly uncomplicated. Because the Chandlers are qualified for Capital Metro's MetroAccess paratransit services, they could call a cab – usually driven by Yellow Cab driver Hannah Riddering – and Cap Metro would give them a voucher to cover the first six miles of the trip, up to $16.50. This enabled the Chandlers to pick up Debbie in the morning and take her back in the evening.

But as of May 1, those vouchers ceased to exist. And according to Marie Chandler, that has made the trip an impossible ordeal.

In order to save money and presumably make paratransit service more efficient, Cap Metro eliminated the vouchers and is encouraging its disabled customers to move to the regular MetroAccess vehicles – those vans and sedans you've perhaps seen driving around town. Because those vehicles are shared with other customers, they come with a set of rules to help coordinate trips for multiple riders.

For the Chandlers, the change has put Debbie's weekly visit in peril. One of those MetroAccess rules is that, once dropped off – in this case, the Chandlers arriving at the living center to pick up Debbie – a customer must wait one hour before the next scheduled pickup. It might not seem like much, but it's a big change from Debbie's previous routine – and one that can cause some dangerous behavior.

"The autism makes it very difficult for her to undergo any changes," Marie says. "Debbie is not a passive little person. When I go to pick her up, she's never really content while I'm checking her out. She's never really sure that she's going to get to come home until we get in the car; then she relaxes. But having to wait for an hour or longer – Debbie couldn't handle that. Quite honestly, if she's really having a severe behavior, I cannot handle her. I don't have the strength to restrain her to keep her from hurting herself."

To pay regular cab rates for the four total trips on those Fridays, Marie calculates, would cost $63 – more than they can afford. But taking the regular MetroAccess vehicle simply isn't an option. So for now, Riddering simply provides the trip free of charge, but Marie knows that arrangement can't always be available.

The Chandlers are not alone. According to many others with disabilities in Austin, this change has turned countless lives upside down. People with disabilities used to be able to travel about relatively freely; their days are now consumed with planning and scheduling.

The changes, responds Cap Metro, were urgently necessary; spending on the program was out of control and getting worse. It was just one problem among many at the agency – over the past seven years or so, excessive spending combined with the economic downturn put the agency in financial peril, and Cap Metro's board and management (including relatively new President/CEO Linda Watson) have taken major actions to correct its monetary course. The agency describes the changes as getting its house in order. But those affected say Cap Metro is punishing some of its most needy customers for its own past mistakes.

Most of the disabled Austinites interviewed for this story were brought to the Chronicle's attention by Riddering. To be fair, Riddering is hardly a disinterested observer. She says that before the elimination of vouchers, about 90% of her work was picking up the disabled – the voucher elimination has "devastated my business," she says.

Nonetheless, she took on this work voluntarily and advocates for her customers' needs – some cab drivers are unwilling and/or untrained in helping people with disabilities with their special needs. In 2008, Riddering was named Best Cabbie With a Cause in the Chronicle's "Best of Austin" Critics Picks. Shortly before this story was written, she was helping one of her former regular customers move to Michigan – the customer, who is blind, said the move was necessary because Cap Metro's new policies had made life too hard.

"People could request a voucher to come home from the grocery store or the doctor," Riddering says. "And in the case of people who were having trouble getting to work on time, they put a lot of people on taxi vouchers." Customers could either request trips on demand, or for regularly scheduled trips, subscriptions were available. "What that did is, you got home without spoiled groceries. You could just call for a cab when you were done at the doctor. You could be flexible in your work schedule in terms of getting there on time, working overtime if your boss required it."

Now that flexibility is gone. In addition to the one-hour wait between trips, another new policy has expanded the allowable pickup window from 15 minutes to 30 minutes – meaning, for example, if you request a pickup time of noon, you must be ready to board the vehicle no later than 11:45am and be prepared to wait as late as 12:15pm. If you absolutely cannot be late in your arrival, then you must schedule a pickup a full hour before that arrival time.

The policy change is especially problematic for people with kids – and in the case of Ed Kunz (pictured), it's required a major life shift. Kunz, 62, is the director of the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, the facility on Lamar Boulevard for people with visual impairments. Kunz isn't ready to retire yet, but because of the voucher elimination, he says he'll do just that.

Kunz himself is blind. His wife also has vision problems, as well as multiple medical issues requiring frequent doctor visits. On top of that, he has four adopted kids, all of whom also have disabilities. "What the taxi voucher allowed me to do was have the flexibility to drop kids off at school, go to work, and make adjustments in my schedule as needed," Kunz says. "Sometimes the kids were pulled out of school or had to go to the doctor, or my wife would have to go to the doctor and I'd have to come home and cover, and we had child care drop-offs.

"With the removal of the vouchers, now I have to rely totally on [MetroAccess]," Kunz said. "They're really nice people, but I've been to work late a few times, we have multiple drop-offs, and while the people at [Cap Metro] have tried to help out and make adjustments, this 30-minute window and not having the flexibility the voucher system allowed, it's put an additional stress certainly on my wife, on me in terms of work, and of course on the whole family to the point where, because of all the other challenges we have, there's no way for me to be able to consistently get to work on time."