Wednesday, June 17, 2009

LA TV station investigates treatment of disabled bus passengers there


LOS ANGELES -- Disabled bus passengers have been thrown from their wheelchairs aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) buses, and riders tell us their lives are at risk because some drivers can't or won't secure their wheelchairs. ABC7 Eyewitness News has conducted an exclusive two-month undercover investigation of the L.A. County MTA and its treatment of disabled bus passengers.

The MTA says its drivers are thoroughly trained in how to help wheelchair-bound riders. But they do admit it's impossible to control every move made by its 4,000 bus operators.

Eyewitness News obtained a list of every complaint made to the MTA about accessibility issues for the disabled over the past 27 months. There are 957 complaints in all. The MTA told us that number isn't all that bad considering they carried more than a million disabled passengers over that same time period.

Our investigation turned up widespread disregard for disabled riders of the MTA. Undercover video showed broken equipment and drivers who say they're untrained - or too busy - to help wheelchair riders get secured on the bus as required by federal law.

Francisco Serrano is a married father of four. Six years ago, he was helping out an elderly neighbor by trimming a tree in her yard when he fell to the ground. He is now a paraplegic.

Francisco often has to explain to MTA drivers how to use the securements. Just last month, Francisco says an MTA driver refused to secure him. When a car cut the bus off, Francisco was thrown out of his wheelchair.

"The driver slammed on the brakes," said Francisco, "And I flew out from wheelchair and I laid on the floor. And I started bleeding on the floor."

Francisco says he laid on the floor of the bus, unable to get up, for 10 to 15 long minutes.

"I stayed there, you know, waiting for help," said Francisco. "And the bus driver just looked at me."

We showed our undercover video to the MTA.

"The equipment is not meant for chairs without tether straps," said Mark Maloney from the MTA.

The MTA is now rolling out a new "tether strap" program. They hope it will solve some of the issues faced by disabled riders.

"And what that does is allow operator to quickly identify, OK, this is a safe spot to strap this person down," said Maloney.

But the program just got under way last month after years of complaints.
Judy Griffin went through the program last week.

"So no, I don't think it's going to help at all," said Judy. "If the straps and the tie-downs are broken, how's that going to help?"

Training on the new program for MTA drivers has yet to begin.

"I was on a bus yesterday," said Judy. "The driver did not know about the tie-downs, did not know how to use them. And when I explained to them the equipment on the bus was broken, so it was irrelevant to have markings on my wheelchair."

"People need to speak up," said disability rights attorney David Geffen. "People with disabilities need to get together and they need to complain. If you see a bus driver mistreating a person with a disability, say something to that bus driver. Make a phone call to MTA. Let other people know that there are other people watching and caring about this problem."

Thirty-seven-year-old Cathy Gaddy has cerebral palsy.

"I've been in a wheelchair all my life," said Cathy.

She was thrown out of her wheelchair on board an MTA bus in December. Cathy says the driver refused to secure her.

"My wheelchair went forward, and I caught my foot - my leg - underneath the seat in front of me," said Cathy. "It was scary because I was bleeding a whole lot. It's a four-inch laceration on my left leg."

Cathy spent a month and a half in the hospital. She's a newlywed. Her husband also has cerebral palsy. Her biggest hope now is that the two of them can live long, happy and safe lives together.

"I just want to make sure the MTA doesn't do this to anyone else," said Cathy.
So whose job is it to monitor the MTA and its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act? That's the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). We gave them copies of our stories and on Wednesday they said it would be premature to comment without doing their own investigation. However, the FTA says it wants to encourage people to come forward if they have complaints.