Saturday, November 28, 2009

Blind couple in Illinois fear the loss of Dial-a-ride program in their community

From Phil Kadner's column in the Southtown Star in Illinois:

As far as Kimberly Kuster is concerned, some government programs are so vital they shouldn't be cut.

For her, that's Orland Park's Dial-A-Ride service, a village-subsidized Pace bus that transports the disabled and senior citizens for as little as $1 a ride.

Kuster, 49, is legally blind. Her husband, Joe, 57, is completely blind. (The couple is pictured.)

"We moved here (from Blue Island) because of the services Orland Park provides for the disabled," Kuster said. "This is a wonderful place to live for people with disabilities. I appreciate all that Orland officials have done to make it that way.

"But if they eliminate the Dial-A-Ride program, it is going to make it almost impossible for the visually impaired to live here."

The village board had planned to cut the Dial-A-Ride program to save $350,000 as part of about $2 million in budget cuts. Last Friday, after hearing from Kuster and other Orland Park residents, village officials said they were reconsidering the Dial-A-Ride cuts.

The Kusters are the directors and founders of Oasis for the Visually Impaired, a support organization for the blind. Kimberly Kuster said members of the group, who live in Orland Park, regularly use the Dial-A-Ride program to get to meetings.

"Orland Township has a car service, but that's strictly for the elderly, senior citizens," said Kuster about a service that Orland Park had hoped would pick up some of the Dial-A-Ride customers.

Pace provides a door-to-door paratransit service for the disabled, but Kuster said Pace is trying to shift more of those riders into its regular bus service because of budgetary problems of its own.

"You also have to get a certification to use the paratransit service, which not everyone has," Kuster said.

She and her husband have the certification, which she said was quite rigorous.

"You have to go to an office and walk around, and they watch you and put you through tests and determine if your mobility is such that you qualify for the service," she said.

Kuster said she can walk to local stores on her own during mild weather, but during the winter she couldn't get by without the village's Dial-A-Ride.

"I do all of my grocery shopping using the Dial-A-Ride," she said. "I take it to the doctor, to the shopping mall, pretty much everywhere."

Village manager Paul Grimes said Orland Park is "looking very closely" at ways of keeping the Dial-A-Ride program, especially for the disabled.

In a column last week, I wrote about an 83-year-old woman, who still works, who said the transit program is essential to her independent lifestyle.

A son of another octogenarian said his mother, self-sufficient in every other way, relies on the service to attend social gatherings for seniors and do her shopping. He said his mother would gladly pay more than the $1 a ride the village now charges senior citizens.

I understand the need for governments to make cuts during these difficult times.

And the Dial-A-Ride program at first glance probably looked like a pretty good target because it serves only an average of 70 riders a day, and there seemed to be alternatives for them.

But that's the real problem when you start talking about government cuts. Despite what many taxpayers believe, there's a reason most government programs exist.

In theory, cuts may make sense. In reality, there's an impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Orland Park officials are to be commended for understanding the human toll their cuts would take and looking for workable alternatives and other programs that might be trimmed.

It seems to me that Orland Township might be better served by replacing some of its seven cars with minivans equipped for the disabled.

Governments built roads to move people from the cities to the suburbs and commuter train lines to get people in the suburbs to their jobs in the cities. Then the suburbs approved special housing for senior citizens when the elderly could no longer maintain their single-family homes.

But few suburbs seemed to have planned for the elderly no longer being able to drive or the transportation needs of the disabled.

Orland Park is one of the few that did address these issues, to some extent.

For the most part, however, suburbia remains a place where a car is a person's lifeline to civilization.