Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chicago honors cabbies who transport disabled people

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

In 1998, after 20 years with the same company, Clifton Plaxico (pictured) lost his job.

Plaxico was devastated. Needing to support his family, which includes two kids with learning disabilities, Plaxico started driving a cab.

"I never thought in a million years I'd do that," said Plaxico, 52.

But soon the job he never wanted turned into a calling, once he began to focus on transporting the disabled.

His devotion to wheelchair-bound passengers has won him recognition from the City of Chicago -- with one of the city's 2009 "Taxicab Driver Excellence Awards." The prize is more than words. Along with the recognition, Plaxico gets a city taxicab medallion -- which goes these days for about $180,000 and gives drivers a chance to start a business instead of making payments to a medallion owner.

The other 2009 medallion winner is Almas Weldingwala, 46, who also specializes in driving the disabled. Both men drive for Flash Cab.

"It has fulfilled my life, in a way, to get close to these people," said Plaxico, who plans to buy his own wheelchair-accessible cab. "I never knew in my entire life there was such a need."

Weldingwala, who has been driving a cab for 20 years, began specializing in handicapped passengers four years ago. He says driving the disabled gives him a feeling of satisfaction.

"When they see me, they know they're being taken care of," said Weldingwala, who also plans to buy his own taxi. "I get smiles."

Plaxico started driving a wheelchair-accessible cab in 2000. It wasn't a good way to make money back then -- disabled people often call a cab for, say, short trips to the doctor, instead of long hauls to the airport that are more profitable for a cabbie. Plaxico has seen cabbies sent to pick up people in wheelchairs decide to skip them and pick up someone with suitcases instead.

But things got better, as Plaxico developed regular clients. One of his regular passengers, Aaron Michael Barg, had cognitive and physical problems, including being deaf and legally blind. For six years, twice a week, Plaxico drove Aaron the 50 miles between his home in Grayslake and the Philip J. Rock Center and School in Glen Ellyn. Aaron died last January at the age of 18.

Aaron's father, Steve Barg, was so impressed with Plaxico's kindness and reliability that he recommended Plaxico for the excellence award.

"He has a huge heart for anyone with disabilities," said Barg.

"I've met so many nice people," said Plaxico, who last year provided service on 294 days with more than 1,000 wheelchair pickups, more than any other nominee. "It's no longer a job -- these are people I know that I'm actually helping."

Weldingwala received 61 nominations last year, the highest of any candidate. He volunteers at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago and the Jessie Brown Veterans Assistance Medical Center. Weldingwala also is certified to administer CPR and once had to use this skill with a passenger while waiting for an ambulance.

"It was a really, really strange moment," said Weldingwala. "Every second looks so big. You're praying to God."

Weldingwala isn't yet married, but he said having a medallion will make it easier to do that, and also to start a family.