May 112008
 
Authors: Trevor Simonton

For more than a decade, CSU student Fran Wilson used the city’s door-to-door busing service as her primary means of transportation for everything from picking up groceries to getting to work at the CSU Bookstore.

But after the city pulled funds from Dial-A-Ride, Fort Collins’ call-in transportation service for disabled citizens, the wheelchair user was forced to complete a rigorous recertification process in order to access the service reevaluated under newer, stricter guidelines.

Now, Wilson and about 60 others struggle to get these special service rides when they need them. And the city — which continues to meet the “minimum service requirements of the American’s Disabilities Act” — says those patrons will not be offered the same unrestricted service because they are still considered able enough to use the standard, fixed-route bus service.”They didn’t have enough money, so they had to toss a few of us off of the system,” said the 49-year-old amputee, who cannot leave the house without her electric wheelchair. “Now I get bounced back and forth between Transfort and Dial-A-Ride.”

She said her heavy reliance on the city’s transportation services has been excessively complicated for more than a year now because of the Dial-A-Ride funding cuts.

But her discomfort with the system comes not only from these complications, but more so from the history of her disability. It was 12 years ago when she suffered her life-changing injury; a car lost control and hit her and her mother while they waited at a bus stop, forever confining Wilson to a wheelchair.

Eight years passed before Wilson was finally able to bring herself to sit near the side of the road and wait for a bus. Now, with the memory of that fateful day emblazoned in her memory, the city is asking her to do it on a daily basis.

Going back to the bus stop

In an interview last month, Wilson was able to recall vivid details of that day 12 years ago with startling accuracy.

“It was April 26, at about 11 a.m.,” she said. “I took the day off from work and was waiting at the bus stop with my mom.”

Unbeknownst to Wilson and her mother, the driver of a passing car was struck with a seizure and lost control of her vehicle. The car swerved off the road and into the Fort Collins bus stop where they stood.

“It was a blue station wagon, I remember trying to push my mom out of the way before it hit us, but it was too late,” she said. “I was tossed into the air, head over heels.”

Wilson suffered a compound fracture. Her mother, Carol, had three limbs broken. Fran was in and out of the operating room for weeks until finally on May 29, 1996, when, exhausted and in unimaginable pain, she decided to have her leg amputated rather than endure further surgeries.

Not disabled enough

Dial-A-Ride, a separate service from Transfort, picks up seniors and disabled persons at their door and takes them anywhere they want to go within the reaches of the fixed-bus routes.

Wilson is completely dependent on Dial-A-Ride when adverse weather prevents her from being outside; her wheelchair isn’t waterproof and could fail if it were to get wet.

“She uses a wheelchair, yes,” said Marlys Sittner, general manager of Transfort and Dial-A-Ride. “But very few limitations keep her from the fixed-route service. I consider it her responsibility to use the fixed route unless a barrier exists that keeps her from doing so.”

For 11 years, she used Dial-A-Ride every day without a problem, but last year city officials reduced its budget by $600,000.

The money that came from Dial-A-Ride was diverted to the creation of Transfort routes 16, 17 and 18.

New restrictions were put into effect so the number of people allowed to use the service would drop.

City officials say there are a total of 943 people who currently use Dial-A-Ride. Fifty-seven of those people, like Wilson, have restrictions on their use.

The minimum

requirement

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires any provider of public transportation to offer a comparable service to people who, because of a disability, cannot utilize a fixed-route service.

For disabled persons and seniors, the City of Fort Collins added wheelchair-access ramps to all of its busses, and created Dial-A-Ride.

Craig Dubin, the operation supervisor of Dial-A-Ride, said until January 2007, the city provided relatively unrestricted door-to-door service to all disabled persons and senior citizens.

When funds were reallocated from Dial-A-Ride to the creation of three new Transfort fixed routes, the distinction from the level of service that is required from the city and what the city was providing at that time became a target for reform.

“The city at that time was providing service to citizens with a wide array of problems,” Dubin said. “But there are a lot of times when people who are disabled can still use the fixed-route service.”

Consequently, all registered users of Dial-A-Ride were asked to reapply for the service so their permission for usage, or eligibility, could be reevaluated under strict guidelines.

“It was a tough call,” said Ben Manvel, District 1 city councilman. “But the amount of money was out of hand.”

A new application

The new application is a two-part form. The first part, to be filled by the applicant, is almost 18 pages long, front and back; the second part, to be completed by a doctor or physical therapist, is 14 pages, front and back.

“I feel that the length of the application bars a lot of people from service,” said Wilson, who balances a full-time job with her part-time studies. “It takes hours to fill it out; a lot of people don’t have that kind of free time.”

Terry Schlicting, who works at Resources for Disabled Students, is the chairman of the Fort Collins Commission on Disability, and is particularly familiar with the application process.

“Not only is it extremely lengthy, but it’s also quite invasive,” he said. “The current policy does not reflect the city’s ideology of celebrating diversity.”

Schlicting said that although he agrees with Wilson that the current policy unfairly restricts a number of people from service, like many interviewed about this issue, he was careful to mention that before the funding cut last year, the city was going above and beyond what is required of them by the ADA.

Dial-A-Ride said the application process has to be long and complex so eligibility can be determined fairly for each user.

“If we just gave out a single page application, a lot of people would not qualify for use,” Dubin said. “We need to find out exactly how the disability is preventing the applicant from using the fixed-route service. This takes more than just a few questions.”

About 2,000 applications were sent out when the system changed, and Dubin said 943 are currently registered for use. But because Dial-A-Ride does not keep records on the history of usage, it is impossible to know how many did not reapply to the newer and more restrictive system.

Conditional eligibility

When Wilson reapplied a year ago, she was deemed “conditionally eligible.”

Conditional eligibility requires her to take the fixed route on most days, so long as the weather permits her to be outside with her wheelchair.

Dial-A-Ride defines permissive weather as: less than a 30 percent chance of rain, and no snow within the last week.

Due to erratic weather patterns, Wilson is constantly bounced back and forth between the two services. All Dial-A-Ride trips must be booked a day in advance, so she is left at the mercy of the weather forecasts. This, she says, creates a significant level of stress.

“Each day is different, I can never plan out my week” said Wilson, who says the policy leaves her consistently unsure about how she will be getting to and from campus.

Attempts to appeal

Wilson has made several appeals in the last year without success to Dial-A-Ride in an attempt to get unrestricted service at least from late fall to spring, when the weather is the least predictable.

She has been speaking frequently with District 5 city councilman, Kelly Ohlson, who in turn has been talking with the city manager about Wilson’s case as an advocate for her appeal.

“She’s a hero in my book,” Ohlson said. “I think that her request is a fair one. . If she isn’t giving up then I shouldn’t either. I think that resolving this issue has already taken more time than it should.”

Ohlson said he is confident that he will resolve Wilson’s situation.

“[Changing Wilson’s eligibility] may or may not lead to policy change,” he said. “Fran has some unusual circumstances, and so we might continue along with a person by person basis, but this may indeed affect others.”

District 1 councilman Ben Manvel, who once taught at CSU and has known Wilson for 15 years, said a policy change was unlikely.

“I respect both points of view,” he said. “I have the greatest respect for Fran, but I hesitate to stick my opinion into these things. I’m not so sure about there being a policy change, but maybe more of a flexibility change.”

Manvel was uncomfortable undercutting any decisions made within Dial-A-Ride, but expressed sympathy for Wilson’s situation.

The long ride home

Today, Wilson is a part-time student at CSU, only 14 credits away from a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She is also employed at the CSU bookstore, where she’s been for more than 15 years.

Many students are familiar with the consistent smile of the grey-haired Wilson, who spends her average workday on the second floor information desk, doing what she can to help and make a living.

She has been struggling with the restricted Dial-A-Ride service for more than a year now; and despite her recent meeting with city officials, she said she feels her problem will not be solved any time soon.

Nonetheless, she is currently undertaking the long and costly process of reapplication yet again. But she seems optimistic.

“I don’t know if anything different will happen this time, but it doesn’t hurt to try,” she said, laughing.

Staff writer Trevor Simonton can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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