January 19, 2009
Paratransit: Providing Accessible Transit for All
By Tammy Haenftling
Chair, APTA Access Committee
Assistant Vice President, Paratransit Management Services
Dallas Area Rapid Transit
I wasn’t supposed to be here. My dream and goal when I graduated high school was to be an executive secretary, or even a personal assistant to a well-known rock star (Stevie Nicks). That’s what I was born to do. That’s what I trained to do.
Well, things don’t always turn out the way they are “supposed to,” or maybe they turn out exactly how they’re meant to be.
When I turned 18, I started my career in the transit industry, working for the Dallas Transit System, which was the bus system for the Dallas area before Dallas Area Rapid Transit was created. I was hired as a service planning clerk, the first step to my big-time dream job of an executive secretary. Then, along came DART in 1983, and I obtained my dream job of being the assistant to the assistant general manager of operations! I had arrived. It also didn’t take long for me to figure out that that was not enough for me.
Anyway, fast-forwarding to the early 1990s, I was sent to work in an area called “paratransit,” wondering what the heck I did to deserve such a punishment. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I had come home. I found my calling. Working to serve people with disabilities is one of the most rewarding and challenging things a person can do. It’s what I have been doing for almost 20 years now, and it is what has led me to my role at APTA. I chair the APTA Access Committee.
When I ran for committee vice chair, I did so with the notion that I wanted to make a difference for people with disabilities, to ensure that their needs are considered in everything that we do. I believe we all have a responsibility to consider accessibility for all in everything that we do. It is not just for people who work in the paratransit or special services industry; it is for all who work in the transportation industry.
In these tough economic times, balancing our budgets, both personal and corporate, can be a real challenge. We have to make tough decisions regarding our needs versus our wants. This is especially true for people with disabilities, many of whom are limited in their earning potential as it is, and who must often forego any discretionary spending.
Since transit agencies are not immune to changes in the economy, transit executives must make some difficult decisions as well. Unfortunately, it is in times like these that paratransit programs and other accessible services, with their associated costs, are prime targets for spending cuts.
I would caution all of us against a knee-jerk reaction to the very real economic situation, proposing spending cuts to accessible services without considering how these cuts will adversely affect people with disabilities. ADA Paratransit especially is a vital mode of transportation for those customers that need, and are entitled to, its provision. Instead of looking at people with disabilities as a population that we “must serve” by law, we should be embracing them, not just in tough economic times, but always. Also, accessible services benefit all people, not just people with disabilities. A vehicle that is made easier to board for people with disabilities is easier to board for everybody.
People with disabilities depend on ADA Paratransit programs and other accessible services to maintain a satisfactory quality of life. Many of them use these services and programs to get to and from medical appointments, religious and social events, grocery and other shopping needs, and to simply stay connected with family and friends. People with disabilities want to do the same things that everyone else does. Transit agencies that make major spending cuts in accessible services have the potential to impact this segment of our community in a very negative manner.
So, my plea is simple. When looking for areas to cut, please look for the money in places other than accessible services. Please consider that, should we all live to the ripe, old age to which we aspire, we will most likely be a person with a disability in our later years. What will we want for ourselves when this happens?