On Monday, the Transportation Legislative Review Committee heard about the Regional Transportation District’s proposed service cuts, as well as their effect on customers with disabilities.
“Without RTD, our ability to really reap the promises of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which turns 30 next year, is gone,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, as reported by CPR.
“Because we can’t get to work, we can’t get out, we can’t go spend money in the community, we can’t get to medical care. Transportation is really the key to independence and full community participation.”
Due to a shortage of bus and rail operators, RTD is looking at temporarily reducing service as early as 2020 to cut back on mandated overtime for existing employees. The transit system is already forced to drop runs due to short staffing.
RTD’s presentation to the committee referenced “low unemployment impacting [the] labor force nationwide,” and stated that “[f]atigue is affecting quality of life and safety.”
The agency said that their system-wide service availability — the amount of time that routes run as advertised — is 99% for buses, 98% for light rail and 98% for commuter rail. Commuter routes operate under a public-private partnership and are not part of anticipated cutbacks.
Reiskin said that Access-A-Ride, RTD’s door-to-door bus service for disabled customers, has combined trips recently due to the driver shortage. An RTD spokesperson could not confirm whether that was the case.
“There is nothing more important than RTD.”
That’s what Jule Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said just a few moments after she testified before lawmakers Monday about a recent proposal from the Regional Transportation District that would significantly curtail service.
Reiskin, who uses a wheelchair, told members of the Transportation Legislative Review Committee that the spotty service on RTD’s fixed-route buses and light rail trains because of an ongoing operator shortage in recent months is nothing new to riders with disabilities.
“What we’re seeing with fixed-route cancellations, we’ve been seeing for years with Access-A-Ride,” Reiskin said, referring to RTD’s paratransit service.
Access-A-Ride provides door-to-door service for disabled patrons who can’t use RTD’s other services. And RTD has been combining trips recently because of driver shortages, Reiskin said.
“Sometimes people can be on the van for two hours for a trip that could take 45 minutes,” she said.
Earlier this month, RTD staff proposed temporary service cuts as a last-ditch way to give its overworked drivers a break. The agency is short about 160 drivers and has been forcing many of them to work six days a week for years to keep up with current service levels. That proposal is still in its early stages. The RTD board will hear a more fleshed out version of it in December.
Reiskin told lawmakers Monday that RTD should commit to not cutting Access-A-Ride at all, and should do its very best to not reduce any service.
“We think it’s a really bad idea,” Reiskin told CPR News. “We think that they need to work with the union on other ways to be retaining drivers.”
Any sort of cut could have a ripple effect on riders with disabilities, Reiskin said, because many people who can’t drive for medical reasons rely on RTD’s buses and trains. And Access-A-Ride is only available to patrons who live within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed-route service line, so cuts to those could curtail the reach of the paratransit service.
“Without RTD, our ability to really reap the promises of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which turns 30 next year, is gone,” Resikin said. “Because we can’t get to work, we can’t get out, we can’t go spend money in the community, we can’t get to medical care. Transportation is really the key to independence and full community participation.”
RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said she couldn’t say whether driver shortages have affected Access-A-Ride, but she said the agency is very aware of the importance of that service.
“These are folks who are some of our most transit-dependent. We obviously are very careful about what we do to impact them,” she said. “However, day to day, it’s tough to predict what’s going to happen with any of our services.”
Tonilas said Reiskin and others are welcome to give RTD their thoughts in coming weeks as the proposal takes shape.
“This is an unfortunate situation that we don’t want to be in,” Tonilas said. “But we have a responsibility to look at what we can do to try to solve the situation.”
RTD officials mentioned the proposal in its own presentation to the Transportation Legislation Review Committee on Monday, which drew some critical questions from lawmakers.
“It sounds to me, though, that the temporary designation is based on hope,” Democratic Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield said.
RTD General Manager Dave Genova said RTD has some new ideas, including hiring temporary employees. Board Chair Doug Tisdale replied that the board has committed to a firm end date to the service reduction.
“We will give this a stated amount of time, and look to staff to deliver those results,” Tisdale said.
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Pueblo advocates among flyers who’ve experienced losing mobility far from home
After a United Airlines flight three years ago, Isabelle Briar ripped open her thumb as she pushed her wheelchair away from the gate. The airline had cracked the metal grip ring, leaving a sharp, protruding shard.
The same airline ignored Cindy Otis’ complaints about damage to her power chair in 2006, responding weeks later and only after she had an attorney write a letter threatening to sue.
In 2017, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, boarded a flight hours after writing federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Duckworth wanted to know why the agency again delayed requiring airlines to track damage to wheelchairs and scooters.
Upon landing, the Army veteran and amputee noticed her wheelchair no longer moved.
“They bent the metal bracket with the casters,” Duckworth said. “We’re talking about heavy-duty metal. I wonder, how are you managing to break these chairs?”
Last year, Duckworth slipped a provision into the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. It requires major commercial airlines to track mishandled mobility aids for the first time. Each month, airlines must tell the DOT how often they gate-check wheelchairs and scooters, as well as how often passengers report those devices as damaged, lost, delayed or stolen.
That requirement took effect in December, but some airlines reported challenges providing accurate figures that month.
However, between January and August— the latest month for which data is available — U.S. carriers reported having mishandled at least 6,915 chairs. That’s an average of 29 times a day.
While it’s just 1.6% of the chairs and scooters checked on flights, more than a dozen travelers told GateHouse Media that damage to their mobility aids can have significant medical, emotional and financial consequences. Some avoid flying altogether, saying the risks are too great.
“They are essential mobility equipment. It’s important stuff,” said Ben Mattlin, a Los Angeles writer and power chair user. “God, if that many pets were injured every day, it’d be an uproar.”
Duckworth said the general public fails to grasp the severity of the situation when a wheelchair is damaged or lost.
“Imagine if in a single year (that many) people had their legs broken by an airline as a result of flying,” Duckworth said. “The effect is the same.”
United Airlines did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Not an object
Travelers said people often see their chairs as objects rather than critical, customized extensions of their bodies that enable independence.
“We literally cannot function without them,” said Briar, a video game streamcaster from Nebraska.
Because wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all, they can take weeks to repair and sometimes cost thousands of dollars to replace a single part. Daily users require devices that routinely cost as much as a car, and the most specialized power chairs might cost as much as a small house.
If the damage from a flight isn’t immediately devastating, or if airlines refuse to pay for repairs, some people said they have lived with broken mobility aids.
Duct tape holds together a key metal beam of Briar’s wheelchair.
“Because of the nature of the way the chair fits, I didn’t realize my seat was missing half of its support until I transferred back into it in the (airport) bathroom,” she said.
United Airlines nearly lost the metal rod in a plane’s cargo hold, she said, and refused to pay for repairs. Staff members used duct tape to hold the support rod in place instead, she said.
Noting the prohibitive cost to repair it and the days she’d be without her aid, Briar said, “I’m still using it in that condition.”
Tips for Pueblo travelers
Though she has not heard of cases specific to Pueblo, Kristen Castor, nonattorney advocate for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said airline damage is a reality for many wheelchair owners.
“If they don’t have a wheelchair, they don’t have mobility — and they have been tossed out of the airport without their wheelchairs,” she said. “I’ve got a story from New York: One of the activist friends I work with, her chair was destroyed by the airline. She finally has gotten a chair from them, but it takes a long time to fight that.”
Wheelchair pieces including armrests, footrests as well as the electronic controls on powered wheelchairs are especially vulnerable to damage, Castor said. She also recommends that wheelchair owners dismantle the chairs themselves before boarding a plane.
Julie Reiskin, executive director for the coalition, boards a flight once a month on average and said she has experienced damage to her wheelchair after flying on two occasions.
“In both cases the airlines did take responsibility to pay for the repairs; however, in both cases my chair was still functional, so I was not in a situation of being in a strange city with no workable chair,” Reiskin said. “That is my worst nightmare.”
“Some people can walk a bit or can use other chairs, but many of us who are considered ‘full-time’ wheelchair users have customized seating; so we cannot sit in any chair that is not ours — at least not without risking injury or at least serious pain,” she said.
To avoid damage, Reiskin said she takes severe precautions when traveling with an airline. Before flying, she brings laminated instructions on chair maintenance with her, removes the headrests and footrests, informs airline employees and arrives at the gate two hours early.
“Most of us who travel a lot probably are living closer to the city, but there may be folks in Pueblo that are active travelers,” she said. “I think it is much worse for those who are not active travelers, because they do not have all of the tips and tricks about how to travel with a motorized wheelchair.”
The real number of mishandled wheelchairs is likely much higher than 29 per day, said advocates for people with disabilities.
That’s because many passengers don’t formally report damages to the airlines. Other times, the damage might not immediately be apparent.
Eric Howk, a guitarist for popular rock group “Portugal. The Man” flies more than 100 times a year.
Even though his manual wheelchair is often damaged and delayed while flying, Howk said he never has filed a federal complaint or requested a Complaint Resolution Officer — staff members trained to resolve disability-related issues. He notes he is lucky to have the physical ability and financial means to fix most damage himself.
That said, he currently sits in a replacement chair provided by Alaska Airlines.
“I watched a ground crew member snap the back off the chair,” he said.
Alaska Airlines, which reports damaging fewer than 1% of mobility aids, said in an email that it’s “always committed to improving where we can – especially in this area.”
In the first seven months of this year, American Airlines had the worst record, mishandling 1,846 devices — or 3.7% of all the mobility aids it gate checked.
“We are working hard to build tools and training so that every wheelchair is returned to the passenger in great condition,” an American Airlines spokesperson wrote in an email. “This data and other information are being used to develop a comprehensive plan for improving the customer experience for the long term.”
Several airlines — Allegiant, Hawaiin, JetBlue, Spirit and United — did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on the new federal regulations.
Hope for change
Duckworth hopes the new requirement will help federal regulators better monitor the issue and identify ways for airlines to improve, as well as empower travelers to make informed buying decisions.
“Ultimately,” she said, “it’s about treating medical devices with respect.”
A USDOT spokesperson said by email that the agency publishes the data in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report but did not mention any other plans for the new information.
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, announced in a blog post Tuesday that he would strengthen enforcement of the Air Carrier Access Act, among other policies, if elected.
Chair users have their own common-sense solutions they say airlines should adopt, such as adding a special section in cargo holds to safely secure mobility aids away from other luggage. Others said airlines should store folding manual chairs in the cabin rather than the cargo hold — something already required, but rarely followed, under federal rules.
The most popular solution: Let passengers keep their chairs and sit in them during flights.
“They don’t demand anyone else to put their legs in cargo, but they do when your legs are wheels,” said Jennifer Brooks, a power chair user from Syracuse, New York.
Some wheelchair users said they are exhausted and skeptical about the likelihood of change.
“There have to be consequences,” said the East Coast cybersecurity expert. “They’ve had anecdotal data for years at this point. … We know what the data says already. We know what’s happening. There needs to be some enforcement.”
This story is the first in an ongoing series. Fill out this short form to share your story of flying with a mobility aid or to tell the reporter what questions you would like answered in future stories: http://bit.ly/ChairTraveler. Jessica Fraser can be reached at email@example.com or 941-361-4923.
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Sheryle’s service is will be on Thursday, October 24th at 3:00 PM at Newcomer Funeral Home
CCDC is saddened to announce the passing of disability rights all-star Sheryle Hutter. Sheryle was a CCDC staff member until last year, before that she was a Board Member, and dedicated volunteer advocate. Among her many significant accomplishments was the development of our current advocacy training program. Her efforts made it a professional level class, eligible for continuing education units from the University of Denver. Sheryle developed the curriculum in partnership with the University College at DU and created enough evidence-based curricula with a robust evaluation to qualify it for a college-level class.
Sheryle was born on September 26, 1944 and died October 13, 2019. She was married to the love of her life Don Hutter on January 27, 1962. They renewed their vows this past January. She leaves behind two sons, Don Jr, and Ron Hutter. Ron works as the CCDC event assistant and is on the Arc of Aurora Board of Directors. He followed in his mother’s advocacy footsteps, something that made Sheryle very proud. Sheryle is also survived by all five siblings: Vicki Shultz, Pam Farnoik, Tommy Collins, Scott Collins and Brent Collins. She leaves behind many nieces and nephews, colleagues, friends and admirers.
Sheryle’s professional history began when she owned and operated a square dance shop, then had an interior design business and finally became a grants manager for the Cherry Creek School district where she worked for more than 30 years. Sheryle poured her significant talents into several organizations as a volunteer. She was involved with Special Olympics for more than 30 years. She started the program in the Cherry Creek District and there are now over 10,000 athletes participating across the state. Her son Ron is an athlete and coach with Special Olympics. Sheryle was a leader in the all-volunteer organization PADCO (Parents of Adults with Disabilities of Colorado). PADCO takes strong unapologetic advocacy positions. Sheryle and founder Dr. Denver Fox uncovered fraud in the intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD) system that was later verified by government auditors. She found a glaring error in legislation missed by several professional lobbyists that took needed services away from hundreds of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and she forced a correction to maintain needed services.
Sheryle was involved in many capacities with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. She joined as a volunteer in the late 90’s, later she served on the Board of Directors and acted as Treasurer for several years. After her retirement from the Cherry Creek School district, she threw herself into advocacy, lobbying on behalf of CCDC, and creating the advocacy training program that is in place today. Sheryle was also involved in local Arapahoe County and City of Aurora politics. Sheryle has mentored and encouraged many people with disabilities and parents of people with disabilities. Sheryle had a strong sense of disability pride, and that is evident in the work of her son Ron. Sheryle was passionate about improving the quality and accessibility of health care, enforcement of the American’s Disabilities Act, and ethical and transparent behavior of nonprofits that are funded to support people with disabilities.
Sheryle has received several awards for her work in the disability community including the Dan Davidson Award given by the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council and the Lucile Weiss Memorial Award for Education from CCDC. Sheryle will be dearly missed. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that people honor Sheryle by voting, becoming active and involved with your community and doing something to improve health care and access for people with disabilities and/or senior citizens in your communities.
By: Jaclyn Allen
DENVER — It is a terrible choice: either give up on work or lose the health care needed to live. For a small group of Coloradans, it is a choice that looms large as they approach the age of 65.
“I really want to keep working. I enjoy it,” said Curtis Wolff, who became a quadriplegic seven years ago, after surviving the West Nile Virus. “I am still able to do a lot of things. I am a trainer for a contractor for the State of Colorado.”
But certain health care expenses aren’t covered by insurance, including wheelchairs and personal care. Fortunately, Colorado has a Medicaid buy-in program for working adults with disabilities,which allows Wolff to keep making and saving money and still get Medicaid benefits.
But there is one major problem: the program ends when people turn 65 years old.
“This program is only good until age 65, and I can’t even retire until 67 in the first place,” said Wolff, who said that even after that, Medicare will not cover long-term care expenses and other benefits that Medicaid does.
If he wants to keep receiving Medicaid after he turns 65, he has to get rid of all assets over $2,000.
“Really, after working hard you whole life you basically have to lose everything in order to just survive. It’s just not fair,” he said.
Josh Winkler with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC) said federal lawmakers probably assumed people could get on Medicare at 65 or that many with disabilities would not live past that age.
“As set up right now, the system is broken,” said Winkler, who said a bill drafted at the federal level to change the 65 age limit has gone nowhere. “I know several people who have worked for 20 plus years with their disabilities, and their plan is to die before they turn 65 because they don’t have a plan at 65.”
CCDC is looking for a state solution, allowing people to keep working, keep their assets and keep buying in to Medicaid if they have already been part of the buy-in.
Nearly 9,000 people take part in the Medicaid buy-in for working adults with disabilities, but Winkler said that probably only a few dozen Coloradans would need the age limit extended beyond 65.
Winkler and Wolff believe it could save the State money in the long term, and CCDC is working on drafting legislation at the state level and finding a lawmaker to sponsor it.
“Something needs to change,” said Wolff, who is about to turn 63 and just hopes the change happens in time for him. “I might have to go to a nursing home and that would be the worst-case scenario and I really don’t want that to happen.”
Original Article by Denver 7 TheDenverChannel.com