Kennan Cole was born blind. The unemployed 38-year-old lives with his girlfriend, also blind, and two seeing-eye dogs near the old north end of Colorado Springs.
One day last month, Cole boarded a city bus, as he does nearly every day. The bus driver neglected to call out the stops as he approached them. On another bus, he was met with the same silence.
It happened again and again, on all six of his rides.
This was not the first afternoon that Cole had to guess his way around the city. But it was the only time that drivers seemingly forgot, en masse, their obligation to the Colorado Springs blind community.
"The city expects us to ride the bus with no orientation for where we are," Cole says, estimating that at least 50 blind people take the bus on a regular basis. "I don't know who to blame at this point."
Bus drivers are at the bottom of a complex chain of command in the city's transit bureaucracy. Their higher-ups are charged with enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that drivers call out stops or other well-known markers, such as elementary schools or hospitals. Drivers also are compelled to go through sensitivity training, which teaches them to accommodate the blind and disabled without making spectacles of those riders. But without proper instruction, many drivers overlook ADA guidelines, leaving Cole and other riders at risk.
"Imagine getting on a bus and wondering if the driver is going to remember your stop," says Cole, who serves as transportation chairman for the American Council for the Blind's local chapter. "What if you get off at the wrong spot? You can't look around for the landmarks."
The lapse in ADA compliance is, by many accounts, a longstanding problem in Colorado Springs. The city contracts with Laidlaw Transit Services, Inc., to hire and train drivers, and hands over complaints to the private company. Laidlaw project manager Dave Agati says he has investigated only two ADA-related grievances since November 2005, both within the past month. The complaints spurred verbal warnings for drivers.
But some, like Geoffrey Ames of the regional ADA Center, a federally funded information resource, say there is little incentive for private companies and their drivers to follow the mandate. It often falls to riders to agitate for compliance.
"[Contractors] would prefer to have their drivers out on the street, rather than in training," Ames says. "To not announce bus stops is analogous to not putting down a lift so a person with a wheelchair could get on the bus."
When the city bus system repels blind and disabled riders, it actually loses money by forcing some of those people to use Metro Mobility, a city-funded, curb-to-curb service designed for the handicapped. Metro Mobility's 3,100 subscribers pay a heavily subsidized $2 per ride; it cost the city nearly $15 more for each transport in 2006.
But Metro Mobility riders are subject to some of the same ADA shortcomings that public bus riders face. Joe Vaccaro, executive director of Community Intersections, a nonprofit that provides services to people with disabilities, says the bus company has turned down his offers to conduct sensitivity training. While city officials promise drivers attend twice-yearly mandatory classes, Vaccaro regularly hears otherwise.
For instance, he says, if a developmentally disabled person talks uncontrollably on a bus, a driver might "yell back at them to "shut the hell up.' And that just escalates the situation."
Kevin Scott, a Metro Mobility rider who is blind and has balance problems, says drivers have rough-housed him, pulling his arms or pushing his shoulders to scoot him off the bus.
"A couple of weeks ago I went to the point of telling a driver, "Here is my arm why don't you take it?' A couple of seconds later, the driver was trying to waltz with me. It was frustrating," he says.
Back on the bus
Metro Mobility representatives say they investigated 145 rider complaints last year, as compared with 134,000 trips provided. They also claim a near-perfect record (92 percent) of on-time pickups. But Metro Mobility can offer to pick up riders an hour before or after the time they prefer, and still count those stops as on time; Vaccaro says disabled clients often wind up very early or late for doctor appointments.
Back on the public bus system, Cole boards the No. 6 with his dog, Woodrow, leading the way. Today, he faces a more delicate quandary than that posed by the ADA violation weeks ago.
"Hey, Kennan," yells the bus driver. "I've got a sore throat today. But I'll try to call out the stops for you."
"You don't have to," Cole says softly.
"I gotta do it by law."
Cole suspects the drivers make an exception for him now that he's complained to the city. But he's not sure they call out landmarks when he's not on board. For him, being singled out is, in some ways, worse than missing a stop or two.
"It bothers me. It always bothers me a little. I know they see me and they see the dog," he says. "You want to feel like part of the community and not someone special."