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People With Disabilities Cut First: Who Will Be Next?

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Judy Rosenblatt, a friend of my wife, is 68 years old. She was first diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in November 2004. As a result of her condition, she has extreme difficulty walking because of stiffness, postural collapse, poor balance, visual impairment, and dyskinesia -- involuntary movement. However, Judy refuses to surrender to her illness. She is a member of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and participates in their physical fitness program for people with Parkinson's at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus and in Dance for Parkinson's at the Mark Morris Dance Studio, both located in downtown Brooklyn, about seven miles from her apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. That is until now. The ability of Judy, and other older or disabled people like her, to lead any kind of "normal" life is being threatened by cuts in the Metropolitan Transit Authority's (MTA) Access-A-Ride program.

Paratransit (Access-A-Ride in New York City) was established to satisfy the requirements of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It has been operated in New York City for approximately seventeen years as a supplement bus and subway service. The average Access-A-Ride trip costs the agency $48. People with disabilities currently pay $2.25 per ride.

To lower the level of service provided, the MTA has been redefining the disabled, moving people from unlimited to conditional or "trip-to-trip" eligibility. Some of the disabled, defined by the MTA as "customers," are issued "distance eligibility." They are told they can walk up to five blocks to bus or subway stops or offered partial rides from their home to the bus or subway. Others are only eligible for service when the temperature is below 39 degrees or above 90 degrees. Rides must be booked a day in advance so it is not clear what happens if the weather forecast changes or the temperature rises or falls during the day.

When Judy Rosenblatt called to book a ride to the Mark Morris Dance Center for a movement class at two p.m. on Friday April 22, 2011, she was told she was no longer eligible for the unlimited round trip. Instead, they provided her with a conditional "itinerary." Access-A-Ride would pick her up at her apartment at 11:45 AM, two hours and fifteen minutes before the class, and take her to a bus stop two miles away on McDonald and Greenwood Avenues where they would drop her off -- rain or shine. She would then have to take two buses to the dance studio. The MTA expected her to take the same route home. Judy declined their offer and is currently appealing.

The MTA is trying to reduce unlimited eligibility by 12% and the number of rides by 26,000 a year. However, under new guidelines, New York City Transit claims that 40 percent of the people with disabilities who use Access-A-Ride are able walk one to five blocks to a bus stop. That means further cuts are coming. Even if there was some legitimacy to MTA estimates, medical decisions based on financial contingencies can rarely be trusted.

MTA board member Alan Cappelli has made it clear that the agency's real priority is, "Can it be done less expensively?" That means people with disabilities who are fragile are being put on buses or subways to ride with unsupervised kids leaving school and during packed rush hour. They are pushed, shoved, can't find seats, and generally terrified. The United Spinal Association has already filed a lawsuit, which says that the MTA isn't doing what's required to make the subway system accessible.

Leonore Gordon is a licensed clinical social worker with Parkinson's Disease who is a member of the Brooklyn Parkinsons Group. With the help of her neurologist, she successfully petitioned the head of the Department of Transportation to waive continued reevaluations for Access-A-Ride because Parkinson's is an incurable degenerative illness. She is upset with the randomness and heartless of Access-A-Ride evaluations and the absence of a policy that reflects realities of the illness. According to Gordon, "While the partial rides will not save the MTA significant money, they punish people with disabilities, especially in bad weather or on trips that now take hours longer, so they stop using Access-A-Ride all together." She believes that is where the real savings come in and where people with disabilities such as Ms. Rosenblatt, are trapped at home, unable to access programs designed to help her with her disabilities, and seriously suffer.

Budget cuts in one area eventually contribute to a sharp downward spiral in both the provision of social services and in employment. Each cut in service is used to justify further cuts and lay-offs. Without Access-A-Ride, or with restricted Access-A-Ride, people with disabilities can no longer get to programs so they stop traveling and enrollment in the programs decline. Authorities can claim that the programs are no longer needed and cut back even further.

Cutbacks eventually mean lay-offs and more people and communities suffer. Full-time Access-A-Ride drivers, who are largely Black and Hispanic, make $11 an hour, less than $450 a week, or a little more than $20,000 a year. They earn below the federal poverty line for a family of four, but they are working. Once unemployed, they won't be able to pay rent or mortgages or purchase goods at the local stores. They will collect benefits rather than pay taxes.

We are looking at a very harsh future. Once you cut the old and disabled, the only question is "Who gets to be cut next?"