26 years later – The ADA is not a suggestion

July twenty-sixth will mark the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, our “Emancipation Proclamation.” This sweeping law was the result of decades of work by activists committed to the idea that everyone has a place in society. It ensures reasonable accommodations in employment, access to public facilities, programs, and services, and effective communication for people with disabilities. This bipartisan law frees us to be a part of our communities, get on a bus, access broadcast news via closed captioning, and so many other things the abled of our society take for granted. It even protects those that live in denial (“It’ll never happen to me.”), only to find that they too acquire a disability.

I’m a retired clinical neuropsychologist living with a serious form of progressive multiple sclerosis. I use a power wheelchair, speak in a whisper, and have very limited stamina. I came back to my home state, Mississippi, in 2006, and bought a house adjacent to a bus route so I could remain independent and productive. At that time, the Jackson transit system, JATRAN, was poorly maintained and largely inaccessible. The paratransit system had only a few dilapidated buses, and the reservation lines were frequently left unanswered.

In 2008, Disability Rights Mississippi sued on our behalf, the Department of Justice joined the action, and in 2010, we achieved the Crawford et al. Consent Decree, calling for accessible fixed-route and paratransit service in the capital city of Mississippi. Since then, Jackson bought many new fixed route and paratransit buses and slowly improved compliance with the Decree. It was far from perfect, but better, and ridership increased.

Accessible/affordable transportation is so essential that it should be a human right. We will never, ever, achieve the goal of community integration called for by the ADA and the Olmstead decision without it.

In 2015, we noticed a sharp rise in bus breakdowns and raised concerns with the city. We were assured that they would invest in a campaign of repairs to the tune of $400,000 each year for two years. Much of that was to be finished by October 2015. It didn’t happen.

When our new JATRAN operator, National Express Transit, took over in October 2015, they authorized a comprehensive maintenance evaluation, and not one of our 39 buses were deemed roadworthy. Not one! When we asked the city how this could happen, their candid reply [PDF] can be boiled down to: “we robbed the maintenance budget to make payroll.” Essentially, the system is underfunded at about 1% of the total city budget.

By the summer of 2016, the majority of JATRAN’s buses were out-of-service, so the city cut back on the fixed routes and reallocated some of the paratransit buses to fill in the gaps, thus depriving paratransit riders of their lifeline to jobs, services, and medical appointments.

Just recently, Monday, July 11, my bus route broke down (again). After giving up on the alternative transportation, I grabbed my sign (for just such a contingency) and started rolling down the street (we have no sidewalks here). Ironically, I was headed to City Hall to talk about JATRAN’s maintenance crisis! Eventually, a friend with an accessible van plucked me off the street.

People who are privileged to drive cannot understand how important our bus system is, unless and until they see what it looks like without one. I know of no better way to demonstrate the vital importance of transit and sidewalks than to ride my wheelchair in the street with such a sign. My life may be expendable, but my human rights are not.

Disability Rights Mississippi and Disability Rights Washington, the parent organization of Rooted in Rights, are the protection & advocacy agencies in Mississippi and Washington states, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.