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Local disabled face transit difficulties

Allyn Harvey

A 1992 law meant to give people with disabilities equal access to public facilities apparently doesn’t apply in rural sections of the valley, as one Aspen Village man learned this week.

The man, a quadriplegic who asked not to be identified for this story, normally travels upvalley five days a week to physical therapy sessions at the Aspen Club. He also treks upvalley, with the help of his father or his nurse, in a specially modified car to Aspen Valley Hospital a few times a month to visit his doctors.

At least that’s what he did until Monday, when the car broke down. The man’s nurse, Helen Doane, thought she could solve her patient’s temporary transportation dilemma by calling the Roaring Fork Transit Agency.

RFTA, the local bus agency, does offer van service for people in wheelchairs and others who need a little extra help, but, as Doane learned, the service is only offered to people who live in or near Aspen. The van service goes no further downvalley than the airport.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if there wasn’t such a service, but there is such a service, and they wouldn’t go just a little further, five or 10 minutes, to help my patient out,” Doane said after two frustrating days of being denied help.

But once word of the man’s dilemma worked its way up the management chain at RFTA, things began to change. On Thursday morning, RFTA director Dan Blankenship directed his staff to chuck the rule book and make room for the Aspen Village man.

“I just told our guys to go ahead and try to accommodate them for a few days in the interim, until they get their vehicle taken care of. It looks like we have to juggle some things because of lack of notice, but it also looks like we’ll be able to accommodate them,” he said.

Blankenship said the service is normally limited for a couple of reasons, the biggest of which is cost. “We currently don’t have the budget to put a service into effect that could potentially end up with us going out as far as Redstone on a regular basis,” he said. “It’s expensive to have someone available 24 hours a day.”

The agency only has one van in service at any time, and it is most often used three days a week to help seniors get around town.

Blankenship said the Americans with Disabilities Act only requires wheelchair van service within three-quarters of a mile of “fixed route service within a city.” That means anyone with a disability who lives close to one of the bus routes that run through Aspen is eligible for RFTA assistance. In some cases, RFTA will send a van to get the person from their home to a bus stop; in other cases, the van picks the person up at home, takes them to their destination and then returns them home.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress and signed into law in 1991 by President George Bush. It requires public agencies to make accommodations that allow people with disabilities the same access to public services, like buses and libraries, as everyone else. It also bans employment discrimination against the disabled by private companies and government entities.

Blankenship said the law does exempt organizations like RFTA from providing the wheelchair van service along its commuter routes.

That doesn’t mean wheelchair service isn’t available downvalley – most of the buses running up and down Highway 82 are wheelchair-accessible. It’s just that people in wheelchairs, on crutches or using walkers who need the automatic lift to board the bus shouldn’t expect RFTA to help them get from home to the bus stop.

“What they wanted was for me to call and see if the next bus has a lift, push my patient through the streets of Aspen Village and down the hill to the bus stop and wave the bus down,” Doane said of the initial response from RFTA employees.

“It’s a fair distance from his house to the bus stop, and we’ve got snow and ice to deal with on the road,” she said.

Aspen Village is located in what, for the handicapped, is a transit wasteland that extends from the airport business center to the line between Eagle and Garfield counties. No real services are available in Basalt or the unincorporated sections of Eagle and Pitkin counties to help people who, whether for a short time or for the rest of their lives, need extra assistance getting around.

In Garfield County van service is offered by a nonprofit organization, but Blankenship said that’s because there is much more demand in the various communities in Garfield County.

“We just haven’t had too many requests for van service from disabled people up here,” Blankenship said.


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