May 12, 2009 – Eyes and mouths opened wide as commuters at the Jackson Street Blue Line station turned to watch a young man in a wheelchair casually roll onto an escalator and pass them on his way up, his arms firmly grasping the handrails to brace himself as he left the platform below.
Steve Bramlett hasn’t always been disabled, but 10 years in a wheelchair have forced him to adapt to challenges most CTA riders never think about. Shortly after his 1997 graduation from Bowen High School on Chicago’s South Side, Bramlett was robbed at gunpoint and shot several times, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Since then, Bramlett has had to navigate Chicago’s public transit system in a different way, learning firsthand just how accessible it really is.
A team of reporters from Columbia College Chicago visited all 144 CTA train stations over eight weeks to determine how well the CTA is living up to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reporters found that 41 percent of the stations designated fully accessible were not.
Elevators on three separate stops on the Blue, Brown and Orange Lines were out of order, 11 stations had broken automatic doors and 20 stations were not equipped with automatic doors at all. Six stations on the Pink Line had automatic doors that were out of order in late February, and upon repeat visits in March and early April, those doors were still not working.
The results don’t surprise Bramlett. As he made his way through the concourse connecting the Jackson Blue and Red Lines earlier this spring, he explained the issues he faces on his daily commute from his home at 79th Street and Cottage Grove to his telemarketing job in Park Ridge.
The call button on the Jackson Blue Line platform wasn’t working this Tuesday in late March, and the sign that all handicap-accessible stations are supposed to display at the entrance to notify riders of elevators being out of order and other equipment failures was missing.
Bramlett had been told when he boarded at the Jefferson Blue Line stop 30 minutes earlier that the elevator at his final stop, the 79th Street Red Line station, wasn’t working. He would have to wait until he got there to find out if it was still out of service. Because of the uncertainty and the added hassle of finding an alternate route when equipment fails, Bramlett has found other ways to get around.
“The elevators are out of order all the time,” said Bramlett. “That’s when I start getting creative, takin’ the escalators and stuff. I’ve had to actually carry my [wheel]chair up the stairs.”
Fortunately for Bramlett, he can get around with braces if he needs to, but taking the stairs is difficult, especially with a wheelchair. If he’s lucky, an attendant or willing customer will help carry his chair up or down the stairs. If not, he’s on his own.
Even if the station has a working escalator, it might not be wide enough for both Bramlett and his chair, which folds up, and often, he said, the chair has to go up separately. It’s either that or get to another station with a working elevator, putting him farther away from his destination. If Bramlett happens to be on his scooter instead of his wheelchair, the problem is compounded because the scooter is too bulky to move without a lift.
“The equipment is constantly malfunctioning,” he said.
The CTA declined to discuss the problems found at more than 30 handicap-accessible stations. But the one employee who did agree to answer questions – the CTA’s ADA compliance officer, Christine Montgomery – said she wasn’t aware that 16 of the stations designated handicap-accessible had no automatic doors, a feature advocates for the disabled say is needed for a station to be fully accessible.
Kevin Irvine, chairman of the CTA’s ADA Advisory Committee, said there are two ways to define “accessible” – what’s required under the ADA and his higher standard of what he believes is truly accessible. For instance, he notes that having automatic doors at accessible stations isn’t mandated, but without them, the stations don’t fit his definition.
According to reports by an independent monitor responsible from 2002 to 2007 with making sure the CTA complied with the ADA, riders regularly complained about elevators being out of order and the system failing to make passengers aware of the problem. The quarterly reports, filed by local attorney Shelley Sandow and required as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by Access Living and Equip for Equality, also included complaints that CTA attendants failed to respond to customer service calls and didn’t post signs instructing disabled riders on how to exit stations when elevators were out of order.
Three years after Sandow began monitoring the CTA, complaints were still rolling in. According to one unidentified customer in June 2005, “the elevators/escalators are not in service most of the time… the escalators at 79th/Ryan location are out of order 95 percent of the time.”
A review of the roughly 2,000 complaints filed against the CTA from Jan. 1, 2004, through Feb. 28, 2009, found repeated instances of elevators, doors, turnstiles and customer service attendant buttons not working, sometimes for weeks at a time. Sandow said the ADA requires that problems such as these be fixed expeditiously.
After exiting the Red Line train at 79th Street, Bramlett discovered the elevator was working after all. It had either been fixed during his commute or never was broken to begin with.
If he had altered his trip in anticipation of not being able to leave the 79th Street station on his own, he could have added another 30 minutes onto his commute. He looked relieved as the lift carried him up to street level, where he would catch one final bus on his way home.
As Bramlett waited outside the station in the soft rain, he said he isn’t satisfied with the CTA’s lack of accessibility, but he’s learned to cope. Automatic doors are not mandated by the ADA, so he struggles to push them open on his own or asks for assistance when other riders are nearby. When elevators break down he takes the escalator or stairs.
Bramlett says he has no choice but to deal with the problems he encounters on a daily basis because few options are open to him, especially now in the economic downturn. “I’m disabled and a minority,” he said, “but I’ve got a job and it pays well.”
The fact that the CTA has added elevators and other measures to increase accessibility to 61 percent of its stations since the signing of the ADA in 1990 has helped, said Bramlett.
But Bramlett and other disabled commuters say with the frequent equipment breakdowns and other problems, they can’t count on the CTA and question whether the agency is following the spirit of the nearly 20-year-old federal disability law.
In complaint after complaint – disabled and able-bodied customers alike – lament the accessibility problems. One customer complained to the CTA in July 2008, “When citizens are barred from services in these ways it is blatant discrimination that recalls to my mind the lawful separation of people of different races.”
Another rider filed a complaint in June 2004 after seeing a disabled mother and her wheelchair-bound child having trouble on a bus but getting no assistance from the driver.
“I find no reason for this kind of service,” the unidentified customer wrote in an e-mail. “I hope your staff will help this driver receive the proper training for the aid of the disabled of Chicago. If not, I sure hope the American Disability Act will help you with funding to provide the proper training. My CTA is one that would show disabled persons they are not second-class citizens.”
Bramlett would like that, too.
Elizabeth Czupta and Kaitlyn McAvoy contributed to this report.
Contact Zach Wilmes at email@example.com.
Check out the rest of the CTA investigation:
Broken CTA Facilities, Slow Repairs Create Problems for Disabled Customers by Elizabeth Czupta
Complaints Against CTA Keep Climbing by Danielle Desjardins and Kaitlyn McAvoy
Injury and Equipment Breakdowns Continue to Trouble Some Disabled CTA Riders by Kirsten Steinbeck
Disabled Riders Experience Years of Inconsistency in CTA Service by Danielle Desjardins
Advisory Group Works to Improve Access for Disabled CTA Riders by Kirsten Steinbeck
ChicagoTalks Video: CTA Improves But Some Disabled Still Complain by Elizabeth Czupta
INVESTIGATION: Disabled And Downtown On The CTA by Eli Kaberon
INVESTIGATION: The Inaccessible CTA by Kaitlyn McAvoy