Public transit more accessible for people with disabilities, but some see room for more improvement

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 6:30 p.m. MDT

Lee Bias maneuvers through the mud to get onto a UTA bus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lee Bias has not taken a step in many years, but that has not kept her from making big strides in helping to increase mobility for scores of people who find themselves unable to get around by traditional means.

Bias, 59, uses a power wheelchair for her mobility due to the lasting impact of a spinal cord injury suffered in an ATV crash that happened almost a decade ago. She lives on her own, is a single mom with grown children and several grandchildren.

She is the chairperson of the Utah Transit Authority Committee on Accessible Transportation — the agency’s citizen advisory committee. And it's through that affiliation that she is making a difference in improving the lives of others.

“(UTA) really listens to what we have to say,” Bias, a Salt Lake resident, said. “They get our opinion on so many things to help make public transportation accessible to anyone.”

The injury left Bias unable to walk. She does not drive, relying on her wheelchair and public transit to maintain her independence.

“I don’t want to have to depend on someone having to take me (around),” she said.

Bias refers to herself as “vertically challenged” rather than disabled. She said over the years, UTA has come a long way toward making its system more user-friendly to people like her.

“They have training for their drivers on how to treat people with disabilities so that they don’t feel 'less than' anyone else,” she said. And the trains and buses have improved access.

Bias said the addition of new train cars on the TRAX commuter rail line when UTA launched its Mid-Jordan Red Line and West Valley Green Line in August 2011 included flat-laying ramps at each entrance to allow for easier access for wheelchair riders.

Initially, there were complaints about how the ramp did not always operate properly, but when riders voiced their concerns, the agency made adjustments to remedy the problem.

Similarly, adjustments were made to the yellow-striped boarding areas on train platforms that were designed to help the visually impaired recognize their location on the platform. When the painted areas became wet, it become very slick and potentially hazardous, Bias explained.

“The people that are disabled said these were problems for us, and (UTA) worked on them until they got them fixed,” she said. While the agency has been committed to address many mobility issues, it has not been able to resolve every one.

Cindy Vega, 41, is blind but also has multiple physical disabilities. She sometimes uses a cane or her guide dog, Seattle, as well as a power wheelchair or a walker when traveling about in the community. She works at the State Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired as a computer instructor.

When the TRAX trains on the Red and Green lines began, visually impaired passengers were left in a quandary because getting on or off of the train requires the rider to push a button to activate the door. For sight-impaired passengers, it is a challenge that has yet to be adequately addressed.

“If a blind person needs to have the ramp and the door, how are we going to be able to find the button in time before the train takes off,” she queried. “Also, are we going to be able to find the middle of the platform (in the place where the doors are on the train)?”

She said those are some of the issues UTA should have considered when they decided to purchase the train models that are currently in use on two major commuter rail lines on weekdays … and the entire system on the weekends.

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