Reliable transportation is a quality of life issue many people take for granted. For some with disabilities, getting from point A to point B can present an additional challenge and can become an obstacle to leading a full life.
Most bus transportation is on a fixed route or scheduled system. Typically, the buses on these fixed routes aren't designed for those who use wheelchairs because the vehicles don't have lifts or ramps, and a wheelchair doesn't fit with the typical bench seating.
The Regional Bus Authority provides paratransit transportation through a contract with vendor Triple A Express, a Highland-based taxi company. The vans are equipped with a manual lift allowing the rider to remain seated in a wheelchair while entering and leaving the vehicle.
Through its contract with the RBA, Triple A provides 60 to 100 rides a day.
"About 25 percent of these riders require an accessible wheelchair," said Chip Whitney, president of the company which began operating in 1995.
During the past few years, some clients complained that the paratransit vans were too small and couldn't accommodate more than one wheelchair.
"We heard the complaints and we responded. We worked with Chip and encouraged him to purchase a new larger van," said RBA Executive Director Tim Brown.
Earlier this year, the new van was put into service. It accommodates two full-sized wheelchairs and has room for additional caretakers or assistants.
Differing opinions on service quality
Clients who use the RBA complementary paratransit program have differing opinions of the service provided.
Hammond resident Raymond Fletcher III, uses a motorized wheelchair and has been a long-time critic of the RBA and its services. In February and March of this year, he filed formal complaints about late pick-up to get to his job as a substitute teacher for the School City of Hammond. As a sub, Fletcher can be called to any of the city's 20 schools.
"When I first obtained my position as a substitute teacher, I talked with a Triple A dispatcher ... to determine how I could best utilize paratransit services. I explained that depending upon the school assignment I was given, I may need to be at work at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and that this destination may be different every day," he said in one complaint.
Fletcher said arriving at school too early forces him to wait outdoors, "which during inclement weather would cause significant pain and/or spasms due to the steel rods in my legs."
According to his complaint, the dispatcher advised Fletcher that he could be scheduled for a standing pick-up of 7:30 or 8 a.m., but that he should call the night before to let them know which time.
"I have consistently done so, prior to 6 p.m. on the evening before," Fletcher said in the document.
The blizzard in early February caused havoc with the paratransit service, Fletcher said. On Feb. 8 through 14, the service scheduled for 7 a.m. showed up late, which caused him to be late to work.
"How can I realistically ask students to be on time to class if I can't be on time," he said. "You lead by example."
Fletcher said he has since opted to use his motorized wheelchair to get to work rather than ride with Triple A Express.
Another client, Michael Sohacki, of Munster, said he has only praise for the paratransit service Triple A Express provides.
After finishing his engineering degree at Purdue University Calumet 23 years ago, Sohacki, a quadriplegic, was hired by the School City of Hammond and is responsible for designing roofing projects to maintain the system's 24 facilities.
He usually drives a specially-designed van with an automatic lift for his motorized wheelchair. A computer provides him with hand controls for driving the vehicle.
However, when the van needs repairs, it takes three to four months of technical work in Fort Wayne. That happened during the winter, and Sohacki relied on Triple A Express to get to his job in the warehouse near Morton High School five days a week.
"Without that transportation, I wouldn't have been able to go to work," he said. "I would have had to take whatever vacation time I had and then go on family and medical leave. I would have still had my insurance, but no pay. I have to have a salary. I'm the sole provider for my family."
Though some of its clients may not be satisfied with the service, the RBA says it always listens.
"We always review the complaints and log them," the RBA's Brown said. "We respond accordingly."