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A Hard Road for the Disabled

Kay Davenport of Reseda has the routine down pat.

With a cup of steaming hot coffee in one hand and a telephone in the other, she rings up a special city-sponsored dial-a-ride service at 8 a.m. sharp.

Almost always the line is busy--even just a few seconds into the workday. But as someone in a wheelchair who must rely on such service to unlock the door to the outside world, Davenport has no choice but to keep punching the redial button until she gets through.

“Always make sure you go to the bathroom before you start dialing,” she says only half in jest. “You can’t interrupt; you don’t dare. If you don’t get through by 8:30, all the rides are filled up.”

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In a region where driving seems as necessary as oxygen, Davenport’s problem illustrates the plight of those who find it difficult, if not impossible, to get into a car, much less navigate one.

Public transport is often the only alternative, but those who are physically disabled have their war stories: of the wheelchair lifts on buses that break down constantly, of insensitive bus patrons, of harried bus drivers who, too anxious about sticking to schedules, shoot past instead of taking the time needed for a disabled passenger to board.

Such slights can spell the difference between seeing a doctor or missing an appointment, getting groceries or going hungry.

“Transportation is really basic to people,” says Gary Lasdon of the Independent Living Center, a Van Nuys-based social service agency for the disabled. “If people cannot get around, it takes away their independence.”

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In the end, it often comes down to the kindness of others, personal ingenuity--or just staying home.

“You have to depend on friends and relatives,” says Edna Marie Smith, who has been in a wheelchair for eight years because of multiple sclerosis. “And it leaves us doing a lot of thinking and maneuvering to get places on our own.”

In Beverly Hills, where she lives, Smith takes advantage of a city-subsidized van that shuttles residents to their doctors’ offices. But beyond that she’s stuck, especially if she wants to do anything socially in the evenings or on a whim.

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“You read the papers and see the places that they have entertainment, and then you have to stop and think, ‘Transportation,’ ” says Smith, who has always wanted to go to the Hollywood Bowl. “Usually, if it’s after 5 o’clock, forget it. Even if the places themselves are accessible, you can’t get there.”

But adversity breeds creativity. When Smith went on a recent cruise, she ordered a specially equipped van to ferry her to the airport, then had her hotel in Miami arrange for an ambulance to take her to the docks.

“You have to swallow a lot of silly pride,” Smith says, “and just determine to do what you gotta do.”

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The city of Los Angeles offers a special transportation service for seniors and the disabled. In operation since last year, the $27-million Cityride program allows participants to buy scrip that can be redeemed for dial-a-ride service, cab rides or Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus passes.

So far, 77,000 people have signed up with the program, which has its limitations: Dial-a-ride vans are available only 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; both dial-a-ride and taxi service gobble up scrip quickly, and only the MTA bus passes allow you to cross the city line.

Davenport almost exclusively uses the dial-a-ride service, which must be reserved 24 hours in advance to guarantee a ride. Spur-of-the-moment activities--running off to the bank, the post office or the local McDonald’s--mean taking a cab, which is costly, or standby dial-a-ride services, which are chancy.

“There’s no spontaneity at all. It doesn’t work that way for us, believe me,” she says. “The only time I get to go to a fast-food restaurant for a hamburger is when I go shopping in the mall and there’s a Burger King in the mall.”

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Still, some transportation is better than none at all, which Davenport is quick to recognize.

“It has made the difference between living and dying. To that extent, I have to emphasize that, despite its shortcomings, it’s a wonderful service,” she says. “It enables me to live an independent life and make as normal a life as possible. It’s very limiting, but at the same time it opens up the world for us.”

For the severely disabled, or those for whom even wheelchair-equipped buses are inaccessible, there is Metro Access, a countywide, multi-agency effort funded by the MTA.

The program provides same-day dial-a-ride service for $1.50 each way, regardless of distance and virtually around the clock. About 12,000 people are registered with the $18-million program, which averages 900 trips a day.

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Currently, Metro Access serves the San Gabriel Valley, East Los Angeles, the central city area and a portion of the Westside. The entire county should be covered by 1996.

Bonnie Brody, who has multiple sclerosis, occasionally uses Metro Access. But by living close to City Hall, the aide to Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre can commute to work in her wheelchair.

Brody, who once tussled with a mugger who threw her to the ground when she refused to give up her daily planner, has had five years to adjust to life on two wheels--time in which to learn what services are out there and to engrave on her brain a map of L.A.'s bus system.

“I was driving a little T-bird and tooling around town like everyone else,” she says. “But it’s survival now.”

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For information on Los Angeles’ Cityride program, call 808-7433 from anywhere in the 213, 310 or 818 area codes. The countywide Metro Access program can be reached toll-free at (800) 827-0829 , or, for TDD, (800) 827-1359.


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