Activist group wins improvements in  “Call-A-Ride”

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — 1955: A bus rumbles to a slow, meandering stop in Montgomery, Alabama. An African American woman climbs on and sits in the front. The bus driver shoots her a look. “You are supposed to sit in the back,” he says. “No, this is where I want to sit,” she replies. A look then turns into a physical act of defiance against Jim Crow, which then leads to the arrest of Rosa Parks and helps sparks the modern Civil Rights movement.

St. Louis, MO 1970’s: There are no accessible public busses for people with wheelchairs; particularly there are no curb-to-curb services providing access to the disability community. During this time people with disabilities, radicalized out of necessity, would lay down in front of busses to protest their lack of access. This physical action led to ramps, wheelchair stations, and eventually, by the 1980s, the creation of a curb-to-curb service called “Call-A-Ride.”

St. Louis, June 29, 2015: The Coalition for Truth in Independence (CTI), a community-based disability rights organization, held a press conference at the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society to highlight recent successes around the “Ride with Respect Campaign.”

The impetus for this campaign came out of what had become one of the most restrictive curb-to-curb transportation options for people with disabilities in the nation. The greater St. Louis “Call-A-Ride” system enforced rules like the installment of a two-week suspension for an individual with a disability who was deemed a “no-show.”

“No-shows” were loosely defined as taking more than three minutes to get out to the bus from your apartment or house door, not calling two hours in advance to change or cancel your ride, and not being in the exact location where the driver was instructed to pick you up.

The thing is, people with disabilities’ actual circumstances were not taken into consideration by “Call-A-Ride.” Further, the St. Louis “Call-A-Ride” system employed a point system, which penalized riders so severely that it caused financial and emotional hardship. Riders were allowed a total of twenty-four points; eight points per so-called “No-show,” which could stay with a rider for up to sixty days.

CTI and its members are scattered throughout the greater St. Louis region. The organization’s steering committee took the “Call-A-Ride” issue on as its overarching campaign affecting all of its members, allies and chapters.

Once the campaign was adopted, research began. The research pin-pointed disparities within the system, and then began working with St. Louis Metro “Call-A-Ride” to identify and resolve issues. Positive pressure was put on the system through visits to Metro board meetings and through one-on-one conversations with Metro “Call-A-Ride” leaders.

As of early July, after more than a year of organizing, the CTI reached an agreement with Metro “Call-A-Ride,” thereby abolishing the point system. Additionally, Metro adopted a five-minute rule (instead of three minutes), as well as an agreement to record and disseminate these positive changes, which had never been done before in the history of the St. Louis “Call-A-Ride” system. Further, a formal review process, also new to St. Louis “Call-A-Ride,” is also being put into place, so that complaints from the disability community are heard by people with disabilities.

Julie Salih, a member of Disabled Advocates of Southern St. Louis County and the Student Liaison for Webster University CTI, said this in response to the positive Metro changes: “Although I’m pleased with these changes and am happy that we are gradually improving access to our transit system for the community of people with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to be done and a long road ahead. There is work in the area of driver etiquette training and a diverse representation on Metro’s disability access committee.”

Tony Pecinovsky, president of the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society (a 501c3 non-profit, which houses CTI) said, “We are honored and proud to call CTI part of our larger Workers’ Education Society family. Disability rights are workers’ rights. Transportation for the disability community is a fundamental human right. We applaud Metro’s positive steps, and agree that there is more work to do. We look forward to continuing to work with CTI to improve the Metro system as part of our mission of worker education.”

Undoubtedly, disability rights are civil rights. Accessibility cuts across race, gender and class. It also, builds on a proud tradition of radical action. Rosa Park’s defiant, courageous act in 1955 sparked a movement. Equality is what we all want – women, people of color, the disabled and LGBT. Changes to the St. Louis Metro “Call-A-Ride” system is an important step in the right direction.

Photo: CTI meets at St. Louis Workers Education Society