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George Howard.
George Howard.

Disability Matters: Everday Challenges in Getting Around

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How many times have you heard this: "If you don't have a car, you can't get around in the North Country." Buses are few and far between. Taxis are scarce and expensive. Most towns are not designed with the pedestrian in mind. It can takes hours, or even a whole day, to run an errand or make an appointment that in a car would take minutes. And limited transportation options restrict job opportunities. For people with disabilities, and especially people who use wheelchairs, these problems are magnified. Accessible vans and ambulettes are plentiful for Medicaid funded trips to the doctor or case manager. But there are few - if any - options for the errands and visits and excursions of everyday life. People with disabilities are too often restricted to their homes, isolated from and invisible to their communities. As part of our series Disability Matters, David Sommerstein reports on one man's efforts to get around on his own.

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 [sound of leaving apartment]

It's 8 in the morning in George Howard's apartment in Canton.  George works in Massena.  He's a counselor at the Independent Living Center.  He kicks open the door and rolls out.

Murph, you ready?

His brown dog Murphy's a little sleepy eyed, but he follows. 

When George was 22, he contracted a rare disease called transverse myelitis. It made his spinal cord swell.  It caused near paralysis of his arms and limited use of his legs.  He uses a mechanized wheelchair now.  He often uses his feet like hands.

You can see all the elevator buttons I get with my feet.

[sound of elevator opening]

Murphy is kind of unique.  He was my pet before I got disabled.  I had applied for service dogs, but I got turned down, so I ended up training Murphy myself to be my service dog.  He'll be 15 in June so he's officially retired, but if I leave him home all day, he barks and then I get my ass chewed out.

A van's waiting outside.  It's operated by Seaway Transportation and paid for by VESID, Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities.  George rolls onto the lift.

[lift sound]

They're paying between $50 and $70 a day to bring me back and forth to work, so since September they have paid over $20,000 while fighting not to pay for or assist in vehicle adaptions.

George has a long history with VESID. The agency paid thousands of dollars to modify a Chevy Astro Van so he could drive it. 

George used to be a cross-country trucker.  He loved being back behind the wheel.

It wasn't even just an independence thing.  Just to be able to get out and go for a ride and enjoy that, I can't tell you how big that was.

George had the van for a year and a half.  One day he was driving to Syracuse when the steering equipment failed.  The van veered off the road and crashed.  He suffered broken bones in his right hand and foot and lacerations to his face.

The injuries healed.  But he lost the van.  And VESID generally pays for vehicle adaptations only once. 

Now, friends give George rides.  His parents help him do errands. He says he's grateful.

But, I mean, y'know I'm 32 years old and relying on my parents to take me grocery shopping, I mean, that's just totally pitiful.  I mean, it's pathetic.

George's frustration is common.  Agencies like VESID, NYSARC and Cerebral Palsy Association offer transportation, but there are big gaps.  For example, VESID will arrange a ride for things work-related, like job training.  Pam Dority is a vocational rehabilitation counselor with VESID.

We can assist them with that initially and we can assist with initial transportation to get to and from work.

But once people get a job, they're on their own.  Dority says people have to make do.

Relocation, private vehicle, people look for work where they live and where they can get to and from a job because in northern New York there just is not public transportation to get to and from work.

The biggest gap for people with disabilities is what happens after the doctor's visit, after the case manager visit, after work.  George Howard says the reality is, not much.

Once I'm home on the weekends, I'm left to my own devices.  Y'know there's no way I can afford to pay out of pocket for one of these transportation companies to take me to the grocery store.  It would cost me well over 50 dollars for transportation company to pick me up at my apartment on one side of Canton and take me to P&C on the other.

Another option is to just go in the wheelchair.  But village downtowns are littered with obstacles - crumbling sidewalks, narrow doors, steps, rooms crowded with furniture. 

For years, the disabled community has said what's needed is a central dispatch that sends out vans when people need a ride.  When the Independent Living Center first opened in Massena, one of the first things it did was buy a wheelchair accessible van for that purpose.

17 years ago we bought the van.  17 years later, it's us.

And 17 years later, Director Jeff Reifensnyder says it's still the only game in town.  A coordinated transportation system remains a dream in St. Lawrence County.  Reifensnyder says there are plenty of accessible vans, ambulettes and school buses, but no funding to organize them into one system. 

It seems odd to me that some of these small municipal airports that get one or two flights in a day are subsidized to the tune of millions of dollars and yet nobody's chasing subsidy for a transportation system in St. Lawrence County that would move a heck of a lot more people than those commuter planes.

Things are starting to change in other counties.  The Volunteer Center of Jefferson County pairs people who need rides with volunteer drivers.  The Center's director Don Drew says the program gives rides to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the beauty parlor or barber shop, even the bowling alley.

Think of yourself being stuck at home with no way to get where you'd like to go.

Drew wants to expand the program to Lowville. 

Franklin County has become a model.  It completely reshaped its public transportation system three years ago to better serve people with disabilities, seniors, or anyone who doesn't have their own vehicle. 

The Association of Senior Citizens operates it.  3 wheelchair accessible bus lines serve Malone, Fort Covington, and the Tri-Lakes area.  Scott Brady directs the service.  He says during peak commute hours, the buses run on fixed routes.  But from 9 to 3, they'll pick people up for two dollars round trip.

You call and you schedule a ride 24 hours in advance and we will go to your home, pick you up, and drop you off wherever you want to go and come back when you need to be picked up and bring you home once again.


George Howard is still hoping to drive on his own again.  It's a huge part of his life.  He loves NASCAR.  He plays with radio-controlled model cars. 

Outside his apartment, a blue Chevy Silverado sits in the parking lot.  George bought it with money from Social Security.  He wants to get it modified.

The driver's side of the cap will tip up and then there'll be a lift that's mounted in the box that will come over the side and pick up my wheel chair.  And the driver's door will be all power open and the seat will rotate and come down to the driver's level, so I'll transfer into the driver's seat.

It's way high-tech.  It'll cost almost $60,000.  VESID has agreed to modify it if George pays the first $18,000.

I know exactly what it's like for somebody to be in prison for ten years and all of a sudden they say, you're free, you can go.  Hopefully in the next couple months, I'll be able to start working on this and ideally by the end of the summer, I'll be driving again, so that'll be big.  That'll be real big.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Canton.

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