The Value of Advocacy: Reflections on 2020 From the Accessibility Advisory Council

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By: Christian Kent, Principal, Transit Management Consulting, LLC; Lina Aragon, Customer Service Administrator, Palm Tran and Martin Kareithi, Program Manager- Systemwide Accessibility, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro)

The Year 2020 has been a “perfect storm” of contrasting social equity milestones for America that has shown us in no uncertain terms how bad things can get when we are divided and how incredibly strong we can be when we are united.  This summer, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and we reflected on how transformative this single piece of legislation has been for American society. At the same time, this year also showed us that the endurance of civil rights legislation and its intended effect across the land is not assured unless our institutions function as they were meant to and unless the hearts of our people remain true.

COMTO has always been known as an organization with “heart” – because it is filled with advocates — like-minded people who gladly call themselves their “brother’s keeper,” and who believe freedom and justice for others is as dear as it is for themselves. It was people such as these who made the ADA a reality, (not to mention the Civil Rights Act; the Voting Rights Act and so many more), but as we saw this year, the advocate’s job does not end with the enactment of legislation. Our institutions failed to function as intended, and this undermines the reach of legislation. Why does this happen? Because when a new threat comes along – a pandemic, an economic crisis or both – the majority of people become fearful, turn inward and place their own interests above others, and their elected representatives follow suit. It is at times like these when advocates are needed the most.

During the early days of the pandemic, when so much less was known about how to combat the spread of the virus, the cycle of fear began, and the first signs of an eroding civil rights became evident. Some began to ask whether they should cater to older adults or people with disabilities because of a belief that they were more vulnerable to and more likely to have exposure to the virus. Questions began to emerge as to whether or not aspects of the ADA could be “temporarily suspended” under quarantine conditions. For public transit, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) clarified that there are no such exceptions to the ADA and has published frequently asked questions and answers to offer guidance and ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are not abridged, even during the pandemic.

Fortunately, while the questions were being asked, disability advocates were making certain that the disability perspective was being heard and reinforced the authority of the ADA in such matters, again – even during the pandemic. In 2020, we saw the same type of powerful advocacy in the streets of numerous American cities, demanding attention and action on police reform; systemic racism and various forms of social inequity that remain unaddressed. Advocacy is an expression of free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and it is a sacred part of our democracy that distinguishes us from all other nations in the world. If America is to remain the leader of the Free World, then America’s advocates must remain on the job and this is Job #1 for 2021.

During the course of this tumultuous year, our own COMTO advocates have had a great impact on the communities they serve, and we are pleased to share several examples for your reading pleasure.  

Houston METRO: The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) in Houston, Texas, is committed to its transit mission and is also a trusted community partner. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston METRO has made a concerted effort to support the community through various unique initiatives.  

In April, May and August, METRO partnered with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, The Houston Food Bank, Kroger, and Walmart to deliver boxes of groceries to over 3,400 households with a person with a disability in the home. 

In July, METRO collaborated with the United Spinal Association of Houston and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities to deliver approximately 290 boxes of personal protection equipment (PPE) to households with a person with a disability in the home.  The care packages included masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and helpful information about COVID-19. 

In order to keep paratransit riders safe and healthy, other METRO initiatives allowed paratransit (METROLift) riders to go and vote and get flu shots while staying aboard the vehicle. Customers never had to leave their seats. Over 1,760 trips were made to and from the polls, and 166 trips were made to and from drive-through flu shot locations. The flu shots were donated by TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital and administered by their healthcare professionals while the City of Houston’s Health Department set up the drive-through operations. 

At METRO, we know that together, we will get through this challenging period.     

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA): In response to the pandemic, WMATA’s Office of Eligibility Certification and Outreach (ELIG), the office at Metro tasked with providing in-person travel training as well as outreach to people with disabilities, seniors, and accessibility stakeholder agencies, pivoted to working with customers virtually. In preparation for this change, ELIG identified and tested multiple online platforms for accessibility, and consulted with disability organizations and consumer groups for direct knowledge of accessibility features of the platforms. A webinar, Travel Training Reboot: Moving Forward In Extraordinary Times, was held in October 2020 with leading experts to educate professionals on ways to resume travel-training programs and services in “the new normal.” More virtual events highlighting travel-training will be held in 2021.

COMTO Annual Conference Site Selection Includes Accessibility Review: The Accessibility Advisory Council (AAC) serves as an advisory body to COMTO’s Board of Directors on matters of accessibility, diversity and inclusion of persons with disabilities within the COMTO organization. In 2019, the Council sought feedback on the accessibility of meeting venues that COMTO uses for its annual National Meeting and Training Conference (NMTC), and in particular, on accessibility features that are either critical or at least helpful in making the venue more welcoming and accessible to COMTO members with disabilities. With the full support of the Board of Directors, the AAC conducted the first-ever advance review of a chosen venue for the NMTC, The Diplomat Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A report of findings and suggestions was presented to the COMTO National Office as well as to The Diplomat Hotel.

The review identified several accessibility barriers in terms of wayfinding signage; accessible transportation within the venue; and path of travel issues within and between the buildings. The feedback was very well received by the hotel, and hotel staff agreed to make accommodations in response. As a result of this interaction, we know that the NMTC will be among the most accessible conferences COMTO has had to date. Going forward, COMTO leadership is supportive of conducting an on-site review of potential conference locations, and the accessibility checklist provided to the National Office by the ACC will be incorporated as requirements for the solicitations COMTO issues for hotels in the planning of future conferences.

COMTO Accessibility Advisory Council-New Leaders: In 2020, the COMTO AAC leadership team saw some new faces. In addition to co-chair Christian Kent, Martin Kareithi (Capital Metro, Austin, Texas) and Lina Aragon (Palm Tran, West Palm Beach, Florida) stepped up to serve as co-chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Council. Martin serves as Program Manager Accessible Services at Capital Metro, and Lina is Customer Service Administrator for Palm Tran. Martin and Lina have already brought great energy and perspective to the work of the Council, with Lina performing the aforementioned site review of the NMTC venue, and Martin hosting this summer’s greatly successful forum on the 30th anniversary of the ADA. As a team, the COMTO AAC seeks to promote the notion that people with disabilities are not “the other,” but rather, they are your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens, and we are committed to ensuring that there is social equity for them in the same fashion as we advocate for all other minorities.

We hope you will join us in 2021, and if you are interested in being a part of the Accessibility Advisory Council, drop us a line at info@comto.org.

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