Earlier this week, I traveled by train from from Boca Raton to Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Tri-Rail, a commuter rail line that runs from Miami International Airport north to Magnolia Park, a city in Palm Beach County. My trip was very short, covering the distance of 25 miles in five stops and just over half an hour.
I alighted at the Fort Lauderdale Airport Tri-Rail Station, which isn’t on airport property — travelers have to transfer to the Tri-Rail Shuttle Bus in order to reach the airport terminal. The shuttle is free in both directions for passengers connecting to or from the commuter rail.
As I approached the Tri-Rail Shuttle Bus, the driver told me that I couldn’t ride — “The ramp doesn’t work and we don’t take wheelchairs like yours, only the small ones that we can lift onto the bus.”
I told her that was ridiculous, given that I had ridden a Tri-Rail shuttle bus just two days prior, and in fact many times before over the years. Even if the ramp is broken, I said, it can be lowered manually — there is a handle to pull up the ramp. She refused to lift the ramp, said that I couldn’t ride, and said that no other bus could take me. She suggested that I had been “lucky” two days prior and that I should have “taken down the bus number” that transported me.
I asked her to contact the dispatcher to send another bus. She refused my reasonable request and said that it was my responsibility to call. In the United States, no disabled person has a responsibility to call to request wheelchair accessible public transportation on fixed route services. My only responsibility was to turn up at the designated bus stop for boarding, in the same manner as other passengers.
Rather than argue further, I parked my wheelchair in front of the bus and sat down my luggage on the roadway. This bus shall not pass, I thought, until this driver and Tri-Rail fulfills its obligation to me as a ticket holder.
It didn’t take long. The bus driver immediately picked up her phone to tell the dispatcher that I was blocking the bus. Good.
As I sat there in the roadway, the bus filled with even more passengers — all welcomed aboard even after I had been denied service.
A few minutes later, another bus driver operating a different route came to ask what the issue was. I shared details of my plight and, despite being on break, she offered to transport me in her bus. That ramp was broken too, but she opened it manually — just as the first driver should have done.
On the ride to the airport, bus driver number two, my heroine, apologized profusely for the behavior of her colleague. She was appalled by my experience and it offered me some comfort. Had I not taken a stand and blocked the original bus, no call would have been made and I might not have received the attention I deserved.
To the passengers on the bus that I delayed, I offer no regret — not a soul onboard spoke up for me. No one had my back, and I was forced to take matters into my own hands, in the only peaceful way I knew to guarantee action. I paid my fare the same as everyone else, and I deserved to ride — I had a civil right to ride the bus.
When I arrived at the airport, likely 20 to 25 minutes behind schedule, I thought — that’s two buses with broken wheelchair lifts. Is Tri-Rail failing to properly maintain its accessibility equipment? More on that later, perhaps.