Monday, June 26, 2006

Living with AS: My Friend's SEPTA Incident

My friend, Kim Pearson, is a professor of English and journalism at the College of New Jersey. She is also afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis, or arthritis of the spine. The following is what happened to her Friday while traveling on SEPTA. I pasted this from her blog, Professor Kim's News Notes:

Having lived with AS for 20 years, I've grown fairly accustomed to the precautions I have to make when I travel. When I'm going to an unfamiliar place, I often call the airline or rail line I'm using to arrange for a wheelchair so that I can avoid long and tiring walks to baggage claim or through large terminals. If I think I need it, I arrange for an accessible hotel room. When I used a wheelchair some years back while waiting for my hip replacements, I always checked the accessibility of my routes and destination in advance.

I've generally had very positive experiences as my job has required me to travel all over the country in recent years. Airport, train, hotel and bus personnel have been supportive and helpful, in general. But yesterday I had an experience that made me realize that I was getting just a little complacent.

I had an errand to run that caused me to go Philadelphia's Holmesburg Junction station, a stop on the R7 commuter line that runs between Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey. SEPTA, the agency that operates the station acknowledges that Holmesburg Junction is not on its list of accessible stations for that route, and this picture makes part of the reason clear: you have to be able to climb steps to get to the platform, at least on the northbound side.

Yesterday, around high noon on one of the hottest muggiest days so far this summer, I climbed the steps with relative ease and was prepared to board my train. As this image shows, because the platform is low relative to the train, even able-bodied passengers have to use handrails and a wooden step to get on or off. Earlier in the day, I had successfully disembarked from a southbound train at the same station.

However, when I stepped on to the wooden step to get on the northbound train, I found that I could not get my foot up on the bottom step of the train. I asked the conductor whether he had a stepstool. He said, "This step [that we were standing on] is all they give us." I tried again to get my leg up to no avail. I asked the conductor whether he could help me, thinking that if he could brace me, I could use my arm strengh to hoist myself on to the step in some way. He stared at me. Finally he said, "Make a decision; I've got to go." I said, "What can I do? I can't get on the train?" He said, "Call Para-Transit" -- assuming, I suppose, that I knew what that was or how to take advantage of this service. "I'm stranded," I said, backing away from the train. He just looked at me, hopped aboard, and the train left.

There was no ticket office; there was not so much as a telephone posting a number that one could call for help. Fortunately, I have family in Philadelphia and this is the age of cell phones, so I was eventually rescued. I also happened to have a bottle of juice with me so that I could keep myself hydrated as I waited in the heat for help to arrive. But I had plenty of time to wonder what would have happened if I had not had those resources? And is a stepstool such an unreasonable thing to ask for? After all, SEPTA's guidelines for disabled passenger state that people who can stand, "can request to use ramps or lifts for boarding."

Have others run into this problem? What did you do?


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