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April 21, 2003
The road to travel independence
DART's accessible system and travel training carry riders with disabilities to independent lifestyles
When Jennifer Whitson was first told she could ride a DART bus or train on her own, she wasn't so sure. "It was a little scary," said Whitson, an adult with a disability.
"She didn't think she could do it, and I didn't think she could either," said Linda Whitson, Jennifer's mother. "But Terry McManus at DART said, 'Sure, she can do it!'"
And Terry McManus was right. He is one of several full-time travel training instructors at Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) who help people with physical and developmental disabilities learn how to ride safely and confidently on DART's fixed-route rail and bus transit system. The trainers are the heart and soul of a program that provides free travel training to several hundred people with disabilities each year, and has become a national model for excellence and innovation.
Fleet accessibility a service cornerstone
The Travel Training program's success is due in no small way to the 100% accessibility of DART's rail and bus system as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This fully accessible system has come about through a six-year rail development program, coupled with the purchase of more than 500 lift-equipped replacement buses.
In addition to wheelchair access, all DART vehicles are equipped with audible and visual systems that keep riders constantly abreast of their location. Train operators announce station arrivals and other pertinent information, as do vehicle and platform signage. Buses are equipped with high-tech annunciators that provide destination information in both English and Spanish. Programmed with global positioning technology, the system announces major bus stops and major cross streets as they are approached.
Reducing reliance on paratransit service
For those who are unable to travel on the fixed-route system, a fleet of paratransit vans and sedans provides curb-to-curb transportation throughout DART's 700-square-mile system area. While DART exceeds ADA requirements for paratransit services, the accessibility of the fixed-route system, coupled with a comprehensive ADA-sanctioned abilities assessment program, has significantly reduced the number of paratransit clients - from 18,000 to approximately 7,000 in just a few years.
"We've invested a great deal in accessibility, and now it's paying off every time a paratransit customer makes the move to fixed-route service," said Victor H. Burke, DART executive vice president/chief of operations.
"Making our trains and regular buses accessible reduces many people's need for paratransit," added David Sheppard, senior specialist with DART's Paratransit Management Services. "That leaves paratransit for people who truly require it."
Taking operational pressure off Paratransit Services, however, is secondary to the higher goal of providing people with more independence. While clients of DART's Paratransit Services must make advance reservations for departure times and destinations, fixed-route passengers can travel wherever they wish, whenever they wish.
"People don't want to live inside a box of limitations," said Sheppard. "In fact, most new applicants for paratransit want to learn how much they can do on their own. And we want to help them. We don't want people to think of paratransit first, but as a last resort, a safety net if they need it."
Travel training leads to independence
For Jennifer Whitson, paratransit has indeed been reduced to the last resort, thanks to DART's Travel Training program. Jennifer's experience with the program came when her mother's job did not allow her to drive Jennifer to a sheltered workshop in Garland. Jennifer was placed in the capable hands of DART's Terry McManus, and in a couple of weeks she was traveling to work on her own.
"Terry was great," said Jennifer. "He was very patient. He explained it where I could understand."
For example, McManus taught Jennifer how to cross Jupiter Road - a busy six-lane divided boulevard that can be daunting to even the most able pedestrians. She learned to turn it into two actions - crossing halfway to the safety of the median, and then crossing the rest of the way to the other side.
Applying a proven travel training formula for success, McManus rode and walked the route with Jennifer. He showed her how to purchase bus and rail tickets, recognize route numbers, properly board and depart buses, and correctly identify landmarks along the way. As Jennifer gained confidence, he eased into the background. "He watched me cross the street. Then he'd follow the bus in his car," she said.
Within a couple of weeks, McManus told Jennifer what she longed to hear. "He said I was ready to be on my own."
Stacey Rogers, executive director of North Texas Rehabilitation Services, is an enthusiastic proponent of DART's fixed-route system and the Travel Training program. Her agency operates sheltered workshops in Carrollton and Garland, including Jennifer Whitson's. Because of the nature of paratransit scheduling, clients sometimes have to wait for rides, and Rogers' staff has to wait with them. "The fixed-route system is just more dependable," she said.
Equally important as dependable transportation is the freedom that the fixed-route system provides, said Rogers. "On weekends the fixed-route system allows you to be more spontaneous," she said. "If it's Saturday and you want to go somewhere, you don't have to worry that you didn't make a reservation with Paratransit the day before. You just get on and go."
Jennifer Whitson wants to enjoy more of that kind of independence - if she can convince her mother to come along for the ride. "She tells me, 'Mom, I'll show you how to do it,'" said Linda Whitson.
Jennifer's confidence in her ability to get around is so strong that she's now interested in moving into a group home, as long as it's on a DART route. "This has prompted more independent thoughts," said Linda. "Ten years ago I wouldn't ever have talked to her about a group home."
DART's travel training instructors thoroughly enjoy helping people such as Jennifer Whitson achieve greater independence. "It's very rewarding," said McManus.
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