Fast-Tracking Disability Rights: Identity, Advocacy, and Public Transportation

September 2, 2016 | Jovan Ruvalcaba

I was born a year before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law and diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy shortly thereafter. By the time I learned to walk at age four, I was eager to do everything other kids did. I soon learned that my balance, coordination, and dexterity were limited in ways my friends’ abilities weren’t. I decided that I would still try to run and climb even if it meant falling frequently. I would play sports even if it meant losing constantly, and above all I would integrate even if it was onerously. My parents were anxious that I would get physically or emotionally hurt, but never discouraged me from participating in extracurricular activities.

I would often skip lunch or stay after school to make sure my in-class assignments got done in class. Whatever the task I rarely asked for help and often refused it when it was offered. In school, I would carry an eighteen pound back-pack because I could not turn the dials on my locker. In P.E. I would end with blistered feet and bleeding knees, but I would complete the warm-up run. I was proud and foolish. And if you ought to take one lesson away from my experience it is this: Don’t be proud and foolish like me, address your disability needs. You are not doing anyone any favors by keeping quiet and more importantly no one is doing you any favors when they enforce your rights.

I have never ignored, much less begrudged, disability. To the contrary, disability has made me resourceful, resolute, patient, and sensitive to the struggles of others, but up until I entered law school I erroneously believed that showing forbearance and having a strong work ethic would be enough to show the world that having a disability was not a barrier to productivity or success. Law school’s competitiveness and culture of disability non-disclosure has pushed me to be more vocal about disability issues. I have found support among my colleagues, the writing program director, and the Dean of Students at my college, but as long as law schools’ policy prevents students with visible and invisible disabilities from discussing their disability experience or need for accommodations openly to professors, people with disabilities will continue to be underrepresented and underserved in the legal profession. In the study of law, we ought to speak about disability issues like we do race and socio-economic issues. How can future lawyers serve their clients in tort, tax, health, labor, or civil rights if there are few law students with disabilities around.

Being part of the AAPD Internship Program has provided me with the unique opportunity to learn from the nation’s leading disability rights advocates like Andy Imparato, Jennifer Mathis, Robert Silverstein, Janet Lord, and Kelly Buckland to name a few. Since I have arrived in Washington D.C. I have also had the privilege of meeting former US Representative Tony Cohelo – one of the primary sponsors of the ADA. However, the greatest honor I have received is the opportunity to work for Senator Charles Schumer, who recently introduced the Disability Integration Act (DIA) which seeks to reinforce the ADA and Olmstead mandate of providing people with disabilities integrated community services marked by personal choice and independence not conditioned institutionalization.

This summer is my first time out in D.C. and the east coast more generally. I would be lying if I said that I encountered massive culture shock. After having traveled to several countries around the world, D.C. feels as much like home as my home in Arizona. Perhaps, it is for this reason that I was sorely disappointed when I got on the D.C. metro rail system. D.C.’s sidewalks and streets are clean and flat. Its buildings are accessible. Despite being an historic city, the roads are wide and individual addresses are easy to find even for the most disoriented visitors like me. It is invigorating to see wheelchair users, deaf, and blind people going about their business throughout the city. Something that cannot be said of every city I have been to in the U.S., Latin America, or Europe.

Yet – the metro system in Washington D.C. needs a lot of work. The train stations while not particularly dirty, do not have permanently functioning elevators or escalators. In fact, just yesterday I had to climb a switched-off escalator uphill to exit the Capitol South metro station. Secondly, not all trains have LED signs announcing the next stop, and not all train conductors that announce the stops are intelligible through the speaker system. Despite having passengers packed like sardines in the early-morning and late-afternoon commutes very few trains have air conditioning or adequate ventilation. There isn’t reliable cell phone or WIFI service underground either. These objections might seem like first-world problems, but for a person with a disability each and every one of these shortcomings may leave them stranded and helpless any day of the week. The price of metro fares is another issue that disproportionately affects people with disabilities. Under the current system people with documented disabilities in D.C. get a metro ID that exempts them from the elevated rush-hour and week-end fares that the city itself imposed. Instead, people with disabilities pay the regular fare which varies from $1.75 to $3.60 one way depending on the distance traveled. This means that a person with a disability traveling to and from the grocery store or doctor’s office must pay anywhere from $105 to $216 a month for their daily trip. I would be remiss if I did not mention that a monthly-pass called MetroSelect does exist at least temporarily.[1] MetroSelect provides for unlimited monthly trips at $81 for Metrorail or $126 with metro and bus so long as the trip do not exceed $2.25 each way. However, under this pass the rush-hour fare (5:00-9:30 am and 3:00-7:00 pm) also known as “peak” fare applies to all. At its shortest distance, a metro ride costs $2.15 during peak hour. Any commute beyond 3.5 miles would require a pass upgrade at $135 for the rail or $180 with rail and bus each month. Perhaps, this does not seem like much if you are a government employee or private contractor, but if your only source of income is disability or social security benefits it substantially reduces your quality of life. The same goes if you are a student or an unpaid intern, of which there are many in the city.

Furthermore, the Washington Transit Authority does not factor in income for any of its discount programs. Now, it would be unrealistic to ask for free public transport for anyone, but where is the benefit in offering free entrance to museums and art shows if certain populations cannot afford to get there? Every person in the community should have an opportunity to explore and enjoy their city, but whereas abled-bodied people might use transportation as a matter of convenience, people with disabilities and the elderly use it out of necessity. It is not hard for people with limited mobility to maneuver around other people, and across crosswalks it can be downright painful. I for one spend most of my weekends at home recovering from the blisters of the week before and in anticipation of those to come the following week. One weekend of walking to the National Mall and Chinatown from Foggy Bottom covered my feet with yellow blisters. However, it is not only people with physical disabilities that need freer access to public transport, people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities rely on fixed routes and routines getting from point A to point B.

My critique of the D.C. metro is meant to be constructive and timely – nothing else. Repairs to the lines are taking place right now, but it would be a waste not to address the issues beyond the track. I know there are budget constraints, especially when D.C.’s revenue relies heavily if not entirely on tourism and the whims of the federal government. However, as the capital of the United States – as the acropolis of the free world – nothing but the best infrastructure can do.



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Jovan Ruvalcaba is a student at the James E. Rogers College of Law. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a double minor in French and Spanish. This summer Jovan interned with Senator Chuck Schumer.

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