"Lift doesn't work," the RTA bus driver remarked casually. Ella Patterson, a small, swollen woman who pushes an oxygen tank in a cart, stood on the sidewalk, panic creeping onto her face. She couldn't get her cart up the bus steps without the motorized lift.
Patterson was trying to get home from the Kmart at Lorain Avenue and West 150th. Shopping takes a while, when she moves as slowly as she does. By the time the bus arrived, she had been away from home for over four hours. Her oxygen tank lasts five hours, maybe six.
"I'm almost out of oxygen," she pleaded. "I really need to go now. Can you help me on the bus?"
The driver didn't answer, just swung the door shut and thundered off, leaving Patterson on the sidewalk. The next bus headed toward her home on West 25th was scheduled to arrive in 20 minutes. Patterson looked at her watch. She wondered if she'd still be breathing by then.
"I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I said, 'God, what did I do? I'm trying to be independent, take care of myself, and why does this happen?'"
Patterson was beginning to feel nauseous and tired. It might exhaust her to find a phone to call a cab. Besides, she had spent her cash. So she waited.
The second bus arrived in 25 minutes. The lift worked. By this time, she was almost too weak to stand. Her affliction, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fills her lungs with mucus, which slowly chokes off breathing unless she has fresh oxygen.
"I couldn't breathe, and I started having chest pains," she says. Patterson told the driver, who called paramedics. By the time they arrived, she had lost consciousness.
Patterson awoke in the ambulance. She would spend the next two days in intensive care. She's alive and well today, but she learned her lesson about the danger of depending on buses.
For people with disabilities, public transportation is an avenue to freedom and self-sufficiency. So when their access is blocked by something as trivial as a broken bus lift or a driver too rushed to deploy it, they're frustrated.
Advocates of the disabled community hear the lamentations so often, they have systems for forwarding the complaints to the RTA.
"It remains a problem," sighs Steve Albro, who chairs the RTA committee that hears disabled passengers' complaints. "Those damn lifts have three motors, and any one of them can break. Yes, some buses are maybe sent out with lifts that don't work, but maybe they can't send anything else."
The disabled aren't after preferential treatment. But equality would be nice. They want buses to be available to them as readily as they are to the able-bodied.
The Regional Transit Authority strives for that equality, but executing it is costly and imperfect.
"We have a maintenance program in place on wheelchair lifts, and we're trying to put more focus on it, in light of receiving more complaints from our customers," says Doug Seger, RTA's director of fleet management.
So before buses are to leave on their routes, they are checked for defects. A bus with a faulty lift is grounded, as long as there is another to replace it. If the lift doesn't work on the route, the driver is required to contact RTA headquarters to report it, and the lift will be fixed after the route is complete.
RTA charts the deployment and failure of lifts. Seger says that bus lifts have a success rate of about 96 percent.
But Patterson says she'd have kept her job, as a day-care supervisor at St. Malachi's Church on the West Side, if the lifts were really that reliable. The breakdowns made her late to work so often, she felt obligated to quit.
Holly Sliter, a Parma resident who has cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair, questions the RTA figures, too, and she has recent experience to cite as evidence.
On September 18, Sliter was trying to take the bus from her home to her job at Manorcare Health Services on Rocky River Drive. She intended to pick up the 86 bus at the corner of Front Street and Bagley Road in Berea. The first driver on that route told Sliter his lift didn't work. "I could tell he had no clue how to work the thing," says Sliter.
When the second bus came, its lift was truly broken. A third bus had a moving lift, but it did not go high enough to allow her to roll aboard. A supervisor was called to the bus stop, but he had no remedy to offer. The buses could not be fixed that day, and they would remain on the route, the supervisor told her.
"So am I going to run into the same trouble getting home as I am now?" Sliter asked him. He nodded. Having already waited two hours, and with no prospect of an accessible bus heading her way, Sliter boarded another bus headed for home. "Just like that, I lost a day's pay," she fumes.
And though Sliter requested that the malfunctions be reported, none showed up in RTA records. In fact, the agency claimed that every lift on every bus worked that day.
Even when the lifts are fully functional, it's up to the driver to lower them. Albro says that keeping to the route schedule leads some drivers to refuse help to disabled passengers.
"Drivers have told people the lift doesn't work, even though it does, just because they don't feel like letting the lift down, then tying people down" to safety harnesses, says Albro.
"If that's happening, it's not supposed to be happening," says Jerry Masek, RTA spokesman. He says the drivers don't hit the road till they've had sensitivity training. "We're trying to instill in our operators a greater sense of customer service."
But it's up to the driver to decide which customer to serve. Those already on the bus can be annoyed by the delay of boarding a disabled passenger.
"I've heard plenty of stories of people on the bus cheering because a driver didn't let down the lift," says Alma Krekus, a wheelchair user and advocacy director of Linking Employment Abilities and Potential, a nonprofit that finds jobs for the disabled.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, for all its good intentions, was a classic unfunded mandate: It ordered that buses become handicapped accessible, without offering the money to upgrade. The disabled wish that commitment were more than rhetorical.
Masek suggests a rider who sees a nonworking lift -- or witnesses a recalcitrant driver -- phone the agency and report the bus's four-digit vehicle number (displayed in front and in back) and the time of the incident.
Patterson and Sliter say they've done this already. Now, with winter looming, they say they're not confident enough in the bus lifts to venture out any more than is absolutely necessary.
"If I was going somewhere for fun, and it was raining or snowing outside, no way I'd even fool around with the bus," says Sliter. "I'd stay home."
For Patterson, the consequences of waiting for buses are horrifying, but if she's to leave her apartment, she has little choice.
"I don't have family, I don't have kids," says Patterson. "I can't just say, 'Come over and get me.' I have to depend on RTA. What else can I do? Sit at home all day and smoke cigarettes?"
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