(Continued from July 18)
Here’s what actually happened. I called the FTA Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at their published phone number. The number was answered by a machine. It always is. Now. It didn’t used to be. When I first established contact with the FTA Office of Civil Rights six years ago, the phone was often answered by a live person. The OCR was listening to their constituents. Sometimes you got a machine, but that was the fall-back position, not the usual way of doing business.
Then, somewhere along the line, the OCR stopped listening to the citizens. They put a machine on the main number to answer all incoming calls. All you can do now is leave a message. Problem is, they often do not reply to messages. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve left in recent years that never got a reply. So I should tell you about David Knight.
I first “met” David in a conference call with Beata Karpinska, who is the director of advocacy at ARISE independent living center. Beata ran the Public Transportation Advisory Council, which was trying to deal with the problems disabled people were having with Centro’s paratransit subsidiary, Call-a-Bus. Beata invited me to be in on this telephone conversation with David Knight, who is an attorney and worked for the FTA Office of Civil Rights, which has oversight of all paratransit operations.
It was an amazing phone call. Call-a-Bus personnel were always telling us disabled riders that we couldn’t do this and we couldn’t do that. Then they’d hang up on us. We had to do what they told us to do, and they were telling us things that did not work for us. Call-a-Bus was pretty close to unusable, and the staff and management were very oppressive. So now what this David Knight is telling us in his very polite and calm way is that Call-a-Bus is wrong!
What he is telling us is what the laws are that govern Call-a-Bus (CAB), or at any rate, the FTA rules and regulations descendant from the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’re talking federal law here, ladies and gentlemen, and I am so excited I nearly wet my pants: WE HAVE RIGHTS. CAB can’t push us around like they are! There is a law and it spells out how bus companies have to operate, and they simply can’t treat us the way they have been. THE PEOPLE HAVE POWER, and the power is spelled out in the law and the OCR exists to enact that law.
I mean, this is awesome! Very quickly the conversation becomes between David and I because I am organized and am asking logical, orderly questions to which David has the answers. His answers stun me. Centro’s Call-a-Bus is so far off track as to be almost unbelievable. They are autocratic, dictatorial, and wrong. As the conversation wends its way through many issues and then draws to a close, David and I review what steps each of us will take, then I lead him to a commitment of when we will talk next. And then the call ends and Beata pitches a fit at me. Why? Because of the way I talked to Attorney Knight.
As far as I can tell, Beata thinks I should kiss up to him, beg for his attention, and never, ever appear to be presenting myself as an equal. And I should do this because he is the government. My people fought and died in the American Revolutionary War: it bloody well is my government! It is made up of men and women like me (though mostly stupider than I am). I have every right in this world to talk to them as equals. Like Grandma said, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time, too.”
Later, a mutual acquaintance explains it to me. Beata was raised up as a child in Poland. Poland is a small country that has been taken over by other countries many, many times in its history. Unable to do much in the way of fighting back, the Polish people became a nation of accommodators. They are conciliatory and do not confront whatever foreign government happens to have invaded their country most recently. They are into appeasing the government because it isn’t theirs.
I don’t know whether or not this theory explains Beata’s behavior, but it certainly makes sense to me. What would I do if America was being governed by a foreign country? Although, increasingly, it feels like the federal government of the United States does view itself as an entity separate from the people.
Then I find out that Beata has known that attorney David Knight is the go-to guy for all the problems we’ve been having with Call-a-Bus, but it’s taken her a year to establish contact with him. It takes me six weeks to develop a working relationship with David, who turns out to be a very nice, intelligent, extraordinarily helpful fellow. Basically, he is teaching me how the paratransit system is supposed to work, as opposed to how Centro is working it. I report what they are doing, he tells me what they are supposed to be doing, then he calls Centro and tries to get them to do it.
David is very clear about his position: he is there to make things work. He is not a prosecutor or judge; he is not there to discipline or punish. Mr. Knight is there to hear the riders’ problems and then try to get the bus company to straighten up. His job is to make it work—fix it. Wow. I think that’s incredibly cool. In a nation of people who mostly want to fix blame, OCR wants to fix the system—or at least David Knight does.
So we’ve got this good thing going, one aspect of which is that David teaches me how the paratransit system is supposed to work and I go back to Beata’s Public Transportation Advisory Council and try to teach them how to file complaints and what they have a right to complain about. (To be continued)