Light rail changes for blind sought

Couple's woes trying to find, use ticket machines spark protest

August 31, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

A national group says Maryland's light rail system discriminates against blind riders, and it's demanding changes.

The protest by the National Federation of the Blind comes after Jim McCarthy and his wife, Terri Uttermohlen, didn't pay their fares as they tried to take the light rail home from a shopping trip to Hunt Valley this month. The couple, who are blind, were escorted off the train and given written warnings by a police officer.

They -- and the federation -- say it is practically impossible for blind riders to buy tickets: The ticket machines are hard to find, there is no one stationed on the platforms to help and even though the machines have Braille instructions, they list prices that are out of date.

The state says it agrees.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday that soon after he learned of the couple's experience, new Braille plates were ordered. They will be installed in all 33 light rail stations when they arrive from the manufacturer in the next month.

Voice-interactive machines, the preferred fix since about 10 percent of the blind can read Braille, should be in stations by next fall, officials said -- part of a $90 million overhaul of the way Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia issue transit passes. If not for delays, transportation officials said, they would be in place now.

"There is a solution and the solution is on the way," Flanagan said.

James Gashel, the blind federation's executive director for strategic initiatives, said his organization has spoken to Flanagan, but isn't convinced the problems will be resolved.

Trust hasn't come easily between advocates for the disabled and state transportation officials. Blind bus riders waited for years, for example, for installation of a system that announces stops. And not all buses have it even now.

The federation says that history is why it wants to keep focus on the system's inaccessibility. It is organizing Freedom Rides, when it hopes hordes of people will take the light rail without paying, as it says blind riders are being forced to do.

The first one was last week, and the next one is being organized.

"There seems to be a lack of confidence on their part and I think, evidently, from the history of the last decade or so, they feel it's justified," Flanagan said. "It's important to try to build that confidence."

McCarthy and Uttermohlen were riding the light rail -- something they don't do regularly -- Aug. 10 after an evening visit to the Sears in Hunt Valley, where they purchased a stove. They were trying to save a few dollars on a cab ride back and decided to take the light rail to Mount Washington, where a cab would be waiting to take them to their home in the Roland Park area.

When they got on the train, they discussed not having tickets, McCarthy said. He said they didn't know where to find a ticket machine and had figured they could buy a ticket on board. It turns out, they couldn't. Tickets are not sold on the trains, Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Richard Scher said yesterday.

After a few stops -- the couple weren't sure where they were, because the conductor's voice sounded muffled -- someone they later learned was a police officer asked for their tickets, and they explained their plight. They were soon told they would have to leave the train to buy tickets before continuing on their way.

At the Lutherville station, a foreign place to them, another MTA officer took Uttermohlen to the ticket machine, where she discovered the Braille instructions were poorly worded, the prices were wrong and, without being able to see the screen, she couldn't buy tickets.

"If we knew where the machines were, we would have put the wrong amount of money in. And we wouldn't have known if we were short money or if the machine was out of order," said McCarthy, who is director of government relations for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind.

After being detained for about an hour, they were allowed back on the train, McCarthy said. But they never did buy tickets. McCarthy said they were told they didn't need them and that if anyone asked, they should show their warnings.

"It was just absurd," he said.

Gashel says he is hoping for a real resolution to the problem, not a "don't ask, don't tell rule" in which blind riders aren't asked for their tickets.

"That's discrimination the other way," Gashel said. "We want to pay. We're trying desperately to pay. If I can't pay, I can't figure out why anyone should pay."

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