Felicia Echeverria’s fellow Lane Transit District co-workers look forward to seeing her when they come to work every morning. Echeverria teaches people with disabilities how to ride the bus. She accompanies them when they need assistance or when they just want someone to sit and laugh with between transit connections. Echeverria says that she has compassion for her clients and loves making their lives a little bit easier and more enjoyable. And most importantly, she can inspire her clients because of her first hand experience. Echeverria is also a person with a disability and rides the bus every day to get to work.
Eugene as a community continues to focus on improving the public transit experience for people with disabilities, like Echeverria and the clients she helps every day. Governmental agencies and non-profit organizations work cohesively to provide opportunities for them. The Lane Transit District has an advisory board that helps teach people with physical disabilities how to ride the bus and how to do it safely. The Lane County Developmental Disabilities works with developmentally disabled clients who use the bus to travel to work. Under contract with the LTD, Alternative Work Concepts helps people with multiple disabilities, both cognitive and physical, find jobs and learn how to ride the bus from home to work.
As a transit host at LTD through AWC, Echeverria rides around the 11th and Willamette station in her mobile chair every day, watching different people get on and off public buses. “There are some people on our list who probably wouldn’t even be riding the bus if there was nobody to assist them,” Echeverria says. Many of her clients live in group homes, in foster care, or with their parents and are not able to drive themselves to work. But Echeverria is always there to make sure everybody gets where they need to go on the bus.
Every Friday morning, Echeverria gets to spend time with Henry, one of her favorite clients. She helps him off his first bus and rides alongside him in her chair, as he looks around and tells her about everything he’s done that morning. Henry brings his packed lunch in a bag, and eats it slowly inside the station with Echeverria. He says, “I’m going to eat you Felicia! The chicken, my chicken will eat you!” And she laughs enthusiastically at his entertaining comments.
Echeverria fully interacts with Henry and remains engaged in their conversations. He draws abstract pictures on the pad of paper she brings for him, and smiles when he hands his drawings to her as a gift. When their time is over, she accompanies him back to his next bus and makes sure he gets on. She repeats this process with the people she helps, mostly because she says she enjoys it. “I like it because I get to help other individuals get to where they need to go,” Echeverria says.
Echeverria has been working with AWC for 2 years now. AWC hires many people with disabilities to train others to ride the bus, because they all had to learn how to use it at some point. “I got tired of riding the school bus, and I was put in a program in school where they taught you independence, and if you didn’t have the capability to learn how to drive, you would probably ride the bus,” Echeverria says, “Even though it’s something that I wanted, I was deathly horrified!”
High School special education departments in Eugene, Oregon departments of rehabilitation, senior disabled services, and senior centers all refer people to AWC, according to Program Coordinator Scott Wetham, because they are simply the best at what they do. AWC ensures that training specialists and transit hosts have been through the training process multiple times, many of who are people with disabilities.
Training specialists and transit hosts like Echeverria take clients through a 3-stage process. First, they practice going to the bus stop and back home, and then all the way to work and back. Then the person begins to lead the way, and becomes more comfortable with his or her transportation surroundings. Finally, a different trainer shadows the client without him or her knowing, to make sure the client can safely ride the bus alone. “For some people it take can take 1 to 2 trips or sometimes 3 to 4 months,” Wetham says, “because training can be in small increments.” Part of their training is street crossing and stranger awareness, so there is much more than just sitting on a bus and getting off.
When clients learn how to ride the bus, “They can become disoriented if the bus is rerouted, or frustrated and anxious,” Wetham says. When Echeverria greets Henry at his bus, she wants to make sure he does not feel this way, and is comfortable riding the bus independently. The trainers carry cell phones at all times so they are notified when a bus re-routes, or if there is construction or some other issue that would cause anxiety for a bus rider with disabilities. Then, the transit hosts meet the bus riders wherever their new location is so that there are no issues. “It is all about being proactive and already on the job,” says Kris Lyon, the Human Services Transportation Specialist at LTD.
According to Lyon, Wetham does an amazing job helping the people he says “who fall through the cracks.” Wetham says that he majority of the people they assist use canes, walkers, guide dogs, and other mobility devices, limiting their transportation options. It is AWC’s goal to make it possible for anyone to work and use public transportation. They have specialists within each department so that everyone can learn how to ride the bus. “Our executive director knows American Sign Language, Jerry works well with seniors, Cathy is good at transitioning the young ones,” Wetham says.
Under the American Disability Act, everyone has the civil right to access public transit, and so that’s where paratransit comes in. The government mandates that anywhere a city has fixed routes, there must be ADA transit, or paratransit. So, for people who cannot ride the bus alone, they can use RideSource, the paratransit program in Eugene that LTD works with. It runs during the same hours as the fixed route buses and encompasses a ¾ mile boundary around the fixed routes.
The public bus system in Eugene is a win win for everybody, because disabled people become more independent and the community saves money by using one main bus system, according to Lyon. “There are individuals that you could not believe would ride the bus,” she says, and the services in Eugene provided by organizations like LTD and AWC make that possible. Lyon says people with disabilities use their other senses to compensate for their sensory impairments. A person who cannot speak, has poor vision, or is in a wheelchair learns auditory cues. “He can wait until the bus drives over the railroad tracks,” Lyon says, “or look for the 4th blue building on the right.”
Over the years, AWC and LTD have both received national recognition for their success. AWC has helped replicate the program in other states. Wetham says, “We are all smiles down here.” Wetham and Lyon both see how people’s levels of self-esteem and independence become instantly enhanced and they finally have the ability to be a part of a community and partake in activities. There are so many resources for disabled people to use these days. Lane County Developmental Disabilities Services works with disabled people who take the bus to work everyday. According to their website, their services aim to provide opportunities for people to become more self-sufficient and independent bus riders.
The Eugene community continues to make this all possible, with the help from people like Echeverria. “We have an individual for instance who is in a chair, and he’s blind, and he has CP so we have to have him hang on to our chair, and we make sure he’s secured, and then take him to the bus”, she says. Echeverria is able to help anyone and everyone. She is ready on call at any moment, with her specialized mobile phone hanging around her neck. With the sound of her voice, she uses a cheerful tone toward anyone she meets at the LTD station. Echeverria has a passion for her job. Not only does she like to give people opportunities for freedom, but she says “I like my job because it helps me take care of my son.” And according to her, that is the most important part.
Resources in Eugene for people with disabilities:
There are many resources within the Eugene community for people with disabilities using public transportation. Many of these companies and non-profits work together to create a cohesive environment and make it easy and accessible for everyone to ride the bus. Listed below are links to a few of the big names, including specific people working within their divisions:
1) Alternative Work Concepts: Under contract with LTD they work with folks with disabilities and teach them how to ride the bus. Contacts are Liz or Scott Wetham: (541) 345-3043 or firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Lane Transit District: LTD has an advisory board which deals with accessibility issues for the transit district. They also contract with Alternative Work Concepts to teach folks how to ride the bus.
Contact: Kris Lyons Kris.Lyon@ltd.org
3) RideSource: ADA transit or paratransit for people with disabilities within the Eugene area. http://www.ltd.org/search/showresult.html?versionthread=a2ee93a82001a789610a752bb8a82282
4) Lane County Developmental Disabilities: They work with DD clients many of which travel to work on the bus. This is from their web site:
Lane County Developmental Disabilities Services
Type public – local
Address: 125 E 8th Ave, 2nd Floor Eugene, Oregon 97401
Phone Number : 541-682-3695
Lane County Developmental Disabilities Services strives to provide a responsive, cooperative lifespan delivery system of support, training, care, monitoring, protection and crisis response for persons with developmental disabilities and their families. To receive services, an individual must be determined to have a developmental disability diagnosis attributable to mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or another brain-based condition.
5) ARC of Lane County: Work with people with developmental disabilities. The Arc advocates to enhance the dignity, expand the opportunities, and protect the rights of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
The Arc Lane County
4181 E. Street
Springfield OR 97478
Phone: (541) 343-5256
6) Patti Little
Aging & Disability Resource Connection/Senior Connection Program Manager
Senior & Disabled Services, a division of Lane Council of Governments
1015 Willamette Street
Eugene, OR 97401