Wanda Avery turns over her hand — a hand with long, graceful fingers and trim, rounded nails — to show the tight puckered skin of her palm.
Rheumatoid arthritis forces her fingertips toward her wrists. She can hardly use her hands, even to hold a cup of coffee.
Avery has used a wheelchair to get around since October 1997, when, she said, she found she couldn’t walk and couldn’t stand for more than 15 seconds.
The pain is always there, every hour of the day. Avery takes three kinds of pain medication. Nothing works, she said, while almost everything — stress, cold, heat and, most of all, humidity — makes the pain worse.
“I certainly didn’t get it for the fun of it,” she says of her condition. “But still, I’m better off than a lot of people.”
Avery, who lives at Paquin Towers, is a longtime user of Paratransit, a service for people with disabilities who cannot ride a normal fixed-route bus. She has used Paratransit for six years, but, this fall, when Avery submitted her application for the service, it was denied by the city.
Every three years, Paratransit users are required to recertify their eligibility.
Avery said she doesn’t understand how she suddenly became ineligible for Paratransit. Greg Griffin, vice-president of the Paquin Towers Resident’s Association wonders the same thing.
“Why are they taking some people and not others?” Griffin said. “I mean, we’re all disabled.”
Mark Grindstaff, public works supervisor and director of operations for Columbia Transit, said two dozen applications out of 189 submitted since July have been denied. The reason, Grindstaff said, was the arrival of new city buses, which has made the entire Columbia Transit fleet accessible to wheelchair users.
The Paratransit system is expensive to run — about four to five times more costly than Columbia Transit’s normal routes, Grindstaff said.
Before Columbia Transit buses were wheelchair accessible, all wheelchair users were automatically certified for Paratransit. Now, many of those who previously qualified for the service are expected to use the fixed-route bus system. The city provided about 25,000 Paratransit rides last year, roughly 4,500 fewer than in previous years.
“The situation is, in reality, they had the service because we did not have an accessible fleet,” he said. “The main goal is to get individuals who can ride a fixed-bus route to ride a fixed-bus route.”
Grindstaff said Columbia Transit has been fielding a lot of questions about the change in Paratransit service, something he fully expected.
“When you deny somebody a service they had previously, of course there’s going to be questions,” he said, “and rightfully so.”
But a fully accessible fleet of Columbia transit buses and easy access to city bus stops do not make the prospect of riding a fixed-route bus any more appealing for those who have always relied on Paratransit, which provides door-to-door service.
“There’s more to it than just getting on the bus,” Avery said.
As bus stops go, the one outside Paquin Towers is fairly pedestrian: A single bench in a 6-foot-by-4-foot shelter. There is, however, a curb cut for a wheelchair, which Griffen and Avery said is the exception among city bus stops, which often lack sidewalks, shelter or accommodations for disabled passengers.
The worst thing, Avery said, is sitting by the side of the road, exposed and vulnerable. She said she was accosted last summer while waiting for a bus, an experience she doesn’t want to talk about.
“I can’t ride buses anymore,” she said. “I just can’t. It’s nerve-racking for me. It almost makes me sick. It’s scary, and I am not a coward.”
For Avery, a Paratransit ID card meant safety and freedom.
Even though an aide helps her do laundry, clean and prepare meals twice a week, as well as the shopping, there are some things Avery likes — and needs — to do for herself, she said.
“I need to get out,” she said. “Somehow.”
Paratransit helped her do that, Avery said. Super Wal-Mart, the Columbia Mall, the doctor’s office, and sometimes, when she had the money, dinner at a restaurant were all possible with Paratransit.
Avery was told in a letter from the city that she no longer qualified for Paratransit because information on her application suggested she did not have a problem getting to or boarding Columbia Transit buses. She applied a second time, attaching a letter of appeal, but was told she had not followed the appeal’s process properly.
Avery doesn’t plan to appeal again.
She said that, without Paratransit, she’s stuck and frustrated.
An alternative, a handicapped taxi for $5 a trip, is too expensive on her fixed income.
“To be honest with you, I can’t do much of anything,” she said. “I can’t walk. I can’t go places. I need a way to get around. I’m not just going to sit in the lobby and watch TV.”
Columbia Transit follows the eligibility guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act to determine who qualifies for Paratransit, Grindstaff said. Eligibility comes down to whether or not an individual is capable of riding Columbia Transit’s fixed-route buses, he said.
The Paratransit application process was recently changed to a more client-friendly process, he said. In October, a three-person panel of Columbia Transit staff began reviewing applicants for the service. The face-to-face interaction allows applicants to make a direct appeal, and also gives Columbia Transit an opportunity to offer a fuller explanation of the Paratransit system.
“We’ve did a very poor job initially of informing people of what Paratransit really is,” Grindstaff said.
Grindstaff said Columbia Transit has also compiled a “Welcome to Paratransit” booklet that explains the service in detail, and an employee has been designated to answer questions about the certification process.
“We don’t want to kick anyone off the system,” he said.
But, that’s exactly how Wanda Avery feels, and she, for one, doesn’t believe Columbia Transit has provided sufficient explanation.
“We don’t want sympathy,” Avery said. “We’re not crying or begging. We just want to know why, all of a sudden, we’re not worthy.”
— Missourian reporter Sean Gallagher contributed to this story.