Democracy Dies in Darkness

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For blind Metro riders, it’s about more than minding the gap

July 24, 2018 at 3:03 PM

Claire Stanley waits at the Gallery Place – Chinatown Metro Station as the train arrives with her guide dog Kodiak on her commute home on Friday, July 13, 2018. (Jason Hornick/For Express/)

At 5 p.m. on a recent Monday, Claire Stanley stands on the platform at Pentagon City waiting for a Yellow Line train.

Like the thousands of others riding Metro during a typical afternoon rush hour, she will contend with crowds of people swirling around like bumper cars and try to squeeze her way into a packed train.

Unlike most of her fellow commuters, though, Stanley navigates the chaos without being able to see. A brain tumor took away nearly all of her vision when she was 9, leaving her legally blind.

At 30, Stanley, a disability advocate at the American Council of the Blind, has only vague memories of what things look like. And there are some things she can’t picture at all.

“I don’t know what people look like when they’re angry,” she says, and so she can’t imagine the faces of fellow riders when a car is hot, the trains are single-tracking or the escalators aren’t moving.

The challenges facing visually impaired riders have drawn increased attention since May, when a blind woman using a cane stepped off the platform at Metro’s Van Ness-UDC station thinking she was getting onto a train. She instead fell between two of the cars and onto the tracks, sustaining minor injuries.

A chain barrier on older-model Metro trains keeps people from accidentally falling between the cars. But the newer, 7000-series railcars are connected by a rubber barrier that’s 9 inches away from the edge of the platform, leaving a gap where two people say they’ve fallen in the past two years.

Stanley’s organization is pushing Metro to get the trains retrofitted as quickly as possible. The Federal Transit Administration threatened in June to withhold a quarter of Metro’s federal funds if it doesn’t finish the work by Dec. 31, but Metro is asking for more time.

For all the attention the May incident has garnered, though, there are other, less obvious, obstacles as well, Stanley says.

While Stanley appreciates the bumpy strips that mark the edge of Metro’s platforms for those who can’t see, for example, she says they’d be much more helpful if the bumps were arranged in a different pattern in spots where the train’s doors open, the way they are on San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

Metro says that’s not possible here because doors on older and newer trains open in different places, and Metro’s trains are operated manually, not automatically, like BART’s.

Stanley does credit Metro for some things, though. The automated announcements on newer trains make it easier to hear which stop is next. And Metro says it’s now working to update the announcements to include which side the doors will open on.

As she waits for her train, Stanley grips the “Guide Dog for the Blind” harness worn by her black Labrador, Kodiak.

Kodiak can do many things for Stanley, but he can’t tell her if the train she hears coming is the Yellow Line one she wants. The indecipherable announcement that comes over the public-address system is no help either. So Stanley calls out to no one in particular, “Is this the Yellow Line?” And, luckily, a man standing nearby tells her it is.

But how will she find the door?

“I try to listen,” she explains, following the sounds of people ahead of her hurrying to get in before the doors close. But missing the train isn’t what she worries about the most. She’s afraid the doors will close on Kodiak.

With two hands, she pushes the dog’s rump to get him in.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” she says once inside. A transfer to the Red Line at Gallery Place still awaits.

Reach Kery Murakami at kery.murakami@washpost.com. Follow him @theDCrider.

Read more DC Rider:

DC Rider’s Answer Line: This is a 7000-series train. So what?

DC Rider’s Answer Line: Why was there no alert about my delayed train?


Kery Murakami is a reporter focusing on feature stories about those who ride and work in the Metro system. He also serves as an advocate to get the transit system to answer questions and deal with concerns raised by its customers.

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