Metro riders regularly encounter broken station elevators, but few feel the effects the way Michael LaJuene did yesterday as busy commuters rushed past his wheelchair at Metro Center.
Not one, but both, elevators at the busy transfer station were out of service. LaJuene needed to switch from the lower Orange Line platform to the upper Red Line. Without the elevators working between the two platforms, there were few options for someone in a wheelchair.
LaJuene, who lives in Reston, had followed a carefully crafted plan to circumvent the elevator outage: He took the Orange Line from West Falls Church one extra stop, getting off at Federal Triangle. Then he took a 25-minute shuttle bus ride back to Metro Center. There, he figured, the street-level elevator would take him straight down to the Red Line platform.
But as LaJuene, 47, wheeled into Metro Center, station manager J.L. Gray had some bad news. "The shuttle should have taken you to Gallery Place," Gray said apologetically. "You're on the wrong side."
For most Metro riders, broken elevators or ending up on the wrong side of the track mean hopping the escalator or taking a quick walk. For LaJuene and other disabled passengers, they create obstacles that turn a simple commute into a frustrating odyssey.
"You're at the mercy of the elevators," LaJuene sighed to Catherine M. Hudgins, a Fairfax County supervisor who accompanied him on what ended up being a 21/2-hour trip from Reston to Union Station.
In the first Disabilities Awareness Day, hosted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and other public officials shadowed LaJuene and 11 other disabled people on trips to downtown Washington to taste what it's like for a blind person or wheelchair user to navigate the Washington region.
"It made a big impression on me," said Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White, who accompanied Patrick Sheehan of Silver Spring on his Metro trip. Sheehan is visually impaired.
"I probably haven't given as much thought to this issue as I should," White said at COG headquarters, near Union Station, after the morning trips.
In addition to unreliable elevators, LaJuene and other participants pointed out a slew of problems: Bus shelters that are too small to shelter wheelchairs from the rain. Bus drivers who don't know how to operate the wheelchair lifts on their buses. Lifts that don't work on freezing winter days. Sidewalks with no curb cuts for wheelchairs. Snow plows that push snow into bus stops and handicapped parking spaces. Elevator buttons that are difficult to push for people with limited use of their arms.
Fixing such problems would make getting around easier for everyone, the disabled participants said, especially people with strollers, those toting luggage on wheels and aging baby boomers who might someday find themselves losing their vision or needing a wheelchair.
Marsha Kaiser, planning director for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said she was surprised that there were few signs in Union Station pointing the way to elevators. Kaiser said she and Regina Lee of New Carrollton took a wrong turn while trying to get outside from the MARC train platform. Lee uses a wheelchair.
"It made me think that Regina probably takes a lot of wrong turns because we haven't thought about signage issues," Kaiser said.
LaJuene, who writes air traffic control policies for the Federal Aviation Administration, said he's grateful for the subsidized fares and relative ease of the Metro system, especially compared with other cities. Most Fairfax Connector buses have working wheelchair lifts since the county switched contract companies last fall, he said. Many fellow passengers lend a hand when he needs help.
Still, he said, he ends up taking about six days of vacation every year for the times when he can't get to his job because the elevator at West Falls Church is broken. He's still baffled by pushy passengers who crawl over his wheelchair to board a train, fail to notice their purses hitting him in the head or leave him stranded as they crowd into the elevator.
White and other public officials said they would pay more attention to unreliable elevators and other hurdles. They would fit in fixes where their tight budgets allowed, they said, and they would consult disabled people more often in their planning.
LaJuene, who has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident 20 years ago, said he's heard such promises before. He said he'll watch to see whether they follow up with the money.
Maybe incidents such as the one that delayed trains on the Orange and Blue lines yesterday morning could be prevented, he said. A man trying to back his wheelchair off a rail car at Federal Triangle had tipped over in his chair. The injured man was taken to a hospital, Metro officials said. Uneven gaps between trains and platforms are a chronic problem for people in wheelchairs, LaJuene said.
"You can talk to people until you're blue in the face about what you can do for people with disabilities," LaJuene said. "But until you're in a chair, you can't understand."