Despite the logistical hassles of using a motorized wheelchair, Mary Jane Owen has always prided herself on her ability to navigate Metro on her own.
“I was probably on the train at least once a day. People in my favorite Metro stations knew me and called me by name,” said Owen, who lives in Adams Morgan, in Northwest Washington. “It was always just convenient.”
But that started to change one morning last year. She was waiting for a Red Line train at the Woodley Park station when she began to notice smoke seeping onto the platform. Other passengers exited en masse. Firefighters lumbered down the stairs. Owen’s eyes started to prickle from the smoke. And still, she was stuck in a small crowd of people in wheelchairs waiting for the slow-moving elevator, with no assistance from Metro employees.
“It seemed like an eternity, though I don’t think it was more than 10 or 15 minutes,” said Owen, who declined to give her age. “But I was frightened. Everyone was panicked. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ . . . It was that moment when I said, ‘I really am afraid of the system.’ ”
That incident, coupled with the more recent inconveniences of SafeTrack service disruptions, have chipped away at her confidence and her can-do spirit.
“Taking the train is no longer worth the risk to my life and safety,” Owen concluded.
And she is not alone. Other Metro riders with physical disabilities — people who say they have regularly ridden the subway for years and encouraged other disabled friends to do the same — report that they are starting to abandon Metro in favor of buses and paratransit services. They’re concerned about the rising number of smoke and fire incidents reported in the news, dubious about Metro’s evacuation procedures and fearful that the now-frequent service disruptions could turn disastrous for someone incapable of exiting a train or a station quickly.
Add in the significant delays they have experienced during SafeTrack repairs, and they wonder — what’s the point of putting themselves at risk?
“We want it to be fixed,” Denise Rush, vice chair of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, said of the SafeTrack maintenance surges. “But I’m not feeling cozy that the people who are handicapped should be down there in the tunnel.”
To be sure, there are procedures in place: Firefighters who respond to transit emergencies are trained to assist people with disabilities, aided by special chairs stored in Metro stations that can transport people over train tracks, Metro spokesman Richard Jordan said. Metro’s Office of Emergency Management has trained more than 2,000 first responders this year. People who use wheelchairs and those who are blind or deaf also are encouraged to participate as volunteers in Metro’s quarterly emergency drills.
“Metro employees are trained to identify people with disabilities who may need assistance during an emergency — those with mobility issues as well as riders with vision and hearing impairments,” Jordan said. “Metro works closely with the Accessibility Advisory Committee to ensure the needs of the community are being met at all times.”
But Rush, who is blind and uses a wheelchair, said that her experiences participating in those emergency drills did not lead her to feel more confident in the system — especially with the knowledge that passengers in real-life emergencies would be much more panicked than in a drill.
“If it was for real, you’d be gone,” Rush said. “They need to get more practice with service animals, with blind and deaf people, wheelchairs, people with asthma — people who have issues.”
The Accessibility Advisory Committee has raised concerns about emergency accommodations for riders with disabilities for several years – concerns that have intensified in the 18 months since the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured scores of other people who were evacuated through the subway tunnels.
At a March 2015 meeting of the committee, members called for Metro to shore up standardized methods of communicating with deaf passengers in high-stakes situations. They wanted more details on how, and how quickly, passengers in wheelchairs could be expected to be removed from a station in the event of a fire that immobilized the elevator. And they wanted a clearer picture of what emergency responders had learned and improved while performing evacuation drills with volunteers in wheelchairs.
At that meeting, Ron Bodmer, the Metro Transit Police Department’s director of emergency management, acknowledged to members that the L’Enfant Plaza incident had exposed weaknesses in emergency response, especially for passengers with disabilities.
What can improve? Dennis Butler, deputy chairman of the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles’ accessibility committee, has some ideas.
“Hang posters. Let folks know what the plan is that’s in place,” Butler said. “That would help a lot.”
Butler, too, has experienced a rising sense of dread when he chooses Metro for his commute — an unfamiliar feeling for someone who describes himself as a longtime “Metro rat.” Butler, 52, who lives in Friendship Heights, in Northwest Washington, is unable to move his arms and his legs, so he uses a chin-operated motorized wheelchair to navigate the city.
“I’m a person with a real sense of adventure,” Butler said, chuckling as he recounted episodes where he would accidentally get stuck in an elevator, patiently waiting for another passenger to enter if he was not able to jab at the button with a part of his wheelchair or his body.
Having the confidence to use the subway — even when elevators were broken, or even when his wheels would get stuck while trying to get on the train — has been a source of empowerment. Now, Butler says, he uses Metro about 80 percent less frequently than he did before breakdowns and safety incidents began to increase.
When he sees such things in the news, Butler said, “I kind of wonder what would happen. I like to hope that I’d stand a pretty good chance of surviving an incident like that, but honestly, I don’t really have any reason to believe that.”
And some riders’ increasing resistance to using the subway may have financial repercussions for Metro. It’s not lost revenue — people with disabilities can ride for free — but customers who switch from rail to MetroAccess cost the transit agency money with every ride on the heavily subsidized paratransit system.
MetroAccess is one of the most costly services that Metro provides: Users take about 2 million trips annually, with local subsidies paying for 90 percent of the $121 million in expenditures.
In recent years, Metro officials have become increasingly vocal about the need to find ways to cut the sizable expenses of the program. By offering free fares on fixed-route service, they had hoped to steer customers who are disabled away from relying solely on paratransit.
Still, not all Metro riders with disabilities are avoiding the trains. Thomas Mangrum, co-president of the District-based civil rights advocacy group Project Action, said other transportation options are simply too expensive.
“I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to be out when I’ve got to be out . . . and I try not to live in fear,” said Mangrum, who uses a wheelchair. “But I am scared.”