Ninety minutes before sunrise, here she comes, down the stairs and into the living room of her Suitland townhouse. Denise Rush, who is blind, walks carefully, remembering her way to the couch. “Hello, Moshi,” she says. Moshi is the brand name of the talking clock on the half wall near her kitchen. “Welcome,” Moshi replies. “Command, please.”
Rush, 62, settles on the sofa, waiting for a van to arrive out front.
“Time,” she says.
“The time is 5:25 a.m.”
The Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson, where Rush works as a transcriptionist, is 11 miles away, in Dupont Circle. She was hired by the giant law firm 34 years ago, long before diabetic retinopathy stole her eyesight. Back then, amid her confusion and sadness, she was consumed by worries, not the least of which was a practical concern:
Unable to drive, how would she commute to her job?
In her living room, groping a bit, she finds her phone on a shelf behind the couch and punches in numbers she knows by heart.
“Good morning,” a computer voice says, “and welcome to MetroAccess.”
After Rush enters her pass code, the voice confirms the ride reservations she made the evening before: As usual, a Metro paratransit van will pick her up at the townhouse within a half-hour window starting at 5:38 a.m., and another will arrive at Steptoe & Johnson between 3:30 and 4 p.m. to ferry her home.
“My lifeline,” she says of the service, which began in 1994.
Mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, MetroAccess is vital to many of its 32,000 users, people who are not physically capable of riding Metro’s buses or trains or who might feel frightened doing so because of their disabilities. For Rush and others, it’s a key to an active, fulfilling lifestyle, allowing them to avoid becoming shut-ins or burdens to their families.
“This is our connection to the outside world,” she says. “We don’t have to sit in the dark and just wait and hope someone comes and takes us somewhere.”
Without transportation, Rush says, she could not keep her job, and losing her job would mean losing her health insurance and possibly her home. “You can call MetroAccess and go do your banking. You can go to a movie. You can go to the store. I can go to eat in Silver Spring and my friends don’t have to come all the way to Suitland and get me.”
Brewing coffee in the kitchen, her boyfriend of two years, Albert Freeman, glances out a window and sees headlights in the darkness, a van pulling up.
“They’re here,” he announces.
Rush gets up from the sofa, dons her coat, gathers her tote bags. “You have five minutes to board or they’ll leave you,” she says under her breath. Tap-tap-tapping her long white cane, she moves through the foyer, passing her clock of the way out.
“Welcome. Command, please.”
“The time is 5:41 a.m.”
In the open doorway, braced by the cold morning air, Rush smiles.
“See? They’re right on time.”
In the universe of MetroAccess patrons, Rush is fairly well-off financially, with a comfortable income and an array of job benefits. A lot of other riders, suffering from dire health problems, are not able to work. They get by on Supplemental Security Income payments and rely on the van service to drive them to hospitals and medical offices for frequent treatments, including chemotherapy and dialysis.
With Metro’s board of directors almost certain to raise rail and bus fares starting in July, MetroAccess customers, the agency’s most transit-dependent constituency, have been complaining more loudly than other commuters.
The fee for a MetroAccess trip is double whatever the fare would be for a bus or subway ride between the same two points, up to a ceiling of $7. Traveling to and from her workplace costs Rush $7 each way, which won’t change. But for those who typically pay less than the maximum fee, many of them desperately poor, the cost of riding MetroAccess will increase as rail and bus fares go up. And it will increase by twice the amount.
“People who can’t afford it, they only have so much money,” Rush says, seat-belted in as the van bounces along Silver Hill Road in the predawn. She’s the only customer aboard this morning. “They’ve got to buy their medicine, so how do they pay their fare? Do they go to dialysis today and not Friday? Do they go Friday and skip today? What do they do? Because we’re not talking about recreation. We’re talking about survival.”
Before landing a job at Steptoe & Johnson, Rush was an impoverished single mother in the 1970s. “Lived in my car for a while,” she says. Last year, she joined Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, to advocate for MetroAccess. And it’s no secret that she puts money in the fare accounts of several destitute people who rely on the service.
“I want this system to work for everyone, for those who can’t pay for all the . . .”
As the van turns sharply right, Rush halts in mid-sentence and yells to the driver, Arlene Thomas, who is new on the job. “Ma’am! Ma’am! You took the wrong exit!”
Thomas, braking on a narrow access road, starts to reverse course. “I know these turns,” Rush says to her, and then she laughs. “I can tell by how it feels.”
The van is one of 600 MetroAccess vehicles owned by the transit agency. The drivers work for three contractors hired to run the service.
Like the transit systems in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and elsewhere, all of which are required by federal law to provide shuttles for the disabled, Metro loses money on paratransit. In the current fiscal year, the agency projects a demand for 2 million MetroAccess trips, which will cost $114 million and generate less than $8 million in revenue.
“Guess I turned a little too soon,” Thomas says, back on Silver Hill Road now. She turns again a moment later, correctly this time, onto Suitland Parkway.
“All right, there you go,” Rush says. “You can’t tell, but we have an extra sense. I can’t see, but I always know where I am.”
And she is sure proud of it.
“I mean, you couldn’t never kidnap me.”
“She is just extremely dedicated,” Patrick Sheehan, the accessibility committee chairman, who also is blind, says of Rush. “Compassionate. Articulate. She’s an advocate not only for herself, but a lot of other people. And she’s incredibly effective.”
Rush’s biggest issue at the moment: When the transit agency’s board of directors votes on fare increases this year, she wants MetroAccess riders to be spared a price hike.
Freeman, her 65-year-old boyfriend, whom she has never seen, is a retired construction worker who often drives her where she needs to go. But Rush says it would not be fair for him to make two 20-mile round trips every weekday so she could keep working at Steptoe.
“Before any of this, all I ever knew was, I thought blind people kind of just sat in the corner and kept quiet,” Rush says. “And I didn’t want that.”
Without MetroAccess, without the freedom it provides, she says, “I guess I’d just be sitting home. I’d just be dead in the water.”
She says, “It’s the oxygen I need to breath. It allows me to live.”
Known as “the African Queen” (simply “Queen” to her friends), Rush dresses almost exclusively in vibrantly colored, ankle-length robes and matching head scarfs. She was diagnosed with diabetes as a young woman and was told by doctors that she would probably go blind. She lost the vision in her left eye in 1998. Then, on the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the world for her went entirely dark.
“I was staring at the TV,” she says, recalling when her right eye failed. “The last thing I saw was the towers fall, the first one, and that was it.” Doctors also have warned her that someday she probably will need dialysis treatments.
After 18 ocular surgeries in the late 1990s and early 2000s that accomplished little, and after extensive occupational training, learning to use voice-activated word-processing equipment, she settled into the job she holds now. Lawyers at the firm leave audio recordings for Rush, which she transcribes into legal documents.
Caroline Laurin, a Metro spokeswoman, says disabled people who are eligible for van service but would rather use buses and trains are offered individualized instruction. Whether they are visually impaired, use wheelchairs or are disabled in other ways, they are taught to safely navigate the fixed-route system, which they can use for free.
Hundreds of customers try every year. But not all succeed.
“Oh, you know, I did my best,” Rush says. “They came out here to Steptoe and we walked up there to the Dupont Circle station for the travel training. Some people can do it, some can’t. And I mean, I was terrified down there, people all rushing around, bumping into each other. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. And they could tell.”
So instead, here she is in a van, out in the world, headed to a job she enjoys, a sightless woman who in some ways sees just fine.
“Okay, if you don’t mind,” she says to Thomas, “once you get up here, your GPS is going to try to take you through the ’hood. We don’t need to do that. The GPS is going to want you to turn right. Just keep straight.”
The driver’s smile flashes in the rear-view.
“I’m going to make it a smooth ride,” Rush tells her.
“All right,” Thomas says. “I appreciate it.”
They roll along in silence for a while, until Rush says, “Now up here, it’s going to want you to turn right onto the freeway. Don’t do that, either.”
And Thomas says: “You know what? We’ll go any way you want.”