published Friday, June 8th, 2012

With help, disabled have freedom to travel

Kevin Dowdy, 27, left, and his travel trainer, Valerie Thompson, talk as they wait on the No. 9 bus in Chattanooga. With help from Thompson, Dowdy, who is blind and has a mental disability, has learned to navigate certain CARTA routes on his own.
Kevin Dowdy, 27, left, and his travel trainer, Valerie Thompson, talk as they wait on the No. 9 bus in Chattanooga. With help from Thompson, Dowdy, who is blind and has a mental disability, has learned to navigate certain CARTA routes on his own.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.

Fast facts

• Travel training is a free CARTA service.

• Call Valerie Thompson at 423-634-1576 for information about getting started.

• Training can take anywhere from two days to four months, depending on a person's needs.

• Since 2009, 400 people have gone through travel training.

• Thompson rides with six to 10 people each month for an average of nine hours on the buses each week.

Source: Valerie Thompson

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Kevin Dowdy feels for pavement underfoot; through his eyes the world is black. He carries a long stick that can fold and fit into a backpack.

Scratch. Tap. Scratch. Tap. The rod slides along asphalt. Scratch. It hits a curb. Tap.

He can hear car engines, the squeal of brakes, the loud rumble of a bus. Beside him, an older woman, Valerie Thompson, speaks with stern direction.

"Listen. We are going to cross the street. Tell me when it's good?" she asks him. He listens for cars.

"We can go across, Ms. Valerie," he says.

"Cross and find a new curb," she says. Scratch. Tap. Scratch. Tap.

He finds it. The bus stop is a few feet away. He listens for the stop to be announced over the bus' loudspeaker when it pulls to a stop.

"Number nine to East Lake."

Thompson, a travel trainer for CARTA, first trained Dowdy to use the bus two years ago. The 27-year-old is blind and developmentally disabled, and his mother didn't want him to travel alone, afraid he would get lost or hit by a passing car or robbed. But Dowdy wanted freedom.

He and Thompson started out easy. She rode with him, walked him through every step. Later, she taught him to memorize the routes, be careful of strangers, pay 75 cents for a one-way ticket and find the stops around the city. After several months, he was able to try it alone.

To the more than 400 people who have been trained in the last three years by the CARTA travel trainer service -- the elderly, the disabled, immigrants who are adjusting to a new city -- Thompson stands between their isolation and independence.

These are the people who often can't afford car payments, insurance and gas, who would be at home if it weren't for public buses. Still, navigating the bus routes is difficult and, without a guide, can feel nearly impossible, especially for someone who can't hear or see or has limited movement.

"This is a very important thing," said Tod Cain, administrative director of clinical services at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation, which helps pay for the travel-training program. "We find that transportation is the one of the biggest barriers that our patients have to living independently."

Dowdy gets rusty, so he comes in to Thompson's office at Siskin every few months and Thompson will ride with him again. Sometimes she meets him at home.

He wants to get a job, so she is teaching him how to get to the Goodwill on Dodds Avenue where he can turn in an application. He thinks he could be good at folding clothes at a hotel or organize recycling.

But most of the time he rides with nowhere in particular to go. Sometimes he takes the No. 1 bus to downtown and loops around the city center, gets a cupcake, goes into a pet store and touches the animals. Sometimes he transfers to the No. 4 bus, which takes him to the Eastgate Town Center, where he walks around.

He speaks about himself with pride when he talks with strangers. He fiddles with the 24-hour bus pass that hangs around his neck, sliding it over his nails till they are rubbed to the quick.

"I never let nothing stop me from doing anything," he said.

"Rain or snow. I'm always out," he said.

"I never back down from a challenge," he said.

He started wearing headphones on his ears when the bus drivers -- all know him by his first name -- told Thompson he was talking to them too much while they were driving. Now he listens to the Beach Boys and feels for the vibrations of the bus slowing.

CARTA began offering the travel trainer in 2002. It was among many public transportation systems to move more disabled and elderly away from special transportation and onto fixed-route buses.

Passage of the federal Americans with Disability Act in 1990 forced bus systems to offer equal access to the disabled, and systems have done different things to meet that requirement.

CARTA buses have lifts and ramps for wheelchair access. Some stops have signs that display the bus schedules and audio recordings of the schedule. The buses also have announcement systems that state their number and destination, without which Dowdy would be lost.

But the ADA didn't require systems to hire trainers. Those decisions were made, in part, because it made financial sense, said Mary Riegelmayer, the president of the national Association of Travel Instruction.

"Transit agencies have found a need to reduce costs and be more effective and increase their ridership," Riegelmayer said.

The first known travel trainer was Jack Gorelick, who worked with the mentally disabled in New York City in the 1970s and, as sensitivity toward the needs of the disabled spread with ADA, other transit systems adopted the model.

Even among mid-sized cities such as Chattanooga, travel training has become common in the last five years, said Riegelmayer.

The only cost of the program is Thompson's salary, paid by Siskin Hospital and CARTA, and some driver training on how to help individuals with disabilities who travel alone.

Thompson, who has a background in social work and child development, said the job is a mix of challenge and reward.

She has seen so many homebound people with disabilities sink into depression. So many don't have family members to drive them places or don't want to rely on their families, she said.

The bus ride does something to them, makes them happy, gives them a sense of freedom and makes them proud, she said.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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