Additional reporting by Farah Javed
New Yorkers with disabilities and their advocates this week panned the “antiquated” and “ridiculous” process that requires existing and new users of the city’s paratransit service to undergo in-person eligibility assessments.
They say making riders perform physical activities to earn their spots on Access-A-Ride vehicles is degrading and unnecessary when remote screenings and official documentation suffices in other jurisdictions.
“They are heavily focused on the physical, like if you can walk up and down the stairs,” said Eman Rimawi-Doster, Access-A-Ride coordinator for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a double amputee who uses a rolling walker.
The MTA last fall resumed screenings at Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island assessment centers — where applicants must show up and prove they qualify for trips on paratransit vehicles that provide door-to-door service for the same price as a bus or subway ride.
“Across the nation and across the state, remote evaluation is standard — there’s this thing called the Internet you can use,” Joseph Rappaport, executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled told the MTA board on Wednesday. “But here, the MTA relies on an expensive, in-person system designed to make it harder to get approved.”
Just over the city line in Westchester County, all BeeLine Paratransit interviews have been waived because of the pandemic — new riders just submit paperwork. In Nassau County, a spokesperson for NICE Able-Ride said in-person evaluations take place only if a certification manager deems one necessary.
“You submit a letter, you submit your documents and whatever documentation you can provide and then you can meet with them on the phone or just online,” said Rimawi-Doster. “And it works just as fine.”
In the city, the MTA has stuck with the universal assessment process it has used since March 2007, requiring in-person physical evaluations for applicants, as well as for customers renewing certification that typically lasts for five years.
An MTA spokesperson said the agency found that doctors’ notes were often fraudulent, so the agency requires verification of disabilities by healthcare professionals.
“It’s not a medical examination, we’re not diagnosing anything,” Chris Pangilinan, vice president of paratransit at the MTA, told THE CITY. “But rather, it’s an assessment of your abilities to use public transportation systems.”
A Citizens Budget Commission report in 2016 found that the MTA’s shift to in-person assessments a decade and a half ago led to increased scrutiny of applications, as well as a jump in denials.
From 2007 to 2009, the rate of denials never topped 6% — but that figure jumped to 15% by 2010, MTA data shows, and stayed in double figures until 2018, when it dropped to 8%. For the last two years, the numbers show, 6% of all applications have been denied, with 7% rejected so far this year.
“We want to make sure that our paratransit resources are available to those who need it,” Pangilinan said.
There are currently 168,753 New Yorkers enrolled in the MTA’s paratransit program, according to an agency spokesperson. At its peak in 2011, there were 170,140 people in the program, a figure that, by 2014, had dropped to 141,061.
“The real question is who gives up on the application process because of this laborious route that the MTA requires you to take,” Rappaport said.
“It’s not good for the MTA, it’s not good for the customer, it’s not good for anybody,” added Cara Liebowitz, who has cerebral palsy and is the advocacy coordinator for Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. “We have jobs, we have lives, we have other things we need to do.”
The MTA says paratransit ridership is more than 80% of what it was prior to the pandemic, with more than 25,000 trips per day. On Wednesday, the MTA had 25,418 scheduled trips, ridership data shows, or about 86% from a comparable pre-pandemic day.
The Manhattan, Staten Island and Bronx centers, which closed early in the pandemic, reopened in late 2020 at 25% capacity, according to the MTA, while one in Brooklyn reopened in January 2021. The four were back at 100% capacity last October, the MTA said, with mandated safety protocols that include mask wearing and social distancing.
An MTA spokesperson said the centers were allowed to resume operation once automatic doors were installed. Those renovations followed the THE CITY’s reporting in January 2020 that found none of the assessment centers had automatic doors, creating even more hardship for people with disabilities.
Vanessa Rodriguez, 57, told THE CITY her session at Brooklyn assessment center “didn’t take long” after she took a free ride to her appointment in Midwood on Wednesday.
“I’m more hands on and like face-to-face interaction,” she said.
But some advocates are critical of a process that they said is time-consuming for customers and costly for the MTA.
“Get rid of the antiquated, ridiculous process by which you declare people eligible for Access-A-Ride,” Rappaport told the board.