Freedom RIDErs

By SEAN FLYNN  |  August 14, 2008

But on an emotional level, the day provided a tremendous boost to the movement, activists say. Even though the MBTA didn’t give in to all of the 19 demands that had been presented three days earlier, Miller says that “just the fact that we nailed them down to yeses and nos instead of ‘We’ll discuss it,’ I think, is a tremendous victory.” Finally, angry activists had met their target head on, on their terms. Even more important, the group that actually sat down with O’Leary was a diverse one representing separate philosophies that normally don’t work as one united front: Brooks is a self-described radical from the Disabled People’s Liberation Front; Cindy Miller, a persistent RIDE critic, came as an unattached freelancer; Denise Karuth, who chaired the Governor’s Commission on Accessible Transportation, is a classic inside operator; and Winske hovers in the middle. For a community that bemoans a consistent lack of unified leadership, it was a major coup.

“Like with any civil-rights movement,” argues Brooks, “while you have people who certainly work on the inside to bring about productive change, you wouldn’t have that change without pressure from the outside. I think what happened here, what’s significant, is that both sides came together and used both tactics to address this issue.” Adds Winske, “I think we’ve learned that if we’re going to grow [as a movement], we have to speak for more people. There are people who in the past had disagreed vehemently on how to do things, and we were there together.”

And the August 8 demonstration may signal a boost in public support for their campaign. Although the disability-rights movement has gotten some coverage in Boston’s major media before, it’s been spotty and hard to find. Without the press illuminating the struggle, it has, for many people, been a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” But the press showed up en masse at the Transportation Building. Both the Herald and the Globe ran stories and photos the next day, and WNEV (Channel 7) ran a live spot that afternoon. If nothing else, such play heartens those in the community unable to join the demonstration, and could generate increased public support for the cause.

Activists are quick to point out, though, that the RIDE is only a momentary battle. The long-term strategy is to fight for a completely accessible public-transportation system — as Massachusetts law mandates. Specialized transportation systems like the RIDE, they argue, are a sorry substitute for the public-transportation access non-disabled people enjoy. Not only are they dreadfully expensive, but they also unfairly segregate the disabled community.

Despite that, the MBTA — and thousands of other transportation authorities nationwide -- have been slow to make their systems accessible. Although the T is making some commendable strides, critics rightfully charge they’ve been too long in coming. The entire Green Line and portions of all three other train lines are still off-limits to anyone in a wheelchair, and getting to the airport via public transportation is impossible. And as Mike Early of the Massachusetts Organization of Disability Access Monitor notes, the July 27 rally at City Hall was held a few feet from the Government Center T stop — a major station that wheelchair users can’t get too.

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