Thousands of potential applicants for New York City's Access-A-Ride paratransit service informally withdraw their applications every month by missing their appointment for an in-person assessment.
About half of the people who call Access-A-Ride to register have missed their eligibility appointment since March 2007, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority changed the application process. The new policy requires in-person interviews and physical tests to prove that people are functionally unable to use buses and trains, according to criteria in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Prior to the change, Access-A-Ride registered half of its applicants by mail and referred half for assessments, leading to hundreds of withdrawals per month rather than thousands.
In the first year since the policy took effect - from March 2007 through February 2008 - Access-A-Ride sent applications to about 94,000 people who called to register. However, only about 48,000 people completed the application process, according to the MTA's internal monthly eligibility reports. That shows a decline since the 12 months prior - from March 2006 through February 2007 - when about 54,000 people completed Access-A-Ride applications.
The decline was particularly noticeable among re-certification applications, which totaled about 11,500 in the year after the policy change - the lowest 12-month rate since the year ending in February 2003, and a 32 percent drop from the 12 months before the change, according to the MTA data.
In-person assessments for federally mandated paratransit service have grown in popularity in the last decade at transit agencies across the nation. Read the background story.
Thomas Charles, vice president of the MTA division that runs Access-A-Ride, said the new application process is intended to be more fair, accurate and thorough than before, not to reduce ridership. The number of customers rose by 12 percent from March 2007 to March 2008, to about 111,000 customers, even though applications declined. The service currently has more than 124,000 customers.
Some applicants said the tests, which often include walking up mock bus steps, are uncomfortable and unnecessary. Madeline Holden, an 87-year-old woman who uses a cane and has a hearing impairment and hip and lower back pain, criticized her assessment in April. “The application is easier than to come over here. They ask the same questions over," Holden said as she left a testing center. Her niece, Nomi Clarke, who accompanied Holden to her appointment, called the experience "not pleasant," and said, “There’s a certain way you’re supposed to deal with the elderly and they didn’t do it."
Charles said the contracted assessors are medical professionals and that the tests benefit the service by ensuring that all customers are eligible.
The two-year-old application process has had several components that have affected applicants before they reached their assessment.
Prior to March 2007, Access-A-Ride applicants could download applications from the MTA's website or pick them up at senior centers or independent living centers for people with disabilities, where social workers sometimes helped with the paperwork. Now they must call Access-A-Ride to request a copy by mail. Charles said that requirement enables operators to explain the application process directly, have applicants agree to an assessment, and set an appointment time by asking when they are unavailable. Their appointment later arrives by mail. Critics say the requirement complicated the application process for a customer base that includes people with cognitive disabilities.
"Applying for Access-A-Ride is a deliberately complicated process," customer Rayner Colton wrote last year in a complaint to federal and local officials. "The renewal process is extremely cruel to those who are elderly and/or extremely disabled."
Access-A-Ride charges applicants $4 for round-trip transportation to the test, which will soon rise to $4.50. Charles said the fares help Access-A-Ride coordinate a large volume of assessments. “I believe it is extremely reasonable, promotes adherence to our scheduling of appointments at assessment centers and does not create a burden to our applicants," he said. Access-A-Ride schedules up to 10,000 or more assessments per month at six locations.
However, the Federal Transit Administration, which oversees the nation's paratransit services, said free rides are required. “In the event that an individual is required to go to an in-person assessment for eligibility and that person cannot obtain their own transportation, a paratransit service would be required to provide such transportation, free of charge,” said FTA spokesperson Ketrina Nelson. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits transit agencies from charging “application fees” for eligibility.
Jean Ryan, an activist and member of the MTA's paratransit advisory committee, said, "The Transit Authority should pay for testing to and from the interviews since that is the regulation. However, I am concerned about the expense to [New York City Transit] and the taxpayers for the large number of no-show passengers who fail to call ahead and say they are not coming while the cars and vans com to pick them up in vain. I wonder if the scheduling process has anything to do with this." Each trip costs Access-A-Ride about $45 to provide, Charles said.
Access-A-Ride has warned potential applicants in their assessment letters that if they rescheduled or canceled their appointment, they would not receive transportation to a new appointment. Charles said the sentence was intended to discourage people from missing their tests, but was removed by 2009. "Our warning remained on the letters but in practice we attempted to accommodate applicants who could not commit to the scheduled appointment," he said. Some applicants took the warning at face value and either missed their appointment without calling or attended despite being ill.
Nelson said Access-A-Ride is required to provide rides to people who reschedule their appointments. "A person who has a scheduled assessment should be able, within reason, to cancel or reschedule that assessment with advance notice and reschedule for a future date," she said.
It remains unclear why Access-A-Ride has lost so many potential riders since testing began. However, theories abound.
Daniel Aliberti, president of the Queens Independent Living Center, said some people withdraw their applications out of fear of embarrassment at the interview or functional exam. “We’ve met those folks that they’re not going through with it because they’re hearing from other folks how it goes down when you get there,” Aliberti said.
Charles said the 50 percent withdrawal rate indicates a self-selection process is taking place for eligibility. “I think to me it’s an informal denial because they do see there are requirements to become eligible, and so they may be interested but once they see they have to go through the assessment they do not show up for their in-person assessment,” Charles said. He attributed the application decline in the first year after the policy change to the cyclical nature of re-certifications, which vary according to registration in prior years, and to a 10-day strike by carriers in 2007.
Lawrence Carter-Long, executive director of the Disabilities Network of New York City, a coalition of 60 organizations, said missed appointments are simply the result of individual circumstances. “If it’s difficult to get to the location where the assessment is done, that can be a factor. Health can be a factor. There’s a lot of different reasons somebody can miss an assessment, particularly those who have disabilities or chronic illnesses,” said Carter-Long.
Access-A-Ride applicants who missed their assessments are invited to tell their stories by answering these questions:
1. Why did you miss your appointment, and did you make another one?
2. Did any of the March 2007 policy changes contribute to your withdrawal? If so, which ones?
3. Did your application withdrawal affect your mobility or quality of life?