Disabled teen advocates for change | NevadaAppeal.com

Disabled teen advocates for change

Becky Bosshart
Appeal Staff Writer

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Jared Dempsey gets off a Carson City School District bus on Koontz Lane on Wednesday.

For many Carson City residents, using the bus system is as easy as waiting at the stop at the right time and climbing aboard. For 16-year-old Jared Dempsey, it’s a challenge that requires an assistant.

Jared has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair. His mother is teaching him to travel independently, a task made more difficult by bus stops that are inaccessible to wheelchairs. Transit officials say they have just started working on the problem, which the Dempseys say they’ve found at several bus stops around Carson City.

Patrick Pittenger, city transportation program manager, said every new bus system has problems. JAC is the city’s first fixed-route bus service, in operation for about a year. Pittenger said he wants a solution for all bus stops if there’s a problem that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The sidewalk at Jared’s bus stop is 4-feet wide, which is not suitable for wheelchair access to a bus lift.

“The sidewalks were built before ADA and before we had a transit system,” he said. “Do we have a legal obligation to put down a 5-foot by 8-foot pad? No. But we do have a moral obligation, which is why we’re going to improve that stop.”

For now, Virginia Dempsey said, she’s scared her son will fall off the curb because he has to back up onto the handicapped lift.

She’s also afraid that he’ll never reach this stage of independence, which is important for his occupational and emotional growth.

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“He’s getting older and he’s not going to be able to drive himself,” said Dempsey, who stood at the Koontz Lane bus stop, near South Carson Street. A chain-link fence abuts the sidewalk, which doesn’t give Jared enough room to maneuver his chair onto the bus. “And for him, to be able to get around in the community like any other adult is important.”

Jared has to be guided onto the lift by an adult, or the bus must stop 15-20 feet away from an inaccessible stop. Even when coordinated in advance with the Jump Around Carson transit office, it doesn’t always happen, said Jennifer Luri, Jared’s occupational therapist. Once the bus blew by Jared and one of his teachers, she said.

“Maybe the disabled are the fewest in population, but that doesn’t mean their rights are less than the many,” she said. “Try and put yourself in Virginia’s shoes, wouldn’t you want your child to reach that level of independence?”

Luri, Jared’s occupational therapist for the last five years, said she alerted city transit officials to this problem by e-mail and phone since Jared started travel training this summer, but her concerns were not addressed.

Pittenger said he’s only been on the job three months and inherited many tasks. He said other riders have advocated for changes and they’ve happened, such as an improved handicapped stop at Costco. Others have been promised, but not realized, such as bike racks on the buses.

Jared’s problem deserves more attention, said Luri.

“Some inquiries need to be given greater weight, such as equal rights for all,” the occupational therapist said. “Access and independence issues (for the disabled) mean so much more than just convenience issues.”

The Koontz Lane stop is used by JAC and the Intercity bus to Reno, which is operated by the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission. Jim McGrath, the commission’s public information officer, said officials at both agencies will discuss solutions today at a conference call. Transit officials have several ideas that require the cooperation of private property owners.

“We’ll see what the situation is and what can be done to make access more available for the young gentleman,” McGrath said.

This isn’t Jared’s first crusade for change. In September 2001 he wrote a letter to the state public works board and the governor asking for a wheelchair ramp at a crosswalk near his home.

A short time later, he was crossing Koontz Lane in his wheelchair.

• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.