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OPINION

What it means when the T doesn’t see disability

The monthlong shutdown has only solidified disabled riders’ sense that the MBTA is really two systems.

The number of disabled riders who have been negatively impacted by the T’s closing runs in the thousands, with each person facing disparate challenges put up by a system that they need, but which does much to tell them it does not need them.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Murshid Buwembo wasn’t surprised when the MBTA announced the emergency closing of the Orange Line and a portion of the Green Line last month. “I was one of the complainers,” Buwembo told me. He was not the only one, and as a result, riders’ responses to the shutdown have been somewhat similar. Many of Buwembo’s fellow complainers have expressed frustration, but they also seem somewhat calmed by the regular progress updates, the creation of a reasonably effective transit bucket-brigade, and the possibility that we might emerge with a system where trains do not catch on fire.

But for disabled riders like Buwembo things have been different. The monthlong shutdown has only solidified their sense that the T is really two systems. While one is near-failure and serves the nondisabled, the other is for disabled people, and it swivels between dangerous and nonexistent.

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It is impossible to quantify exactly how many disabled riders use the T each day, but given the oft-cited estimate that one-quarter of the American population is disabled in some way, we can be certain that the number who have been negatively impacted by the T’s closing runs in the thousands, with each person facing disparate challenges put up by a system that they need, but which does much to tell them it does not need them.

Buwembo’s daily commute from Assembly to Downtown Crossing is indicative of that grinding inequality during the shutdown. Seeking options, Buwembo first turned to The RIDE, the T’s paratransit system, which offers funds for disabled people to hail a disability-accessible Uber or Lyft. But, he said, each time a driver approached and saw his wheelchair, they would stop short, cancel the ride, and drive away without speaking with him.

He soon gave up and turned instead to the privately contracted shuttle buses that nondisabled passengers have used, only to find that the drivers were not trained the way the T’s in-house bus drivers are, which put him in harm’s way.

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“They don’t know how to handle people with disabilities,” he said. “They only know how to drive the buses.” Buwembo said when one driver almost launched him out of his chair while trying to help, he gave up on that option as well.

Only then did he discover that the T was operating small, accessible vans for disabled riders. The vans have been better than the alternatives, but they are far from perfect, dropping him off at a much-less accessible place downtown when compared with the train. All the while, Buwembo wondered why, even when the T has a moderately workable solution in place, they fail to communicate it clearly to the riders who need it most.

He is not alone. One disabled colleague of mine regularly rides portions of the Green Line. She said that when her shuttle arrived at Government Center she happened to glimpse a sign that read “Haymarket” with a giant “x” drawn over it. Haymarket was her destination, but when she asked the driver how to get there, she was told, “It’s close enough. You can walk from here.”

Against this backdrop, a return to preshutdown conditions could seem welcome, but I was reminded of what that system looks like on my own commute on Tuesday evening when I stopped to read the fancy new digital signs at the top of the stairs in Porter Square. One screen showed a list of elevators that were closed at various stations. Redundant elevators — where there are two in place in case one fails — are still needed at a number of stations, and without them, a broken one can make a station wholly inaccessible.

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I trust what I’m told by fellow folks in the disability communities here, that the T has people in place who are kind, caring, and trying extremely hard to do the best they can. That’s largely been my experience, too. Part of the way in which this system is rotten is how it pits vulnerable riders against vulnerable workers, while the people in charge — Governor Charlie Baker, legislators, oversight boards — get off the hook.

Until that stops, it is reasonable to assume that they will continue to make more of an effort trying to not serve disabled people than they will ever spend creating an accessible system. That means that even when Buwembo wants to dream of a clean, efficient Orange Line that Bostonians can take pride in, he is reminded that first, he just needs it to be safe, and that’s not a promise the past month has given many of us confidence we can believe in.

Alex Green teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.