Impact Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities
Introducing Transit Services to Students in Houston: METRO Choices
For the past three years, personnel with Houston METRO’s paratransit service – METROLift – have been helping travel trainersacross the Houston area introduce METRO services to K-12 students with disabilities. The METRO Choices program is opening the door for the students to realize greater independence, more future job opportunities, and the ability to explore the many cultural and entertainment venues available using METRO transportation services, particularly the accessible fleet of buses and light rail trains.
The METRO Choices initiative was created after Mary Ann Dendor, ADA Administrator, and Suzie Edrington, Transportation Services Administrator, attended an Easter Seals Project ACTION travel training workshop in 2001. The workshop reinforced METRO’s recognition of the need for travel training to help overcome people’s fear and lack of knowledge in using accessible fixed route service, and its desire to partner with community agencies in presenting travel training, which is best accomplished with mobility instructors and life skill teachers.
METRO began offering a special ID card enabling mobility instructors and life skill teachers to take one to five students with disabilities on training excursions. Dendor and Edrington developed the ID-based program and promoted it to METRO officials as a means to reduce dependency on paratransit once students leave school and are ready to join the workforce. The program name “Choices” was a natural based on the increase in transportation choices students may gain from the training.
“Choices effectively marketed itself,” says Edrington. “After the workshop we only held two or three meetings with different school districts and the program took off through word of mouth among the teachers.” The cost of the program is limited to the waived fares, the materials, and staff time required to explain the program to interested teachers through workshops or individually. “Choices has become a great success with more than 170 teachers being issued ID cards,” Dendor says. “We are not training the students directly, but we are providing knowledge, examples, and support to the people who are responsible for teaching children how to use public transportation services.”
The Choices initiative is being used by mobility instructors and life skill teachers within their overall life and workplace skills training curricula, with students from elementary through high school age learning firsthand the various aspects of riding a METRO bus or light rail train. For example, students learn how to read a bus schedule and notify the bus operator that they want to disembark at the next bus stop, as well as how to identify and remember landmarks so they know when they are nearing their stop. Buses also have been made available to groups of students to see, hear, and touch as a way to demystify the bus-riding process (see photo on opposite page). Although some students may not go on to use METRO services in their school-age years, they will have the skills and knowledge to access the transit system if and when the need arises, commonly after high school when they are seeking employment. “It’s a win-win. It gives the children confidence and a reliable transportation option essential for whatever activities they enjoy as well as eventual employment,” Dendor says. “Once acquired, travel skills such as route planning, map and timetable reading, and an awareness of their surroundings will enhance their ability to lead productive lives.”
Dendor credits METRO bus operators for making the program a success through their professionalism and willingness to help: “When the new riders have a positive experience of using our buses, then they’re more likely to be comfortable and secure in using them regularly throughout their lives.” Feedback from the travel trainers and parents has been equally complimentary. “The bus drivers have been more than helpful and extremely friendly,” says Elizabeth Eagan, a teacher with the Houston Independent School District. “The bus drivers have been very considerate of the needs of my students and patient when the students ask questions. It reinforces what I teach the students: ‘The bus drivers are your friends.’ The parental support we are getting is overwhelming. They are so supportive and impressed with the wonderful bus drivers we have encountered. I can’t thank METRO enough for all the help everyone has provided through this program.”
Through implementing METRO Choices during the past year, lessons have been learned about what contributes to the success of such a program. Dendor observes, “It is important to involve special education coordinators and/or administrators, and begin the program with train-the-trainer sessions for the most enthusiastic mobility instructors and life skill teachers.” Edrington adds, “When setting up a program an emphasis should be made on conveying the purpose of the program to the teachers so that they understand it as teaching an important life skill, not just providing free transportation.” After those initial sessions there should be an outreach to the other teachers, as well as parents and caregivers of the students with disabilities, affording them the opportunity to firsthand see the buses, talk to a bus operator, and hear from the transportation staff about the benefits of riding public transportation. Most students are happy to experience life in the community, and learning how to travel is part of that. Teachers and parents may be hesitant about a program such as METRO Choices because they have never ridden a bus, but once they become acquainted with the transit system, and then see the excitement and learning that can be accomplished by taking students into the community, soon they are telling others about the program and the word spreads. The program has grown because it makes sense, is of no cost, and has value far beyond the school years.
As the METRO Choices program moves into its fourth year,the next phase is to explore expansion to colleges, social service agencies, and possibly faith-based programs that teach or provide workshops to adults with disabilities. There is a lack of travel training services for people with disabilities who are past school-age. Edrington notes, “We have older adults who are not qualified for paratransit services, but do not know how to ride the regular fixed route system. It would be beneficial to have a program for these individuals.”