Plan to aid disabled Detroit Metro travelers criticized

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s plan to give travelers with disabilities closer, curbside access while dropping off and picking up from public buses and vans is coming under fire from the disabled community.

Advocates for those with disabilities argue all passengers using commercial and public buses and vans should use the same stops because doing otherwise would cause resentment and unfairly single out those with disabilities.

“This is beyond the pale. Disability rights advocates are reaching out to me in panic and outrage,” said Jason Turkish, an attorney who previously filed a lawsuit against the airport over changing a location where elderly and disabled passengers were dropped off.

“Federal law is 100 percent clear on this topic. You cannot offer accommodations in a segregated manner. And you can’t have one stop for people with disabilities and one stop for people without disabilities.”

Airport officials vehemently deny that contention and say these are added accommodations.

In 2014, Metro stopped curbside pickup and drop-off for public transportation services in favor of the terminals’ ground transportation centers — which are farther from entrances — for safety reasons amid increased congestion.

Under the airport’s latest proposal, those with special needs at the McNamara Terminal, the largest at Metro, would be picked up at door 402 of the ground transportation center and dropped off at the departures level curb, which is undergoing $350,000 in construction to improve access. At the North Terminal, travelers with disabilities would be picked up or dropped off at Bay Five of that terminal’s ground transportation site.

Metro Airport officials, who have been under fire for years from advocates for the disabilities community, say the proposal gives travelers with disabilities the option to either use the closer locations near terminal entrances or still use the current locations in the airport’s ground transportation centers.

“Our team is constantly evaluating opportunities to improve or expand service to our customers,” said Thomas Naughton, CEO of the Wayne County Airport Authority, which runs Metro Airport, in a statement. “We expect to offer these additional accommodations in mid-March after dialogue with regulatory officials, members of the disability community and ground transportation operators.”

Naughton has the authority to approve the proposal.

In a letter addressed to an attorney for the airport, Fred Wurtzel, a secretary and spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, was critical of the decision — which he and others of his organization initially supported until they found out later, he said, about the latest option for separate drop-offs and pickups.

“I am dumb-founded that someone with your legal background would suggest such a hostile, demeaning and illegal idea as segregating persons with disabilities,” Wurtzel wrote Brian Sadek, assistant general counsel with the airport authority. “I find the WCAA position to be so antediluvian, regressive and discriminatory that I wonder if I have been put into a time machine and sent back 50 years. I sure hope you reconsider this policy before it is implemented.”

In his return letter, Sadek said the airport has consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Disability Compliance Program unit and others about the move and “would better ensure an accessible traveling experience especially for those who experience difficulty with exposure to cold weather or have difficulty traveling unattended or across longer distances.”

Sadek denied the decision would segregate any passenger with a disability “in any sense” and likened it to someone who boards an aircraft early because they need special assistance.

“A member of the disability community can choose to either utilize these accommodations or they can choose to travel with the general public,” he said. “It’s simply an additional option like the parking space, like getting on the plane, like choosing these prospects. You can choose to use it or you can choose not to.”

Turkish doesn’t agree it’s that simple and believes this will be rebuffed in court.

“They are doing it to window dress with people with disabilities, thinking that this will appease the disability rights community but, of course, it doesn’t,” he said. “It offends them. They didn’t fight for equality for decades to get segregation.”

Further at issue is language in the proposal that states “all Ground Transportation Operators must, upon request for accommodation from an individual with a disability, modify its service to provide an additional pick-up or drop-off option.”

Sadek says no one will have to disclose their disability because they will just remain on the bus awaiting closer drop-off after the general public has exited.

Airport officials contend travelers on public or private buses or vans would be dropped off first in the ground transportation center, just as the system currently works. If someone needs special accommodations, such as the disabled, airport officials say they can stay on the bus and be dropped off curbside.

Airport officials say the construction to improve a portion of the curbside drop-off is to help make getting off a private or commercial bus and van easier for anyone who is disabled. They say that the changes cannot accommodate everyone to be dropped off curbside because it would hinder those who are disabled from entering the airport.

The airport has had battles with at least one ground transportation operator — Michigan Flyer-Air Ride — that ended up in court in 2014 over what it deemed the lack of convenience to get from the terminals to public buses and vans. Originally, passengers were picked up and dropped off at the McNamara Terminal but airport officials believed it was unsafe and switched to the ground transportation center.

The operators of Michigan Flyer-Air Ride complained that the move was discriminatory to those with disabilities and the elderly because it forced them to walk 600 feet to catch a shuttle.

The lawsuit was settled with the airport modifying the ground transportation center with an indoor information counter for the service providers, direct dial phones for passengers who need assistance, better signage and wider lanes for buses.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming