Transportation in rural Vermont proves difficult for the disabled

MIDDLEBURY — Anyone without a car in Vermont knows that getting around can be tricky, but one summer resident has felt this pain more than most.
Dana Abant came to Middlebury College from New York City this summer to learn French and has a challenge: Abant is blind, and hasn’t been able to find a suitable method of getting around town.
He says he’s been stuck on campus for most of his seven-week stay at Middlebury, which comes to an end on Aug. 19. Simple errands like getting a haircut, buying food for his guide dog and grabbing a morning coffee are out of his reach. 
“I love Vermont and it may be beautiful,” he said, “but it wasn’t a warm reception here for me as a blind person.”
Abant, 68, says he’s used paratransit services — typically government funded public transportation systems that provide door-to-door assistance for disabled people — in places like Chicago, Seattle and Miami.
These services greatly benefit Abant, who needs help when navigating new places. A native New Yorker, he’s used to using the subway and bus systems, but only ones he’s familiar with.
Here, if he uses public transportation, like a bus — an available option in Middlebury — he doesn’t know where to catch it or how to find his destination when he gets off. With unknown traffic patterns, walking in the streets can also be dangerous.
“The problem is I don’t know how the grid is laid out here,” he said. “Do they turn on red? Do you have to flag the bus down?”
Middlebury’s rural setting comes with limitations in available public transportation. Though Addison County Transit Resources provides a system similar to paratransit for local residents, Abant hasn’t been able to use it.
The system is made up of individuals who use their personal vehicles and volunteer their time. While some allow dogs in their cars, others do not, and because of this, it can be a challenge to align the schedules of a passenger schedule and suitable driver. The program is federally funded, and drivers are reimbursed for mileage.
“There are some limits on the program, primarily because of funding,” said Jim Moulton, executive director of ACTR. “We try to have enough volunteers so that we can meet as many needs as possible, but sometimes the alignment just doesn’t work.”
Moulton said the bus drivers would happily accommodate Abant and help him on and off the bus, just as they would for someone in a wheelchair. The bus does take dogs, but the drivers can’t get off the bus to direct Abant to his destination, a service that he has relied upon elsewhere.
“Our goal is to try to provide the ride in any way we can,” Moulton said, adding that a miscommunication may have caused some of Abant’s difficulty in finding a driver. 
Other transportation services, such as Middlebury Transit (a private company), do not offer transportation locally — from college dorms to grocery stores, for example. Most taxi companies are based out of Burlington, increasing the price and decreasing the flexibility of the service.
Although Abant will soon leave, he said he is concerned that other disabled visitors coming to the area will experience the same limitations with mobility. He plans to talk with the Middlebury selectboard, and he’s thinking of filing an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint to improve awareness and flexibility when it comes to transportation for the disabled.

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