Disabled students allege bus driver harassment

by Nathan Hall

Complaints of disability discrimination by seven University students against University bus drivers have led to mandatory sensitivity training and a possible investigation by the bus company’s corporate parent.

Sarah Kellermann, a University liberal arts junior, was harassed to the point of tears by a Campus Connector driver, according to an e-mail from University liberal arts sophomore Michael Meidinger.

Kellermann said the bus drivers responsible for the alleged incident were reprimanded and enrolled in sensitivity training, and the problem has been resolved to her satisfaction.

Kellermann, who is not disabled, traveled in a wheelchair for a class exercise.

Meidinger, who also participated in the workshop and saw the incident, wrote, “The driver repeatedly told her she should have tried an alternate mode of transportation, or should have called a special bus or service.”

The bus driver also allegedly complained loudly during the route that “it was going to take him too long to get the chair off the bus” and referred to Kellermann as “the wheelchair.”

William Stahlmann, the University’s transit manager, said an e-mail from Meidinger alerted him to the situation as well.

“I was embarrassed when I read it,” Stahlmann said. “When I contacted the vendor, they were equally embarrassed at what had had happened.”

Stahlmann said all 40 of his full-time drivers will soon take sensitivity classes.

Don Rollefson, assistant manager for the University branch of First Student – which contracts with the University to provide Campus Connector drivers – disputed parts of Kellermann’s complaints but said despite free ongoing training, “some drivers need more encouragement than others.”

“There’s a lot of stress driving these buses, and I don’t think it’s the driver’s place to police who gets on what bus,” Rollefson said. “Overall, our drivers do a very commendable job, and our safety record and complaint record reflect that.”

Misty Schomberg, a student coordinator for the University’s Disabled Student Cultural Center, said Kellermann and Meidinger’s accusations were accurate.

“If (drivers) show any anger or aggression toward the student in the wheelchair, they should be suspended,” Schomberg said. “No bus driver involved in any prejudice or discrimination should not be allowed on campus Ö They need to give equal respect to every student regardless of their gender, race or disability.”

“There are so many different buses, it’s tough to know which bus is which if you’re blind like me,” said Jessie Wang, a University linguistics junior and program coordinator for the Disabled Student Cultural Center. “Sometimes the bus drivers aren’t sensitive to calling out which bus they have, but most of them thankfully do.”

Overall, Wang said, other riders are exceptionally courteous to her.

“Bus drivers can be very rude depending on how familiar they are with the equipment and the disabilities,” said Jeremy Heyer, a University technology sophomore who uses a wheelchair. “They say they are not there to take care of disabled passengers, but they need to treat them with the respect that others receive as well.”

University accounting sophomore Sarah Haddican said she saw five consecutive bus drivers in October unwilling to load a physically disabled male student.

She said approximately 100 students crowded past the man and that the bus driver did not attempt to stop the throng.

“The bus driver seemed really peeved just because he had to get off the bus and actually do his job,” Haddican said.

“I haven’t seen these reports yet, but I do think maybe we need to step up our awareness of these issues,” said Jeff Pearson, First Student’s regional vice president. “We can of course always do better Ö but I don’t want any student treated unfairly, and we will investigate this further.”

Haddican said the Campus Connector’s policies should mirror Metro Transit’s, which mandate disabled passengers be allowed to board and disembark first.

Stahlmann said the University is still considering the Metro Transit plan, but he said it might not be enforceable.

“We have multiple exits, it’s a free service, and people are just so used to doing it this way,” Stahlmann said. “Specifically for some of those short trips across the river, I wonder why a couple of students can’t give up their seats and walk across the bridge for a couple of minutes to help people who can’t.”

University management senior Jonathan Tepe said he had to use crutches during the spring semester of his first year.

“When I was waiting for the Connector, three or four buses would pass before I could get on,” Tepe said.

“Sometimes the drivers wouldn’t let me on as they thought I’d fall, and one time I actually got pushed and fell face down and nobody would even help me up,” he said.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” said Tom Evans, a supervisor who handles University disability services through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Evans said most people he works with go out of their way to help these students and that other departments such as the Minnesota State Council on Disability usually respond adequately to complaints.

Don Westergard, an employment access specialist for the St. Paul-based advisory council, said because the Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law, “it’s largely complaint-driven” and the Justice Department could investigate an incident.

“These people are supposed to have the same accessibility as everyone else no matter where they go,” said Jim Cich, the main driver for Paratransit Services, an on-call, University-funded service for disabled students and faculty. Cich said he had not heard of the Campus Connector complaints.

Stahlmann and Rollefson said four new buses have been purchased and four more are on the way with lowered floors and manual backups to load and unload disabled passengers faster.

Stahlmann said part of the reason for purchasing those buses was complaints such as Kellermann’s.

Nathan Hall covers the environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected]