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Article: A 75-Cent Ride to Freedom

December 11, 2014

Article Credit: The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Valerie Thompson is a modern-day freedom rider.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Chattanoogans would have lonely, thumb-twiddling lives without her.

Thompson works for CARTA, Chattanooga’s public transit system. For 11 years, her job has been to help people with disabilities learn how to use the buses. Technically, her job title is “travel trainer,” but it could just as easily be “kind friend” or “benevolent hand-holder.”

She splits time between CARTA and Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. She assists the blind, the hearing-impaired, people with mental challenges, people in wheelchairs.

For folks with disabilities, learning to use the bus system can be intimidating, Thompson said. Some simply choose to live cloistered, uneventful lives instead of venturing out and learning the system.

“I enable people with disabilities to visit friends, to go shopping, to be active in the community,” Thompson said. “I teach them how to cross the street safely. I make them talk to the bus drivers. A lot of these folks, I don’t think they would be able to learn how to ride the bus without someone to help them.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted by Congress in 1990 and amended in 2009, directs public transit authorities like CARTA to be proactive helping the disabled.

Oddly, it’s not just physical or mental frailty that keeps many of these folks off the bus, Thompson says. It’s also fear.

“It’s the fear of not knowing what to do,” Thompson said. “Fear of being taken advantage of. You and I can get on a bus and ask the driver questions. Some of the people I work with are afraid to.”

I asked Thompson to recall some of her success stories.

She told me about a blind man in his 30s living in Brainerd who was resigned to a stay-at-home existence. Thompson taught him how to count the steps from his front door to a nearby bus stop. These turned out to be baby steps to a better life.

“Now he’s all over the city,” Thompson reported. “Everybody downtown knows him.”

She recalls her very first trainee, a man who needed help negotiating the buses to the Orange Grove Center, a nonprofit for people with developmental disabilities. Thompson promised to meet the young man at a bus stop at a predetermined time.

When he didn’t show up, she fretted. She put out a radio call, and bus drivers around the city tried to pinpoint his whereabouts. Eventually, he was found already working away at Orange Grove, having taken an earlier bus and reached his destination without help.

A blind Vietnamese woman needed Thompson’s services to spark the independence she craved.

“She has true grit,” Thompson said. “She wants to be like everybody else.”

Now, Thompson said, the blind woman has learned all the bus drivers by their voices, and isn’t afraid to speak up if she needs help.

“She’s very independent. She can go anywhere she needs to go,” Thompson said.

The secret to all this, Thompson says, is to help people to be self-sufficient — not to create dependency.

Disabled folks can ride CARTA for essentially half-price, 75 cents for a one-way cash fare. Three quarters and and a jump start from Thompson can literally reroute a life.

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Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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Learn more about Siskin Hospital’s Vocational Services.
Learn more about the Driving Evaluation Program.