Oct. 27, 2006 — While the 2006 Voices That Count conference, designed to empower disabled V.I. residents and effect positive change, wraps up Friday at the Carambola Beach Resort, residents and caregivers still feel there are unresolved issues concerning the quality of life for the disabled, especially transportation and education.
The conference, sponsored in part by the Virgin Islands University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, offers a forum for people with disabilities to sound off about their concerns in day-to-day living. The conference, held Monday and Tuesday on St. Thomas and Thursday and Friday on St. Croix, was primarily focused on five areas of service to the disabled community: education, housing, transportation, employment and health (including mental health).
Amelia Headly-Lamont, executive director of V.I. Protection and Advocacy, agrees that the primary concern of the disabled population is transportation. She said disabled persons have the option of either door-to-door transportation or taking the main line bus route to get around. Transportation on the main line is $1 cheaper than door-to-door but has become a serious problem for disabled residents because of problems with the buses.
"It's not uncommon for it to take three hours to get home because of a malfunction on the bus," said Lamont, who added that the wheelchair lifts on many buses constantly malfunction, leaving disabled riders stranded.
One disabled resident has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Public Works and Virgin Islands Transit Authority (VITRAN). "The shame of it is," Lamont said, "the other [non-disabled] passengers get annoyed with this person because the lift is malfunctioning."
Margaret James Joseph, operations manager of VITRAN Plus at the Department of Public Works, said Friday that each month the system carries 500 to 600 disabled passengers on St. Croix. VITRAN Plus is the designated mode of transportation for disabled persons on St. Croix.
In 2003, through the conference, disabled persons rated this service with a "C" for achievement and a "B" for effort. No report cards were distributed in 2004, and the conference was not held in 2005.
Joseph, who has been a Public Works employee for 14 years, explained the process for a disabled person to access the service. She said the first step is to fill out an application and have a doctor sign it; the application is then sent to St. Thomas for certification.
Once the individual is certified, they must call the service 24 hours in advance for pickup. "We do door-to-door service," Joseph said. Riders are charged $2 each way and are allowed one additional stop. "They can go to the doctor and then stop at the supermarket," Joseph said, adding that Vitran Plus services all disabled individuals, including seniors with limited mobility — regardless of income level.
"The number of passengers serviced by Vitran Plus is growing every day," Joseph said, adding there are presently three operable buses.
"This is the only service of its kind on St. Croix, and we are here to stay," she said.
Joseph said she would like to see attendants on the buses to assist the passengers. She said presently only the drivers are available to help. The drivers sometimes go into the homes and assist passengers into the buses. Joseph also mentioned that many disabled homes are not equipped for their special needs, such as handrails and wheelchair ramps. "It makes it very difficult for us and them," Joseph said.
Another top issue for conference attendees is education. Board of Education member Shaun Gibson said the board is very concerned with the state of disabled students in public schools. A big issue with the board is the shortage of nurses at the territory's schools. Gibson said nurses divide time between two schools: spending the morning at one location and the afternoon at another. Gibson noted that at Juanita Gardine School, some severely disabled students require the full-time attention of the school's nurse, leaving little time to attend to other students.
Lamont said there is a silver lining for disabled parents concerned with their children's education. A 1984 group lawsuit filed against the V.I. government, the Department of Education and the commissioner of Education centered on issues regarding lack of teachers and specialized personnel trained to effectively guide disabled students through their academic careers.
Lamont said the terms of the lawsuit have been agreed upon by all parties and that the suit is finally concluding. "This is a wonderful closure to a long-standing battle," said Lamont, who inherited the lawsuit when she accepted her position. Lack of teachers and specialized personnel, such as therapists and psychologists, are still an issue, but the conclusion of the lawsuit is one step in the right direction. "Not to say we've waved a magic wand and everything is rosy," Lamont said.
There will be additional meetings for concerned parents regarding these issues. Lamont urged affected parents to attend a town meeting on Nov. 8 at the Curriculum Center, St. Thomas and Nov 15 at the Curriculum Center, St. Croix. Information on the resolution of the lawsuit along with other issues will be discussed.
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