Ruby Caskey is in that disability-check nowhere land: She gets enough money to eat, buy necessities and pay her cell-phone bill, but not enough to pay rent. So, she lives at the corner of 16th Street and National Avenue, up against a tarp-covered fence, across from Reliable Pipe Supply and next to the stop for the 901 bus heading to Coronado.
To the 52-year-old West Virginia native, Coronado's a little bit of heaven-on-Earth. “I just love it over there,” she said. It's where she has her post-office box and where, unlike in San Diego, she's allowed to spend the day at the library, her nose buried in a book—literally, since optic neuritis, a side-effect of her multiple sclerosis, messes with her vision.
But Caskey's been banned from the bus. It started a few months ago, when buses would simply pass her up, or they'd stop and the driver would tell Caskey there was no room for her wheelchair—the two slots were already full, even though Caskey could see that they weren't.
Caskey's not a normal wheelchair user. She doesn't sit in her chair; she walks behind it, using it for balance and to carry her belongings. Diagnosed with MS 18 years ago, she's still mobile, but when the disease flares up, walking becomes difficult.
“I lose my balance and fall really easily,” she said. “My legs don't want to hold me up; I have muscle spasms.”
And, since she's homeless, there's no place to put her possessions but in the chair. According to a letter to a legal advocate working on Caskey's behalf, sent by Jim Byrne, Metropolitan Transit System's director of transportation, MTS's “Rules for Riding” say that a person's belongings must be small enough to “fit on your lap or at your feet” and that Caskey's use of the chair to transport personal belongings, “precludes its use as a mobility device.”
“In the Americans with Disabilities Act, it doesn't say anything about ‘You have to be sitting in your chair,'” said Elizabeth Grumet, an advocate with Disability Rights California who's been working with Caskey to get her bus access restored. “It's supposed to be interpreted as broadly as possible to provide access to people with disabilities. It's not supposed to be read by some agency as a narrow interpretation. It doesn't say in the ADA that she has to sit in the chair.”
Until seven months ago, Caskey was able to ride the bus with little hassle. She had an electric wheelchair and managed to strap all of her belongings on the back and sit in the seat (she's relied on a chair off and on for the last 18 years, she said). She'd get looks from some drivers, but she wasn't denied access. Then the chair broke down and couldn't be repaired.
“I had to go through Medi-Cal to get another one approved,” Caskey said. “Medi-Cal takes a long time—it can take six months. With me being outside, what was I supposed to do? I can't leave all of my stuff.”
Caskey initially contacted Disability Rights California after receiving an illegal-lodging ticket. According to the terms of a court settlement between the city of San Diego and attorneys representing the homeless, police can't ticket anyone for sleeping on public property between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. Caskey was ticketed at 5:40 a.m., but Grumet was able to get the ticket dismissed by arguing that Caskey's disabilities result in her taking longer to get her belongings together.
Caskey told Grumet that she'd been having problems with buses—not only the 901, but also other routes she took to get to church and to medical appointments. Sometimes she'd be waiting for three hours until a driver who knew her would stop, or she'd get on the phone to an MTS manager and explain that she was stranded.
Grumet put in a call to MTS's customer-service line and got a woman named Belinda Fragger.
“She seemed really appalled and really concerned,” Grumet said. “She said to make sure Ruby has an MTS disability card. [She] asked which routes she was being denied on and at what time. She said, ‘I want to get these routes to make sure we train these guys on giving her accessibility.'”
“I thought, Wow, they're super-concerned about this,” Grumet added.
Grumet followed up the phone call with a letter confirming that Caskey has an MTS disability card (a card issued to riders who've proven that they're legitimately disabled) and listing the troublesome routes. She also cited applicable ADA law.
A week later, Grumet received a letter from Byrne, the director of transportation; around the same time, a bus driver told Caskey that she'd been banned from all routes.
Byrne's letter included a photo of Caskey setting up her tent for the night, taken by an MTS employee without Caskey's knowledge. The photo, Byrne wrote, proved that Caskey is not only able to walk, but that she “uses the wheelchair to transport her personal belongings, not to stabilize her walking.”
Byrne told Grumet that MTS was “happy to transport [Caskey] as an ambulatory passenger or as a wheelchair passenger with the parcel limitations as referenced in our ‘Rules of [sic] Riding.'” But, other than that, he explained, she wouldn't be allowed on the bus or trolley.
“It's just a little bit odd that they included this as some kind of proof that she's not using the chair,” Grumet said of the photo. “I've met with her so many times and she'll either lean on the chair or walk with it.”
“We never questioned that she had a disability,” said MTS spokesperson Rob Schupp. The photo, he said, was intended to illustrate that Caskey's chair was full to the point of being a potential hazard to other riders, should something come loose.
Caskey insists that her belongings are secure, held down by heavy-duty locking nylon straps. “What I wish I could do,” she said, “I wish I could take you on the bus, put my wheelchair in and show you that it is not a safety hazard, in no way.”
Caskey said she hopes her new motorized chair will be delivered this week. She called MTS on Monday and left a message letting them know that she plans to be riding soon and that she'll do her best to comply with their rules. But to get the chair, she'll have to make special arrangements with the delivery driver to meet her at her East Village corner and hope that her cell-phone doesn't run out of battery power before those calls happen. Then she'll have to make arrangements to get her manual chair back to the church that loaned it to her.
Aside from those logistical difficulties, she's sure she'll be able to get all of her belongings secured to the back of her new chair—she's mentally mapped it out—though she acknowledges that she might have to strap one backpack under her feet and carry another in her lap. MTS's Schupp said it'll be up to each driver to determine if Caskey's set-up is safe.
Even if she's able to get bus access back, she'll still need to deal with the problems that come with her new chair—the fact that its battery lasts for about four hours before needing to be recharged and that it's a hot commodity on the street. She doesn't think that chaining it to the fence will be enough to protect it from theft. She used to put her chair in her tent at night, but, recently, police officers told her that tents were no longer allowed. So, now, she goes through the drawn-out process of dragging her flat tent over her manual chair, then crawling inside, using the tent almost like an extra-large sleeping bag.
If and when she gets her motorized chair and it's stolen, Medi-Cal rules say she'll have to wait seven years for another one.