The National Disability Rights Network published today the findings of a study it conducted in recent months on Amtrak accessibility. NDRN advocates visited 94 Amtrak stations in 25 states and Washington DC. They found accessibility issues in 89.

That is, 89 out of the 94 train stations studied were inaccessible to people with one or another disability. Wow.

The report found that barriers ranged from inaccessible restrooms to platforms that were not level with the trains. (Ever climb up onto a train at Washington’s Penn Station? You practically need mountaineering skills.) Other stations failed to offer ramps or elevators as an alternative to stairs. Although the report didn’t mention it, even in stations with escalators, like New York’s Penn Station, the escalators often don’t work.

In addition to accessibility issues for those in wheelchairs, the advocates also found barriers to people with hearing loss—no visual displays of train departures, arrivals, delays and so on. They also found inadequate handicapped parking.

Curt Decker, executive director of NDRN was blunt in his assessment of the report: “Our reviews show that Amtrak’s negligence goes beyond simply ignoring the Americans With Disabilities Act, but demonstrates a deliberate disregard for passengers with disabilities.”

An Amtrak spokesman, Steve Kulm, replied that all stations have accessible seating and restrooms.

Tell that to Jack Kovalski, who commented on the NDRN site: He travels regularly between Atlanta and Birmingham. At the Birmingham station he has to ride in the freight elevator with the luggage. That’s not his main gripe (in fact he quite generously says he doesn’t expect Amtrak to install a new passenger elevator at the station). His main issue is that once he gets into the station, the restroom is non-accessible. A year ago he suggested a simple fix: grab bars to help people in wheelchairs move themselves from chair to toilet. Pretty modest request. A year later the grab bars have still not been installed.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm wobbled all over the place in trying to justify Amtrak’s lack of access. Amtrak is working hard to beef up access he said. Improvements have been made at over 200 stations. All stations have accessible seating and restrooms. Then, clearly desperate for an explanation for Amtrak’s dilatory progress, he added that Amtrak owns just a small percentage of the nearly 500 stations .

Amtrak’s president, Joe Boardman, agrees there are problems. “We are not satisfied with the pace of our progress on accessibility issues,” he said last summer. Maybe he should try listening to the sensible and doable suggestions of patrons like Jack Kovalski and start with the easy things. Grab bars cost less than $100 and as little as $25. Installation is not complicated.

As for accessibility for people with hearing loss, Amtrak has installed looping at two of its New York Penn Station ticket booths. But looping is only as good as the person behind the window. If they don’t know how to turn on the loop, or would prefer to wave away your request, they don’t help much. They also aren't helpful for the Deaf, or for people with hearing aids that don't have telecoils. Not to mention the vast majority of those with hearing loss who don't have hearing aids—out of fear of stigma, cost, or possibly self-denial.

Oral announcements—Train Number %xTB??B leaving on Track [Garble] in [Garble] Minutes!— certainly aren’t accessible to those with hearing loss. But even those with normal hearing would benefit from visual displays of the information. They've figured it out in the New York City subway system. Amtrak, what's stopping you???? 

About the Author

Katherine Bouton

Katherine Bouton, a former editor at The New York Times, is the author of Shouting Won't Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can't Hear You.

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