Approximately 30,000 people use the Greater Dayton Regional Transit system every day. RTA officials say 21 percent of those riders have a disability.
In an effort to better serve that population, RTA requires new drivers to complete an immersive, day-long training led by people with disabilities, and designed to give bus drivers personal insight into what many passengers with disabilities experience in their daily commutes.
The most recent training session took place in late June at the Access Center for Independent Living in Dayton.
Six newly hired Greater Dayton RTA drivers and supervisors gather in a large fluorescent-lit room with volunteers from the Access Center for Independent Living in Dayton.
Tables have been set up, each one manned by a volunteer, who hands each driver a different piece of equipment designed to simulate a vision, hearing, or dexterity impairment, such as a sleep mask, a pair of dark goggles or noise-canceling headphones.
“What I really want you to think about is your day-to-day activities, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed,” says Access Center Assistant Director Greg Kramer.
He tells the drivers the exercises they will go through today will give them important insight into what it’s like to live with a disability.
Kramer has used a wheelchair for most of his life, following a diving accident in his youth.
“I want you to think about what you experience at each table and how that disability would impact your life. And again, each station, the person that’s going to be training you has that disability,” he says.
At one table, volunteer Vicki Logue instructs two drivers who have had their hands bound in gauze. Their challenge? To sign a check - as if they were paying a bill - put that check into an envelope, then seal it, stamp it, and send it.
Without the use of hands, this everyday task becomes a monumental challenge. The drivers awkwardly use their elbows, trying to work the pens, paper and stamps. It takes them almost 10 minutes to complete the activity.
At another table, Doug Dodridge, who has a hearing impairment, demonstrates sign language for the drivers, and has them try on noise canceling headphones to give them an idea of what a world without sound feels like.
Advocates say many people with hearing and speech impediments are often mistaken for having a cognitive disability or being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
It's just one of the misconceptions that many people with disabilities often face.
On the other side of the room, volunteer Wanda Sloan presents two more drivers with another challenge. Sloan is visually impaired. And although she herself is able to see differences in light and shadow, she plunges the drivers into total darkness.
She instructs each driver to put on a sleep mask. With the masks on, each driver given a walking cane.
Sloan leads them out into the halls of the building. The drivers are completely out of their element as they try to navigate the hallway.
“Come on, come on!”
Sloan coaxes the drivers forward, as they learn to use the cane. Sloan tells them how to listen for differences in sound as the canes tap along hallway walls and floor tiles.
“This cane will let you know when something is happening. It’s to protect you," she says.
After the exercise, Sloan asks the drivers for their reaction to experiencing a visual impairment.
“That was scary, uncomfortable,” two drivers agree.
“Since I’m tall, I was worried I’d get clonked in the head or trip over something,” one says.
Sloan says, with practice, a person with visual impairment develops an ability to differentiate with a cane between environments and surfaces such as grass or concrete.
Access Center employee Richard Ball says more experiential trainings are needed to help people without disabilities become more aware of what people with disabilities go through.
In addition to the RTA, the Access Center also offers trainings to schools, businesses and organizations throughout Dayton and the Miami Valley.
Ball has faced his share of disabilities and currently uses a walking cane to get around. He says people with disabilities are sometimes treated by others as if they are invisible.
“Most times you’re in a wheelchair you’re down to low because nobody really sees you, but when they see you they’re looking at you like there’s something wrong with you. It makes them scared, in a way, to be out into the public," he says.
And that fear of being out in public –– how people with disabilities are seen by others –– is at the heart of the next exercise the drivers will have to go through.
Volunteers assign each driver a manual wheelchair. As first-time wheelchair users, they’re unsteady as they practice in the hallway.
A van pulls up outside the Access Center to take them to downtown Dayton. But the drivers don’t just pile in and take a seat. Instead, they line up their wheelchairs and wait to be loaded into the van.
One by one, Access Center staff loads the drivers into a van using a chair lift.
Once inside, the drivers’ wheelchairs are carefully strapped and secured in place. It’s a service the new drivers will have to provide to passengers once they're are assigned routes of their own.
After a short drive, the van arrives at the RTA transit hub between Main and Jefferson streets in downtown Dayton.
After unloading onto the sidewalk, the drivers wheel their wheelchairs toward a nearby food-court plaza. But first, they have to negotiate their way around sidewalk construction scaffolding and through a narrow passageway.
Finally, the drivers enter the plaza and steer their wheelchairs through the busy midday crowd.
The group draws stares from many of the plaza’s visitors.
It’s an eye-opening experience for RTA driver James Thompson, who says the exercise has helped him better relate to passengers with disabilities.
“Before I started the training I always thought about it, especially when I see somebody that’s handicapped, you know, to help them - like that gentleman did back there when I was trying to come in, [he] opened the door for me. So, it’s a very humbling experience, what I’m going through right now, and to see what people that are handicapped go through on a day-to-day basis.”
Back at the Access Center later that afternoon, Greg Kramer, the volunteers and drivers sit at long tables to share what they learned during the training.
“I think we really open up their eyes,” he says. “We get them to understand different types of disabilities and we hope that they take that with them, and then they can also become advocates.”
Kramer says he hopes the drivers will walk away with a better understanding of the transit passengers they serve.