By Dann Denny
Because Tina Lubarsky is legally blind, she relies on the Bloomington Transit bus system to get around town.
But if a bus driver fails to announce the bus route through an external loudspeaker when it arrives at a stop — something that happens quite frequently — Lubarsky has no idea what bus to climb on.
Not long ago, the 40-year-old Lubarsky boarded the No. 8 Bloomington Transit bus, thinking it was the No. 6 bus, because the driver failed to announce the number of his route.
“I saw an outline of the number on the outside of the bus, but I thought it was a 6 and it really was an 8,” said Lubarsky, who has been partially blind since birth. “I didn’t realize it until I felt the driver make a turn. I knew the No. 6 bus goes straight for a long time.”
Lubarsky pulled on a cord notifying the driver with a chime that she wanted to get off at the next stop, which she did. Trouble is, Lubarsky had no idea where she was, so she used her cellphone to call Bloomington Transit headquarters and talked to Eli McCormick, the corporation’s customer service manager.
“I told him I was panicked because I didn’t know where I was,” said Lubarsky, a physical therapist. “He offered to come pick me up, but I said, ‘That’s OK, I’m pretty sure I’m on a sidewalk; just talk me through it.’ Eli stayed on the phone with me for about 10 minutes until I made it back to my bus stop.”
Lubarsky, and three people who are totally blind, told The Herald-Times this week that Bloomington Transit’s 65 bus drivers often don’t follow the municipal corporation’s policy regarding announcements.
BT Director Lew May said the policy requires drivers to make internal announcements to passengers, informing them of key intersections and destinations along the route as they approach them; and to make external route announcements to those waiting at bus stops served by two or more buses.
But visually impaired people say few drivers take the policy seriously.
“The drivers never make the external announcements and make the internal announcements maybe 25 percent of the time,” Lubarsky said. “If you point out the policy, the drivers are not too happy.”
Tuesday, aboard the No. 5 bus that made 11 stops from Jackson Creek Middle School to the Washington and Fourth streets bus station, the driver was friendly — smiling and saying hello to passengers as they boarded — but did not make a single internal or external announcement.
“We know the bus drivers are very busy and have a lot of responsibilities,” Barb Salisbury said. “But if they would just practice this policy for two to three weeks it would become a habit for them, and not a hassle at all.”
May said Bloomington Transit drivers do have a boatload of responsibilities — driving a large bus on congested streets in all kinds of weather, helping passengers in wheelchairs on and off the bus, collecting fares, monitoring passes, keeping in touch with dispatchers on their radio systems and answering passenger questions.
“It’s a challenging job, and safety is always paramount,” he said. “This is not an excuse for drivers not making announcements, but distracted driving has become a national issue in recent years.”
Jeff Busch acknowledges that issue, saying that when he reminds bus drivers of Bloomington Transit’s policy, they often tell him they are too overwhelmed by other responsibilities to remember to make the announcements.
Lubarsky said she sometimes asks a bus driver to at least announce the particular bus stop where she wants to get off. But she said people should not have to ask drivers to comply with a well-known policy.
“There are a lot of older or newly disabled people — or people who are shy or don’t speak English well — who might be reluctant to ask the driver to announce their stop,” she said. “If the drivers would just make the announcements all the time, it would be easier for everyone involved.”
‘An ongoing process’
May said all bus drivers receive training and refresher training regarding the corporation’s announcement policy.
“We emphasize why the policy is important to people with visual impairments,” he said. “They are relying on the drivers’ eyes to orient them, and they need this information to use the bus system.”
May readily admitted that, based on what he knows from field observation and surveillance cameras on the buses, not all drivers comply with the policy.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “The external announcement is only about a year old, though the internal announcement has been there since around 1990. We are continuing to work with drivers to help them be more sensitive to the needs of people with visual impairments.”
May said he’s commended drivers who comply with the policy and disciplined drivers who fail to comply. He said the first violation of the policy results in a written warning, a second offense could result in a suspension and a third offense could result in termination.
“So far, we have not terminated a driver over this issue,” he said.
Lubarsky said she appreciates May’s efforts to deal with the problem.
“He is really trying to make it better, but he needs to keep working on the compliance part of it,” she said. “And the bus drivers are very nice people. They don’t do it maliciously. I just don’t think they fully understand why this issue is so important.”
Make that call
Salisbury, a blind woman who is president of the Heartland Association, a Bloomington chapter of the American Council of the Blind, said drivers would be more diligent about following the policy if people who are blind or have serious vision impairments would call Bloomington Transit (336-7433) whenever a driver fails to make an announcement.
“The reason drivers are not complying is that only a few people are calling Bloomington Transit and reporting it when they don’t get an announcement,” Salisbury said. “And the reason more people aren’t reporting it is because they are afraid of repercussions. If you are blind, your top issue is transportation, and you don’t want the person who’s providing that transportation to be mad at you.”
But Salisbury stressed, and May confirmed, that the complaint calls can be made anonymously, with no fear of retaliation by bus drivers.
A possible benefit
Salisbury said if Bloomington Transit drivers would be more diligent about following the stated announcement policy, it would attract more riders.
“I met with an incoming IU student the other day who is blind,” she said. “His only question to me was, ‘How will I know when the bus that is approaching my stop is my bus?’” she said.
She said Bloomington has a sizeable group of senior citizens, some of whom have stopped driving because of failing eyesight.
“I know it scares older people who are losing their vision to start using the bus system, but if they knew the information would be provided to them that is crucial in getting them from point A to point B, they would be much more willing to give it a try,” she said.
For more information
For more information about this issue, and other issues of interest to people with visual impairments, you can contact Barbara Salisbury, president of the Heartland Association, a local chapter of the American Council of the Blind, at firstname.lastname@example.org.