Archived: Luke Visconti, CEO: Amtrak Humiliates People With Disabilities

I’ve slowly begun to travel for business again.

I had a stroke in May of last year, which paralyzed my left side. I’ve regained some ability to use my affected side, and I am able to walk to some degree, but my left arm is barely functional and my left hand is not functional. One-handed living is difficult. If you want an example, drop your pants (go someplace private) and try to pull them up and get them fastened using just one arm and hand.

There are daily humiliations that you get used to, but I want to relate one story about an organization run so poorly for people with disabilities that it boggles my mind.

I tried to take Amtrak from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. today as I’ve done hundreds of times in my able-bodied life. It was bitterly cold, which plays games with my weak side so I got to the train station 20 minutes early and sat in the dreary and cramped waiting room at Metropark Station (it’s been dreary and cramped for at least 30 years that I know of).

The employees behind the glass in the ticket booth were talking amongst themselves so loudly that it was distracting out in the waiting area. We heard automated announcements that the train I was taking was delayed; the length of the delay changed several times. But I was ready. When the automated announcement came over the public-address system that the train was arriving, I was out of my seat and on the way to the elevator as quickly as I could go; it was far too cold to wait outside. The yackers in the ticket booth were completely detached from the situation.

The first thing that was wrong was a sign saying the elevator was out of service. The sign was fortunately incorrect, and the elevator worked (there was no way I could go up the stairs with my suitcase). Unfortunately, it was full of people who had come off the train I wanted to board. With a sinking feeling, I went up to the platform to see the train pulling out.

For those of you who don’t know, Amtrak requires reserved tickets for its Northeast Corridor trains. I had a reserved ticket in business class and my profile notes my disability. So they knew that a disabled person had a ticket to board that train at that station. I assume they left quickly to try to make up their 40-minute delay.

When I went back to get a refund for my ticket, I was told there would be a $14 service charge. I explained that the announcement left no time for me to reach the platform, but I received the “I just work here and couldn’t care less” shoulder shrug.

Hey, Amtrak, this column is for everyone who was charged $14 for your incompetence back at you.

This isn’t the only problem I’ve experienced with Amtrak post-stroke.

First class on its premium train, the Acela, actually has reserved handicap seating, but every time I’ve taken an Acela (with a first-class reservation), there has been an able-bodied person in that seat. I know they’re able-bodied, because each time the first-class steward has asked me if I wanted him to make that person move.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find having a disability to be ego-damaging enough without having to have a well-meaning person do what should’ve been done without me having to askor without him having to tell somebody who doesn’t have the empathy of a house cat to do the right thing. Not to mention that my reservation included my disability status (this train isn’t cheap), so why wasn’t that seat reserved

One more problem: Traditionally, first class or business class is at the front of the train. This is fine when you’re boarding the train during its route, but when you’re boarding from its origination point, this means there’s an incredibly long walk down the platform to get to the front end of the train.

At Washington, D.C., I’ve passed dozens of Amtrak employees lounging on golf carttype vehicles. They watch me hobble my way down the platform, but are apparently not available to take me or anyone else back and forth.

Again, you have to have a reserved ticket and it’s noted on my frequent traveler profile that I have a disability. Thanks a bunch, Amtrak.

By the way, I was going to Washington to join the board of the National Organization on Disability. Ironic, no

If by any chance this reaches Amtrak CEO Joseph H. Boardman, please don’t send an apologyjust fix the problem. Ride your own train, pretend you have a disability and do some quality control. Write a check for a nice donation from your personal checking account to NOD as penance, use the NOD Employment Disability Tracker and make an effort to hire some people with disabilities. You’re a veteran; find some veterans with disabilities. Create a resource group for people with disabilities and task them with giving you ideas. Be the executive sponsor of that group yourself.

I’m not taking this garbage lying down. I’m going to write a series of these columns in solidarity with the millions of people who don’t have an audience.

P.S.: I’m going to fly on United four times in the next month. I’ll keep you all posted.

I’m leaving from Newark Liberty International Airport, tied with LaGuardia and JFK as the worst run airports that I’ve experienced in the entire worldand I’ve been around the block.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs those airports, should be ashamed of itself. Aside from being astoundingly filthy, Newark is almost bizarrely cruel to passengers, and you can multiply that times 10 for passengers with disabilities.

The only good thing I can say is that there seems to have grown an organic culture of people who provide wheelchair services. You have to go to a specific area on a level that requires you to be dropped off (and there is nowhere else in the airport to request wheelchair services, which means if you drive your own car and park, you’re completely out of luck), but once you get there, these (mostly women) take very good care of you. I think they’re private contractors, just like the curbside check-in peoplebecause they’re so competent and empathetic. One woman said, “I know you had a stroke, because my husband was just like you. Keep going to therapyyou’ll get better.” It really was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

I don’t blame the average worker for the mess that Newark airport isI blame the supervisors. I’m quite sure nobody supervising at the Port Authority could blow their nose without making a mess of their shirt.

The chairman of the Port Authority should be required to work in Terminal A of that horrendous airport. He should be forced to go through the dysfunctional security at that terminal every day. And he should pretend he has a disability. Try to find an accessible spot in the Terminal C parking deck. There’s never one available. There’s no reasonably accessible parking at Terminal A or Bnone.

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