DISABILITY RIGHTS: A small victory
By Yangkyoung Lee, Herald Staff Writer
Published Monday, April 30, 2007
Debra Ericson, a former internationally certified driver’s license examiner, is no novice to bureau-
But when she found herself “humiliated” and “treated like a second-class citizen” by some Amtrak employees she encountered between Grand Forks and Williston, N.D., she decided to take on the national corporation.
It took more than two years, hundreds of hours on the phone and working with an attorney, but the woman, who sometimes has difficulty lifting her own purse because of a neurological disease that causes constant pains, moved the elephant a little bit.
National Railroad Passenger Corp., aka Amtrak, and Ericson finally reached a settlement in March. It wasn’t exactly what Ericson wanted, but she was satisfied and called it quits.
“They are going to do one thing that I’ve always insisted during the litigation,” Ericson said.
What she really wanted was a sign.
“Now, Amtrak will put up a sign at the Grand Forks Amtrak Station saying that Amtrak welcomes people with disabilities and will assist them with handling their luggage at the station upon request,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said.
This is a dramatic change, considering the lukewarm, if not cold, response she received from the company when she first filed her complaint in 2004.
In a letter dated March 26, 2004, Amtrak wrote that the Grand Forks and Williston stations did not provide special assistance to passengers with disabilities.
Ericson achieved something relatively rare, Black acknowledged.
“I am not afraid of standing up for what I believe in,” Ericson said. “And I believe that I deserve to keep my dignity intact.”
The signs already are set up at the station: one on the platform and the other in the depot.
“I saw the sign yesterday through the window at the station,” Ericson said, her voice shaken with emotion. “It was a beautiful sign.”
Her face was smiling with victory, but her body seems to have been worn out after the long-term battle.
Ericson has fibromyalgia and reflex sympathetic dystrophy; both are rare diseases that affect muscles, causing extreme pain and impairing mobility. Ericson has been officially disabled since 1996.
“It sounds like a small thing, but this means really a lot to the people who need this kind of assistance and don’t know whether that is available or not,” said Faye Gibbens. She is a cofounder and chief program officer of North Dakota Association for the Disabled. “Amtrak is doing the right thing,” Gibbens said. But it seems as if some of Amtrak’s employees weren’t doing the right thing when Ericson used its service in 2003.
When Ericson called Amtrak to make a reservation to visit her daughter about two weeks ahead, she made four requests: accessible seating, assistance with her luggage at the station and assistance in boarding and disembarking from the train.
“The agent said, ‘Sure, we do this all the time. Don’t worry about it,'” Ericson said.
According to the legal document, Ericson’s personal care attendant also called to make sure things will be all right. It was her second time using Amtrak, and last time she used it, she didn’t get the quality of service that she was told she would get, Ericson said.
According to the Amtrak Web site, people who require special assistance have to make reservations two weeks ahead, which Ericson did.
On the scheduled day, Dec. 22, 2003, Ericson encountered a ticket agent who was so rude and treated her “like a second-class citizen,” at the Grand Forks station, she said.
Her pain-causing diseases can trick people’s eyes. Ericson, 52, looks normal. The only apparent indication of her disability is her cane.
The ticket agent told Ericson “it’s not part of my job,” and walked away when she asked for help with her bag, according to Ericson.
She felt everybody’s eyes on her, she said.
“I felt so humiliated,” Ericson said. The “rude” behaviors of Amtrak employees climaxed when two Amtrak employees “grabbed” her arms and lifted her “like a log” when she asked for a ramp to step on to board the train.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees Amtrak’s civil rights compliance, including the Disabilities Act, she should have been provided with a ramp at the time.
On her way back to Grand Forks, she broke into tears while she waited 30 minutes for a conductor to talk to the family who occupied the only seat with a leg extension in the car that should have been reserved for Ericson.
That happened only after she endured “humiliation” while she was waiting for the conductor after a ticket-taker told her, “I don’t want to deal with you. I will get the conductor to deal with you,” in an irritated tone, Ericson said. By then, she couldn’t move her legs because if she folds her legs even for 10 minutes, she cannot stand or move her legs for several hours, Ericson said.
In the course of helping her stand up, the conductor, who told Ericson that he didn’t know how to assist people with disabilities, “dropped” her.
Formal complaintAfter this series of lower-than-standard services, Ericson filed a formal complaint, saying that Amtrak violated Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in January 2004, which led to her filing a lawsuit Dec. 19, 2005, almost two years after the incident.
Over the course of her actions to make the company change its policies regarding the disabled, the Federal Railroad Administration reached a compliance agreement with Amtrak in 2005. Most of the agreement provisions answered the requests Ericson already made through her complaints and lawsuit.
Under the agreement, Amtrak promised to provide two training courses: one for new employees and a refresher course for the current employees.
The railroad agency informed Ericson of the agreement Aug. 25, 2006, and said all the services that she requested should have been provided.
But Ericson wasn’t satisfied with the invisible agreement that people cannot see, and most public are not aware of them. She wanted something solid.
And finally, Amtrak gave in and gave Ericson the signs. In March, Amtrak and Ericson signed a settlement under which both parties agreed not to pursue the case if Amtrak put up signs on both the platform and in the depot at the Grand Forks station. Ericson also received a small amount of monetary compensation.
“This is really big, and Deb doesn’t even realize that,” said Dale Boam, Ericson’s Utah-based attorney who specializes in disability claims. “She fought for equality of access for the people with disabilities and made an amazing change.”
Amtrak still denies that Ericson made a special seating arrangement request when she made her reservation in 2003.
But Cliff Black, Amtrak spokesperson, said the company will abide by the compliance agreement and the disabilities act. Amtrak sold 114,730 tickets in North Dakota in 2006. During the same year, the Grand Forks station sold 19,574 and Williston station sold 21,300.