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Passengers, not SEPTA bus driver, blocked rider in wheelchair, video shows

Access to public transit for a disabled person can depend on the whims of other passengers.

A view of commuters and pedestrians at the SEPTA bus station, Olney terminal N. Broad and Olney, Philadelphia, Christmas afternoon December 25, 2017. Trolleys, buses and trains are an efficient way to move lost of people opting to get out of cars.
A view of commuters and pedestrians at the SEPTA bus station, Olney terminal N. Broad and Olney, Philadelphia, Christmas afternoon December 25, 2017. Trolleys, buses and trains are an efficient way to move lost of people opting to get out of cars.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The video shows a woman in a motorized wheelchair at the door of the SEPTA bus gesturing at the driver. She's clearly frustrated.

The driver has told her she can't get on the Route 47 bus. Other riders step around her to board the bus, which wasn't low enough for her wheelchair to scale. She argues, but in the end, the doors close, and the bus leaves without her.

From the perspective of the woman, Eileen Sabel, the driver denied her a trip on public transit Nov. 2, and her experience drew sympathy from high school students, who got off the bus in a show of solidarity. One of them posted about the experience on Facebook.

>>READ MORE: Woman in wheelchair barred from boarding SEPTA bus

A video, taken by multiple cameras that SEPTA allowed an Inquirer and Daily News reporter to view, tells a different story:

In the video, the driver repeatedly asks passengers to vacate four seats needed to make space for a wheelchair as Sabel approaches at Eighth and Poplar Streets. As she waits outside, the driver stands and walks toward the passengers, apparently again asking them to move. The video, which does not include audio, shows passengers standing in the aisle on the crowded bus move back and two people getting up quickly. A third stands more slowly, while a fourth passenger remains seated. The driver then steps off the bus, speaks to Sabel briefly, and gets back on board.

The video shows that the student who posted on Facebook to advocate for Sabel was not on the bus when the driver asked passengers to move.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, and it requires new public transportation buildings and vehicles to be accessible for people with disabilities. All SEPTA buses are equipped with ramps that are extended to allow a wheelchair to board, and each bus has two spaces at the front to accommodate wheelchairs. The bus Sabel tried to board picked up another rider in a wheelchair shortly before it reached her, and the video shows the driver assisting that passenger in boarding and securing the chair with straps installed on the bus.

When the driver realized he wouldn't have space for Sabel, the video showed him signal SEPTA's control center that he had to leave a person in a wheelchair, and to alert the next bus on the route that it should be prepared to accommodate her. Another bus picked up Sabel about 20 minutes after the first bus arrived. If the next bus couldn't transport her, SEPTA would have sent another vehicle specifically for her, said Scott Sauer, SEPTA's assistant general manager of system safety.

SEPTA policy states a driver should ask passengers to clear areas designated for wheelchairs but cannot make people move. When the fourth person didn't get up, the driver, whom SEPTA declined to identify, had no option but to ask Sabel to wait for the next bus.

"In this case our operator demonstrated everything we'd want him to do in that situation," Sauer said.

Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia advocacy group for the disabled, says there's something wrong when a wheelchair user's travel can be dictated by the whims of other passengers.

"If there are able-bodied individuals in the seats reserved for disabled passengers, the driver should not simply deny the disabled individual a ride," said Lauren Alden, the organization's manager of independent living services.

Alden said she still regularly hears complaints about bus drivers who pass by when they see a person in a wheelchair at a stop. Drivers sometimes say they are late and don't have time to board a person in a chair, Alden said.

Most drivers are sympathetic to people with disabilities, said Willie Brown, head of the union representing city transit workers, and they don't relish having to leave a person in a wheelchair behind.

"We understand that a person in a wheelchair, none of us knows what tomorrow holds for us, so that could be one of our family," Brown said. "We're put between a rock and a hard place."

The video of the incident on the Route 47 bus highlights a problem that is difficult to resolve.

"Honestly it's a very complicated issue, and there are a lot of different ways to look at it," said John Morris, an Orlando, Fla., man who uses a wheelchair and writes the blog

SEPTA's policy is designed, in part, to protect people whose disabilities aren't visible at a glance, officials said. A bus driver should not decide based on appearances who has a right to designated spaces.

The policy also aims to avoid conflicts that could come with a driver insisting that passengers move. Like SEPTA, transit agencies in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., have wheelchair-accessible vehicles and their drivers may ask, but not insist, that passengers make space for people in wheelchairs.

>>READ MORE: Should Philly follow Boston and remake paratransit with ride hailing?

Drivers elsewhere have been faced with passengers who decline to yield to people in wheelchairs. Earlier this month, a bus driver in Paris dealt with passengers' refusal to make space for a man in a wheelchair by insisting everyone get off the bus, according to the British publication the Evening Standard, and then drove away with just one rider: the man in the wheelchair. SEPTA officials said the Parisian driver's approach risks leading to a serious conflict between driver and passengers. Morris suggested the best solution was to follow London's lead and use buses that simply don't have any seating in areas designated for wheelchairs.

Even that wasn't enough to ensure space, though. Wheelchair users there found themselves battling against parents with strollers for the space. Last year a British court ruled transit agencies should protect the rights of disabled riders, according to the Guardian, and in March, the country's transport minister promised drivers would do more for people in wheelchairs.

SEPTA considers new bus designs as it makes purchases, though it already has more than 500 buses in the pipeline for delivery through 2021, but would not remove the folding seats on its buses now. Those are useful for people who are elderly or disabled but don't use wheelchairs, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch, and doing without them could cost up to six seats.

"We're maximizing what we have available," he said.