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Woman in wheelchair barred from boarding SEPTA bus

SEPTA says passengers refused to make space for a wheelchair. The woman who was not allowed to board tells a different story.

A SEPTA bus at 7th and Market Street.
A SEPTA bus at 7th and Market Street.Read moreCameron Hart / Staff photographer

A woman with physical disabilities says she was prevented from boarding a SEPTA bus this month even though the bus was equipped to serve disabled passengers.

"I'm angry," Eileen "Spitfire" Sabel, 68, said Tuesday, "very angry and discriminated against."

SEPTA officials acknowledged that a bus driver did not allow Sabel on the bus, but said people were blocking the area where a wheelchair could be secured and they refused to move. There was already a passenger in a wheelchair on the bus, and there were four people in four seats that needed to be vacated to make space for a wheelchair. Three of those people would not move after being asked by the driver.

The transportation authority's policies do not allow drivers to force passengers to move who are blocking the space for wheelchairs, said Josh Gottlieb, director of administration and finance, who handles disability access issues.

"Ultimately, if someone either has a hidden disability or is a jerk, they can choose not to move," he said.

It's not an uncommon situation for people in wheelchairs to face, Gottlieb said, particularly during commuting hours. What's frustrating, he said, is there are often seats at the back of the bus that are empty while the fronts es are overcrowded.

Sabel's incident happened Nov. 2 on the Route 47 bus at Eighth and Poplar Streets at 12:25 p.m., SEPTA confirmed.

SEPTA staff interviewed the bus operator three days after accounts of the incident appeared on social media. The driver said he tried to get the passengers to move, and when they wouldn't, he explained the situation to Sabel. Video taken on the bus confirms his account, said Gottlieb and Carla Showell-Lee, a SEPTA spokesperson, though neither said they had personally seen the video.

Sabel said she did not see people blocking the space available for wheelchairs, at the front of the bus.

"There was no blocking," she said. "There was nobody there. That's why we were so angry."

She said the SEPTA driver told her he was too busy to lower a ramp so she could board. SEPTA did not provide the driver's name Tuesday night.

Sabel's disability makes her speech at times difficult to understand, and a teenager who witnessed some of the exchange between Sabel and the driver was struck by the immediate disadvantage Sabel faced in trying to persuade the driver to let her on the bus.

"Once I got on, I saw her asking him why, or trying to ask why," said Gabriel Bangert, 16. "She can't even defend herself because she has a very hard time speaking."

Showell-Lee was determining Tuesday night whether SEPTA would release the video of the incident.

The driver called his control center to alert dispatch to a person with disabilities who needed a bus, Gottlieb said.

Sabel was picked up by another bus at 12:48 p.m., SEPTA reported, and was dropped off at Spring Garden Street near the offices for Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia advocacy and support organization for people with disabilities.

SEPTA has signs on buses asking passengers to vacate seats to accommodate people in wheelchairs, but drivers do not have the authority to force people out of those seats. That's partly because deciding who has the right to use that space based on appearances could lead to misunderstandings, but also because logistically it would be time-consuming to call the police every time a rider refuses to move.

"As frustrating as it might be that we can't pick her up, it's hard to imagine that type of scenario repeated again and again," Gottlieb said.

Sabel, a member of the national disabled advocacy group ADAPT, is no stranger to the fight for disabled access to public transportation. More than 20 years ago, she blocked the path of SEPTA buses to protest their lack of disabled access. Today, every SEPTA bus has low floors and is equipped with a wheelchair ramp, but she and others with disabilities say they continue to have problems with discrimination from SEPTA staff.

"They have an attitude-impairment problem," said Sabel, who uses a wheelchair due to a traumatic brain injury.

Sabel said encounters with bus drivers who don't try to accommodate her happen at least on a monthly basis. Another advocate, German Parodi, who also uses a wheelchair, said he hasn't had that experience as often, but still has problems with drivers who don't realize SEPTA policy allows an attendant to ride with a person with disabilities free.

"I have to explain it every single time," Parodi said.

Bangert's Facebook post about the incident described his own interaction with the driver.

"I asked the driver why she wasn't being let on [and] he just shook his head no," Bangert wrote in a post that included a picture of Sabel surrounded by students who expressed solidarity with her. "I asked a second time and he tried to ignore and close the door. I put my foot in the door and said if you won't let her on or at least give me an answer as to why, I'm getting off."

Bangert boarded the bus with friends at the same stop where Sabel waited after taking exams at the City School, he said. He saw some of the people in the seats that needed to be cleared getting up to make space for Sabel, but then saw them sit down again when the driver said he wouldn't be able to accommodate the woman. Bus riders were clustered near the front of the bus, he said, leaving many open seats at the rear.

"If everybody got up and everybody moved to the back of the bus like they were supposed to, and some of them were willing to do, she would have been fine," Bangert said.

Bangert and his classmates got off the bus to protest the way Sabel was treated.

Fighting for disabled access to SEPTA has been a long battle. Most stops on the Market-Frankford Line are accessible, but only about half of Broad Street Line stops can accommodate wheelchairs. Many Regional Rail stops are not wheelchair accessible, and only one trolley line, the Route 15, has vehicles equipped with lifts for wheelchairs. SEPTA's paratransit service is described as unreliable, advocates say.

So far, Sabel has not filed an official complaint with SEPTA about her experience. She would like to meet with members of the union representing SEPTA's drivers, she said.