Imagine being afraid to ride the bus, or being unable to read a timetable. Can you think of what your life would be like without access to a car or mass transit?

There are hundreds of our neighbors who live lives of isolation because they are physically, emotionally or mentally unable to ride the bus or train. Some have physical handicaps while others are autistic or have learning disabilities. Shouldn’t they be able to travel like the rest of us?

That’s the question the non-profit Kennedy Center in Trumbull asked when it was founded in 1951 to assist kids with disabilities. And in 1991 they added a new service to their roster… a Travel Training Program, to teach children and adults how to be independent by using mass transit.

Qualified instructors work one-on-one with clients for days or weeks, teaching them how to get from their homes to doctors’ offices, school or jobs. They show them how to read timetables and escort them onto the trains and buses for dry runs until they’re ready to “fly solo.”

Bus drivers seem anxious to help those in need of a little help, whether it’s by getting their bus to “kneel” for the elderly and infirm, lowering a ramp for those in wheelchairs or just reassuring an autistic teen en route to school.

The Kennedy Center’s Travel Trainers work with 200 clients a year while another team of Mobility Ombudsmen do community outreach, speaking at Senior Centers and Veterans Homes, educating folks on how to get around.

There are ParaTransit services available, but they require reservations as much as weeks in advance and cost the rider double the transit fare. They are also subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of $55 per ride. So getting those riders onto regular trains and buses saves us all money.

And for these disabled residents, money is always a problem, especially if they’re unemployed or living on government assistance. Which is why the Kennedy Center also does outreach to help the disabled and seniors to qualify for half-price fares.

Mobility Manager John Wardzala goes to food banks and helps people fill out state Reduced Fare ID Card applications. He even helps them by taking an ID photo and printing it on a small ink-jet printer plugged into his car before handing them a self-addressed stamped envelope to mail in their application.

Bus fares are only $1.75, but if you’re living on a fixed income traveling to and from work five days a week, that can add up. And if fear of those travel costs as well as apprehension about taking mass transit has kept you from school or a job-search, this program can change your life.

Lisa Rivers, Connecticut Department of Transportation Transit Manager and liaison to the Kennedy Center, says her agency’s job is to “get more people to use the system” by identifying gaps in service and information. For example, some patients may not know that the American Cancer Society offers free rides to the hospital for those undergoing chemo or radiation treatments.

After travel training, the Center checks back with its graduates to see how things are going. One success story stands out: an elderly woman who was able to take the train into the city at Christmas, transfer to a subway and arrive at her son’s apartment who didn’t even know she was coming. Now that is a gift.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.

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