February 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 2

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Sociology translates to public action . . .

This occasional column highlights sociologists who successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Over the years, members of ASA and sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Johanna Olexy (olexy@asanet.org, 202-383-9005 x312) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

Reprise of a Battle Won:
Sociologist Monitors Boston Transit System’s Treatment of the Disabled

The use of his innovative survey and observational methods won the case: Now, Koppel is back,
but at the court’s request.

In 2004, University of Pennsylvania Sociologist, Ross Koppel, was asked by the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) to determine the incidence of abuses to people with disabilities who attempted to use the area’s bus system. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) had a long and undistinguished history of mistreating persons with disabilities (e.g., people in wheel chairs, with walkers or canes, and the frail elderly). Stories of driver abuse to people with disabilities (PWDs) were rampant. Drivers were hostile, assistive equipment was erroneously declared broken by drivers, and PWDs were passed by—all in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and U.S. Department of Transportation regulations. People in wheelchairs would be left in the middle of streets, in traffic, or far from curb cuts; 300-pound wheel chairs were often not secured to the bus, creating a "missile hazard."

GBLS had been in a legal battle with the MBTA for five years, costing both sides millions of dollars. GBLS’s problem was that all of their reports were anecdotal, and anecdotes were insufficient to prove a court case. Also, everyone knew the disabled community was angry at the bus system. Their anger mitigated the value of their depositions about mistreatment and ride failures.

busThis is where Koppel’s sociological skills came in. He said, "My first idea was to use observers with hidden cameras on buses. This was a lousy idea for three reasons: One, this was not cost effective, as there are insufficient numbers of PWDs riding buses. Two, there are a few routes with many PWDs on them, for example, routes that passed by hospitals or rehab centers, but the study had to represent the "system," not just a few routes; and three, there was some quirky WWI-era law seemingly outlawing taking photographs on buses."

Koppel, who has taught research methods at Penn for 17 years, quickly understood that he had to assemble a group of testers—PWDs in wheelchairs, with canes, or using walkers—who he would send throughout the bus system with a scientifically designed sampling method. Moreover, because the disabled community would not accept faux-disabled, those testers needed to be genuinely disabled. Also, knowing that the court would not believe reports by PWDs themselves, he realized each tester would have to be accompanied by a trained observer with no prior involvement in these cases.

"I had conducted scores, maybe hundreds, of evaluations and had written academic works on evaluation methods," said Koppel, "but this was a massive undertaking by any scale. We had elaborate communication systems, back up supervisors, and special emergency cab services. The project director was, no kidding, a full Commander in the U.S. Navy who had run multinational amphibious landing exercises."

The project hired 20 teams of PWDs paired with observers, trained them on Koppel’s eight-page observation schedule, and sent them to pre-selected spots throughout the bus system. Each team measured about 120 aspects of the ride, including, for example, measures of pulling to the curb and positioning the bus so a lift or ramp can be used; operating of the lift, ramp, and kneeler; helping the PWD reach the safety area; Securing a wheel chair to the bus (there are straps built into the floor), or helping a frail elderly passenger to a seat.

The Results

Koppel’s team collected almost a thousand observations of PWDs using buses. In his final report—several hundred pages in length—he combined the parenthetical comments from the observers with the quantitative data from the observation forms. They found MBTA bus service for people with disabilities evidenced pervasive patterns of non-compliance in most areas of operation. While drivers generally sought to accommodate people with disabilities, the ratios of (reported) failed equipment, seemingly untrained drivers, and refusals of service were high. Barriers to public transit use were everywhere.

What Happened Next?

Koppel anticipated the transit system would continue their legal battle and would hire a battery of statisticians, engineers, etc., to refute his findings. But, that’s not what happened.

The transit system’s leaders and their lawyers read the report, and to Koppel’s shock, they called it "the most definitive study of transportation for the disabled ever conducted." Then they capitulated entirely, and they put up the funds to fix it—one-third billion dollars to buy new buses and to hire managers to oversee the programs for PWDs. The court-approved agreement also involved new driver training programs and, critically, monitoring.

The Return of the Sociologist

After the report and the extraordinary settlement, the court tried to develop its own monitoring system of the MBTA. They found, however, that running even a mini-version of the original study was far more difficult than they anticipated. The court then reached out to Koppel and colleagues to become the monitors of the system. This is what he has been doing for the past 18 months.

These injustices go beyond the Boston-area transit. The city of Detroit’s bus system was also involved with disputes about treatment of the disabled. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) approached the Pennsylvania-based team, and they are now in the second phase of monitoring Detroit’s buses. Other areas will undoubtedly follow.

Koppel says he sees this research as an example of the power of sociology when applied to real problems. Even the DOJ was sufficiently aware of the complex measurement and sampling issues that it also promoted this approach. Koppel, who both takes public transportation and who jogs daily, added, "We are all getting older and we are all just one slip away from needing a little help. A bus that can extend a ramp or lower its front step is a reasonable accommodation. If sociological methods can help ensure transit systems comply with the laws, then this is an especially rewarding application of our discipline." logo_small


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