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Disabled want more help getting around

Blind Activities of Spring Hill is asking the county for more affordable, reliable transportation.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


When Clyde Spindler's wife died four years ago, his world shrank to the size of a double-wide trailer.

There, a talking clock shouts time on the hour, and he uses a bulky desktop magnifier, much like a library microfiche machine, to read and pay bills.

The cataract surgery that he had hoped might save his sight turned out to be a waste of time and money after doctors discovered macular degeneration in both eyes that would eventually leave him legally blind.

Spindler, who lost his right arm and shoulder to cancer in 1942, can't read a book or a newspaper. Television images disappear into the black hole that makes up his central vision. He handed over his driver's license in December 1996, and, aside from short walks he takes around High Point with his dog, Nibbles, he doesn't get out much anymore.

But Spindler, whose daughter and son-in-law moved in with him a few years ago, knows he's better off than others he has met through a support group at Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired & Blind.

Some people do not have family or friends to rely on.

"There's a tendency to curl up and get in a corner and drop out of society altogether," said Spindler, 88. "Most people curl up in a corner and they become self-imposed exiles."

Spindler is among several members of a small, loosely organized group called Blind Activities of Spring Hill who are calling for increased and cheaper alternatives for public transportation for disabled residents in Hernando County.

There is a vast population of shut-ins, they say, that is underserved by Trans-Hernando, a subsidized bus service for the elderly and disabled.

According to Steve Diez, a county transportation planner, the most recent estimates showed that of Hernando's 127,000 residents in 1999, roughly 77,000 qualified as "transportation disadvantaged," meaning they are physically or mentally challenged, over 60 or Medicaid recipients.

Diez said Trans-Hernando carried slightly more than 4,100 people in 1999, which translates to about 5.4 percent of the people who qualified.

Trans-Hernando, which is operated by Mid-Florida Community Services, is set up to provide bus service with priority placed on medical and nutritional needs, said the agency's transportation director, Richard Cook. People can get rides for haircuts and shopping trips, but only as space allows.

Appointments must be made before noon a day in advance, and fees depend on income, as compared to federal poverty guidelines. Round-trip costs vary from $2 to $10, and pickups run between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Cook said the service is designed to help the disadvantaged get "the basic necessities of life," rather than to meet every transportation request. He said he is frustrated with complaints from Spindler and others, saying there is simply not enough money available to satisfy their calls for door-to-door service, on demand.

"I've heard them for three years," Cook said. "They want personal service wherever they want to go, and they want it free. I think they're unrealistic."

Ben Barnhart, a vocal critic of Trans-Hernando who sits on the county's Transportation Disadvantaged Local Coordinating Board, called such comments insensitive.

"I don't think Richard Cook understands what it's like to truly be in exile," Barnhart said.

Barnhart, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, hasn't driven in 12 years. His income makes him ineligible for reduced fees, but he said he cannot afford Trans-Hernando at $10 per round trip.

"I can't go anywhere without someone taking me," he said. "My good fortune is that I'm married and my spouse has not passed away."

Others, like Peg Williams, are not so lucky.

Williams, a widow who lives in High Point, relies on her niece, who has designated each Thursday "Aunt Peg Day," reserving the time for doctor's appointments, errands and shopping.

Williams, 86, moved to Hernando County from outside Portland, Ore., where mass transit was readily accessible. Making the adjustment to rural Hernando County has not been easy.

She says local cab fares are too much, citing routine trips that have cost between $17 and $27.

As for the county's plan to institute a limited fixed-route bus service in spring 2002, Williams is skeptical.

"You need a bus to get to the bus, and that doesn't make sense," she said.

Spindler said he plans to propose that county commissioners spend $200,000 to buy a fleet of cars to serve disabled residents, then spend $200,000 annually to keep the service running.

He suggests charging fees for county parks and boat ramps as a way to raise money.

But County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, who also serves as chairwoman of the local coordinating board, said she would not support such an initiative.

Instead, she and Diez said, the county is studying a way to build a volunteer network of drivers that would help fill the void, much like a service operating by and for military veterans.

Robinson said the volunteer service could work together with the planned limited bus routes, provided questions about insurance liability could be answered.

Meanwhile, she added, there are two bills pending in the state Legislature that could affect how much transportation money the county gets, bringing more uncertainty to the matter.

Robinson acknowledged there is an unmet need for service, but said she would like to know more about how people are managing without government assistance.

"They must be making alternative arrangements," she said. "I would expect families, neighbors and churches are involved. There are those who may not be managing very well."

Robinson and Commissioner Betty Whitehouse, who has been instrumental in developing a senior council that will study, among other things, transportation issues, said they will push to help get a volunteer program started.

Any solutions will likely require deft financial planning and finding a balance between government and personal responsibility, said Jean Rags, county director of social services.

"I just wish I could whip up the money that's needed to answer all their problems and concernes," Rags said. "Unfortunately, I don't have the ability to do that."

Spindler said he probably will not live to see the improvements but will keep lobbying county officials.

"I'm fighting for the next generation," he said.

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