NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — Getting from point A to point B everyday is a pretty simple task for most people in Northwest Arkansas. Most people hop in their cars or maybe ride a bike or rent a scooter to get where they need to go without a second thought.
However, for those who are disabled, it’s a complicated problem.
In part one of Accessible NWA, KNWA/FOX24 introduced you to Kay Kitterman. She’s a Navy veteran who is disabled.
She’s using her experience to make a change as the City of Fayetteville’s American Disabilities Act Representative. She’s helping advocate for better public transportation services, like Ozark Regional Transit’s new On-Demand service.
Rita Reese-Whiting is an Independent Living Specialist at Sources for Community Independent Living in Fayetteville.
“It’s very humbling and it’s also very rewarding,” she said. “I assist people in learning independent living skills after they lost their sight or if they’re losing their sight, especially if they’re an older individual.”
It’s her job to help people walk the path she’s already had to go down herself. She started losing her sight in 2007.
“Nobody ever thinks to look for a blood clot in a healthy 33 year old woman,” she said. “So my symptoms reached the point where it knocked me unconscious for about three-and-a-half days.”
When she woke up, she said she had drastically reduced vision. It continued to deteriorate over the next few months. She said this was a time full of despair for her with a lot of questions she didn’t have answers for.
“I was like, how am I going to live? How am I going to be able to be an equal partner in this marriage? How am I going to be able to go to work?” she said. “I’m never going to be able to drive. How am I going to get around?”
Rita says transportation is a big obstacle for people who are blind.
If I wanted to go to Crystal Bridges, we have an outstanding museum, I have no way to get there,” she said. “I would have to pay $75, $85, $90 one way to use Uber, not everybody can afford that.”
One solution to that is Ozark Regional Transit’s free On-Demand service.
“It basically comes to your location, be that your residency, your place of business, anyone of the bus stop signs, the library, you can designate that as your location,” said Jeff Hatley, spokesperson for ORT. “Then enter your destination into the app and then it’ll take you straight there, as long as it’s within the service area.”
He explained that ORT’s service area covers most of Northwest Arkansas, except in Fayetteville, it only covers from Gregg Avenue east. This is because the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Transit covers the west side of Fayetteville.
He said they have also expanded their coverage in Benton County.
“Up until about a month or two ago, Rogers and Bentonville were exclusively on-demand transit and it worked very well. Ridership went through the roof,” he said. “Rogers has since gone to a hybrid system of some fixed route and some on demand transit.”
However, he said they have limited resources and a large area to cover.
“We have enough buses and infrastructure and staff to cover one of the four cities really well, but not all four,” he said. “And so we’re spreading what we’ve got among four cities, and we’re doing the best we can.”
Hatley said they would love to add more routes and expand their services times, but they need funding to make that happen.
“A lot of the funding is tied to a match,” he said. “If the federal says there’s this money available, but the city says, ‘Well, I’m not interested in doing that match,’ then we don’t get the federal. So it has to be a local investment.”
The Walton Family Foundation has given ORT a grant for a third year in a row that pays for everybody’s fare through the end of 2023 which Hatley said has had a huge impact on making the bus system more accessible.
ORT has federal regulations it has to meet for its passengers who are disabled. All its buses have ramps and special seat buckles to secure a wheelchair, and all its bus drivers are ready to help.
“They’re all trained in how to lock the chair down so that it’s not moving around as the bus moves down,” he said.
As Northwest Arkansas grows, so does its need for reliable public transportation.
“We’re trying to outgrow Northwest Arkansas and be the transit system that this area needs, and that’s a daunting task because this area is growing so fast,” he said.
While great steps have been taken, Rita said she’ll continue to advocate for more.
“Expanding public transportation wouldn’t just help people with disabilities,” she said. “I mean, there’s a huge population here in Arkansas.”
Rita said she’s looking forward to continuing to be a resource for people who are blind. Click here to learn more about Sources for Community Independent Living.