Journey home: Searching for an accessible way to visit family

Christine Wilk loves being an aunt. “They are so cute,” she says, of her three nephews and one niece. “It’s such a highlight for me to go and see them.”

Women in motorized wheelchair with toddler nearby

Christine, who lives in permanent supportive housing in Mount Prospect, is not far from her parents in Roselle or from her brother in Schaumburg. But without an accessible car, it is difficult for her family to pick her up for visits. The motorized wheelchair that Christine uses weighs more than 100 pounds. “Anytime I want to go see them, we have to get me into the car. I have to transfer from the wheelchair to the car, and then from the car to the wheelchair,” says Christine, 41. “It’s a big deal. It’s not fun to do. And it takes a lot of work.”

In most other situations, Christine travels on Pace paratransit, which provides curb-to-curb transportation with accessible vans. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public transit agencies to provide paratransit for riders with disabilities who aren’t able to use the fixed-route bus or rail system.

But paratransit isn’t available everywhere. Passengers — who must first apply and be found eligible — must start and end their trips within three-quarters of a mile of an existing CTA or Pace bus route or CTA train station, according to federal ADA regulations. Christine’s apartment is near the 606 Pace bus. But because there is no public transit near her family, she can’t take paratransit to visit them.

Paratranist map

Recently, Christine’s mother considered moving to a new home in Rolling Meadows — closer to Mount Prospect — with the idea that Christine could travel there via paratransit. This would allow her to gather with family more frequently. But despite emphasizing to the realtor the importance of paratransit, it wasn’t until later in the process that they realized the home fell just outside of Pace’s service area. They passed on the home.

“I don’t think the realtor understood how important paratransit is,” Christine says. “A lot of people don’t.”

For Christine, fixed-route public transit isn’t an option because of the lack of local sidewalks. “Either the curb cuts aren’t good or sometimes there aren’t any sidewalks at all — just a bus stop in the grass,” Christine explains. “How is somebody in a wheelchair going to do that?”

So paratransit is the primary way Christine travels around the region, from trips to her local Walmart for groceries and movie theater, to doctor’s visits in downtown Chicago.

Over time, Christine has learned to navigate the paratransit system. The service, which costs $3.25 per ride, is only available the same hours as the nearby fixed-route bus, and each trip must be reserved by calling a phone number 24 hours before. That means everything Christine does must be planned in advance — no last-minute trips to the store for a gallon of milk. “I’m just so used to it by now that I’ve learned to always be organized and plan ahead. That’s probably why I’m good at my job,” says Christine, who is a recovery support specialist at the Kenneth Young Center.

Still, requested pick-up times on paratransit aren’t always available. And because the van picks up other passengers along the way, the route is often indirect, leading to long trips.

At times, Christine has passed by her apartment’s front door on a ride home but hasn’t been able to get off, because the schedule requires the driver to pick up a passenger in a different suburb first. “It is so aggravating,” she says.

Because Christine lives and works in the same building, she is thankful she doesn’t have to stress about getting to work on time.

But transportation challenges stand in the way of other goals — not just visiting family more often, but also returning to school. “I have talked a lot about doing it. But getting to Harper College in Palatine on paratransit would be a whole thing that I don’t even want to think about,” says Christine, who is working toward an associate’s degree in human services. “That’s part of the reason why I haven’t done it yet.”

Lately, Christine and her mother have been looking into resources for buying an accessible van instead. Her caregiver could drive the van when they go on errands, or her family could when picking her up for visits.

Christine doesn’t want to miss out on any time with her nephews and niece. “They’re so fun right now, because they are young,” she says. “They’re still in that cute phase.”

To learn how to develop an ADA transition plan for your community, visit CMAP’s accessibility page.