Saving STAR – A Tale About What Self and Systems Advocacy Can Achieve

By Doris Ray, Director of Advocacy

This is the fifth part of a series of articles celebrating ECNV’s 40th Anniversary. This article continues to focus on the people and events surrounding ECNV’s founding in April 1982.

Specialized Transportation for Arlington Residents, or STAR, is a locally operated, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complementary paratransit service provided by Arlington County. STAR was established in 1998 as an alternative to Metro Access, the regional ADA paratransit service operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

At the time STAR was started, Metro Access was a new program, and it was woefully under-funded. Patrons frequently experienced extraordinarily long waits to be picked up by Metro Access vehicles, excessively long rides on vehicles, and many other problems, and most wanted an alternative. Additionally, for many people with disabilities taxi rides were not an alternative since there were no wheelchair accessible taxi cabs.

As a result, Arlington County collaborated with Red Top Cab and Diamond Transportation to create STAR, and STAR still serves Arlington residents with disabilities, and seniors, who demonstrate they are unable to use fixed route public transit such as Metro rail and bus or ART bus due to their disability for some or all of their trips. One must be eligible to use Metro Access in order to ride STAR. However, most prefer to ride STAR.

That’s why this past Spring a group of STAR riders sounded the alarm when officials in the Arlington County Transportation Services Division announced that they planned to institute a proposed slate of policy and procedural changes in July 2022. As members of the Arlington disability community, they opposed the proposed changes, protesting that they would negatively impact the ability of people with disabilities to live independently, work and fully participate in the community. They also objected to the proposed STAR changes being implemented without an adequate opportunity for STAR riders to comment on them.

Some of the most egregious changes being proposed included:

  • Increasing the vehicle pick-up window from 20 minutes to 30 minutes, i.e., the customer must be ready and waiting to board the vehicle from 15 minutes before the scheduled pick-up time to 15 minutes after the vehicles scheduled arrival time.
  • Shortening the time, the vehicle will wait for the customer will wait for the customer has to get to and board the vehicle after its arrival from 10 minutes to five. If the customer does not show up within 5 minutes a no-show will be issued and too many no-shows can result in penalties.
  • Dispensing with the “Will Call” option for a return trip when a customer is at a medical appointment, pick up prescriptions or arrives back from a long-distance trip on airplane, train or bus. Using these modes may result in early or late arrival times that cannot be predicted in advance, and
  • Imposing new penalties for late cancellations or no-shows by patrons without providing specific policies for how the penalties will be assessed, what they will be, what sanctions will be imposed, and how to appeal if the customer does not agree.

In April 2022, a group of STAR riders formed a consumer advocacy coalition which they dubbed SOS. The acronym SOS stood for the Save Our STAR Coalition. They approached ECNV about becoming a member of their coalition and assisting them to develop and implement an advocacy strategy aimed at preventing the proposed changes in STAR policy and operating procedures from going into effect in July until county officials provided STAR riders and other interested parties the opportunity for public comment and input on any changes in how STAR should be providing services.

It wasn’t unusual for Arlington citizens with disabilities to approach ECNV about participating in advocacy efforts designed to address disability rights issues and advocate for improvements in community services. ECNV, as a disability community resource and advocacy center run by and for Northern Virginians with disabilities, has been a focal point for cross-disability organizing and advocacy for the past 40 years since we opened our doors in 1982 right here in Arlington. After all, assisting individual consumers and the disability community with understanding and exercising their rights through self- and systems advocacy is a Core Service of all Centers for Independent Living (CILs) nationwide.

From April to June, ECNV participated in the SOS Coalition, providing the group with information and technical assistance on the rights and responsibilities of ADA paratransit users, helping with outreach to inform other STAR riders about the proposed changes, developing a position paper for presentation to the County Board and potential allies, and offering testimony at May meetings of the Transit Advisory Committee and its Accessibility Subcommittee, which advise the County Manager on STAR policies and operations.

These efforts led to an important meeting that members of the SOS Coalition had with two County Board Members, Matthew de Ferranti and Libby Garvey on June 2022 during which SOS leaders outlined their concerns about proposed changes in STAR policies and procedures. SOS representatives included RoseAnn Ashby and former ECNV Board Members Kent Keiser and Joseph De Phillips as well as Paul D’Addario. ECNV Director of Advocacy and Outreach, Doris Ray, outlined concerns about transportation officials’ failure to provide adequate opportunity for community input and public comment during the development of the proposed changes and emphasized the need to delay implementation until the disability community was consulted.

County Board Members de Ferranti and Garvey were very responsive, and they agreed to share SOS’s concerns with the rest of the County Board and discuss the issues with county staff. As a result, during the September meeting of the Accessibility Subcommittee of the Arlington Transit Committee, Lynn Rivers who heads the Transportation Division announced that an implementation of the proposed changes to STAR policies and operating procedures will be delayed until at least early in 2023. She also said that county staff will work with the Transit Advisory Committee to develop a plan to hold public hearings and input opportunities before issuing an updated version of proposed changes in STAR policies and procedures.

Thus, the systems advocacy efforts of the SOS Coalition in collaboration with ECNV have paid off! The disability community in Arlington will have another opportunity to make their voices heard and speak out on any proposals by county officials to make changes to STAR Paratransit services.

That’s where YOU come in! If YOU are a current STAR rider, or a member of the Arlington disability community, or an ally – please take time to get involved during the Fall and Winter of 2022-23. Learn more about STAR and its current policies and procedures and any proposed changes. Attend meetings of the Arlington Transit Advisory Committee and the county’s Transportation Commission. Take the time to speak during public hearings, including at County Board meetings. Join the SOS Coalition and volunteer as an ECNV Advocate to monitor this and other local disability advocacy issues.

You may even have concerns of your own, and ECNV welcomes you to bring those issues to our attention and encourages YOU to take a leadership role in organizing advocacy efforts just like the advocates in Arlington who formed the SOS Coalition and is winning victories for themselves and their community!

Another idea is to get involved with ECNV’s Agents of Change Program which is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation. We are recruiting new Agents of Change right now! If you are interested, and have a specific area of interest such as housing, transportation, long term supports and services such as personal assistance services, Social Security benefits reforms, education, or employment then we’d like to hear from YOU! Contact your peer counselor or other ECNV staff to learn more.

Ed Roberts, a founder of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, and dubbed the “Father of Independent Living”, was once asked which is the most important of the Core Independent Living Services. He responded with his W.C. Fields sense of humor, saying, “Advocacy, Advocacy, and Advocacy, but not necessarily in that order!” That’s the legend, and it holds true today!