By Amanda Perelli
Using public transportation in downtown Port Jefferson is no easy task, especially for those with vision, hearing or mobility impairments.
On April 17, Stony Brook University occupational therapy students evaluated the accessibility of the Suffolk County bus line, Long Island Rail Road and The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company ferry in downtown Port Jeff, for their capstone project. Richard Brenza, Paulina Chrostowski, Shirley Lin, Puja Rai, Eric Wong and Wendy York were the students conducting the evaluation. Their goal was to see how difficult it would be for people with various impairments to navigate from the ferry to the train station a mile-and-a-half south on Main Street. They worked with five Suffolk Independent Living Organization volunteers — a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding the disabled live independently — with visual, hearing and or mobility impairments, and presented their report at Village Hall in a private meeting May 22, which included representatives from Suffolk County Transit. Trustee Bruce D’Abramo attended the meeting on behalf of the village.
“Port Jefferson village is right next to our campus, it’s basically a college town,” Lin said. “Being that it is a place where a lot of us hangout, it was appropriate for us to see how accessible it is for individuals, or our classmates, who may have vision, hearing — any mobility impairments.”
The students received help in executing the evaluation from Pamela Linden, clinical associate professor, and Karen DeChello, clinical assistant professor — both of the occupational therapy program at SBU — and Amy Menditto, SILO’s NY Connects director.
“Our service learning projects are benefiting organizations and communities, rather than clinical practice,” Linden said.
Justin Ainsworth, outreach advocate at SILO, participated in the project alongside the other volunteers. Ainsworth has a power wheelchair and said he has no prior experience trying to ride the bus and was surprised he could.
“The [village] is fairly accessible, but there are always things that’ll make it easier,” Ainsworth said.
Before the group attempted to get on the bus, they came across an unexpected problem and asked themselves, “How would the visually impaired members cross the street alone?”
“I am a blind person who goes all over and for me to actually cross the street I have to put my hand up, put my foot out on the street and say ‘stop’ — and pray that they would stop so I could get to the other side,” said Marilyn Tucci, outreach and advocacy coordinator at SILO and one of the visually impaired volunteers.
“People with mobility impairments or vision impairments or hearing impairments, it’s not as easy for them to run down the corner to where the bus was.”
— Wendy York
The three-way intersection crossing from south to north on East Broadway adjacent to Main Street lacks a traffic stop light and audible walk signal, but the hurdles didn’t stop there.
The S61 Suffolk County Transit bus, which travels from the ferry dock to Patchogue railroad station and back, stopped down the street from its posted location, creating an added obstacle for the group of 11,
according to York.
“For us able bodies that are young, we can go to that bus that stops at a different place around the corner down the street,” York said. “People with mobility impairments or vision impairments or hearing impairments, it’s not as easy for them to run down the corner to where the bus was.”
The group arrived at the Port Jeff LIRR station, but struggled to board the train with ease as they had hoped, York said. They needed to track down the conductor and set up a ramp, which is the only way a person in a wheelchair can access the train.
“The gap that is in between the train car and the platform on the LIRR was, like, 8 inches and according to [Americans with Disabilities Act] standards it should be no more than 3,” York said. “I was with someone who was visually impaired so I helped her cross that gap, but she had told me previously — when she was alone — that there was a gap like that and her foot actually fell in between the car and she was stuck for a minute, which is obviously scary if the train were to move and no one knew. Luckily it didn’t.”
The students recommended small changes in consistency in their final report, like adding visual and audible traffic announcements for individuals to rely on.
“I think the most eye-opening part about it was seeing how many flaws there are in the system that still need to be worked out,” Brenza said. “It’s a lot better than it used to be, but there’s still a long way to go.”
The students got the chance to present their findings and interact with people from different transportation organizations at the meeting at Village Hall. Members of Suffolk County Transit told them the best way for something broken to get fixed is to call the company line directly and report it, according to Wong.
“They wanted to understand why the problem occurred and wanted to fix it, so it wouldn’t happen at another time,” Wong said. “We learned that it is not entirely Port Jeff’s responsibly to make all of the changes.”
The six students graduated June 22, earning master’s degrees in occupational therapy. The volunteers said they were grateful for the students efforts and both groups said they hoped the findings would make a lasting impact on the community.
“It’s a beautiful village and people with disabilities want to enjoy it, and it’s almost impossible to them to enjoy it unless they have sighted help,” Tucci said. “I hope the village and county and the town will really do something to put more lights there — and audible lights, especially by the ferry.”
D’Abramo said at a public meeting June 4 he told the students and SILO representatives he was eager to hear their findings, and reassured them the village would be an advocate in helping to deal with the transportation agencies involved.
“I tried to give them an idea of how many different agencies we were dealing with here — the MTA, the ferry, New York State Department of Transportation and Suffolk County busing,” he said.