Paratransit Woes during the Pandemic

Michele Mashburn
6 min readMay 3, 2021

Since the start of the pandemic, I have used paratransit more because of my concerns about safety while riding the buses. In my county, Access is the company operated by Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). On or around April 22, 2021, VTA was hit by a cyber attack, stealing 150 gigabytes of data with the threat to post it publicly. News reported services still running as of late Friday Morning with impacted services.

This cyber attack required VTA to shut down many of their core systems, including programs used to track reservations for paratransit services. The employees were forced to use paper and pen to take reservations without access to the client information. This was a huge burden on an already overburdened system.

Sadly, this happened during a pandemic and at a time when some disabled people were scheduling their second vaccination appointments.

Santa Clara County has stated that trips to vaccination appointments would be free. During my first trip to be vaccinated prior to the computer hack, no one asked me if the trip was to a vaccination appointment. Of course, this was during a time when VTA buses were not taking fares so my trip was still free. So it might be insignificant and picky for me to wonder why they did not seek verification when vaccines are viewed as an essential tool to stop the virus that has hobbled us for this past 14 months. Add in that the observation period is tricky for some people who have reacted to vaccines in the past or have a family history of reactions, especially when adaptive devices are used.

Am I a worry wart or are the systems designed to fail?

  • If I am scheduled to get the vaccine and I am in my power wheelchair, what happens to my chair if I have a reaction that requires a trip to the emergency room?
  • Will a store take responsibility for my wheelchair?
  • Will someone else who also needs a wheelchair take the opportunity to get a $10,000 wheelchair?
  • If anything happened, would my insurance replace the chair in a timely manner?
  • How will I get from the hospital to my home after the ER trip?

So my first vaccine appointment went okay with no real snags in planning and rides there. The second one was not the same story.

I received an email early on Monday, saying VTA services were running but impacted by a technical issue. This was the first alert about the problems. I hoped I could plan my trip via their online portal but quickly realized that site was down. So I called in to schedule and discovered the schedulers needed everything from my Client ID to my home address. They did not have access to the system at all. Each person I talked with said they were using paper and pen to schedule without any of the usual supports they receive from technology. What a mess!! I really felt for the customer service workers. Then because of the issues I mentioned above, I wanted to schedule an open return and was advised against it. So I asked to speak to a supervisor because I could not believe that there was not a system in place to use as a back up in the event of a catastrophic failure of technology. (Cyber Insurance is a real thing and essential for any company that has access to protected information on its clients and employees.)

In order to have my ride saved, I needed to opt to have an open return and know that a vehicle was probably not going to be available in a timely manner or to schedule a return trip at a set time. I opted for the open return, thinking I had other resources I could access to ensure I could get home. The customer service agent also suggested that I call in the next day to make sure I was on the schedule. So I dialed the supervisor who never picked up the phone. They were overwhelmed and not prepared for the issues they were dealing with. You can read more about the issue in the minuscule media coverage that has trickled out:

After this failed call, I reached out to community resources to see about alternative options. Most taxi companies require at least 24 hours advance notice and I have only used them intermittently and not in many years. Silicon Valley Independent Living Center offered me one solution that also required advance notice but would be a good resource if needed. I also mapped the trip via public transit which I was not really enthused to do. Public transit usually works for me if I have a direct route without any transfers along the pathway. But in the pandemic, I am not really fond of using it at all because I am strapped at a point in the bus where every person boarding must pass by me and many do not realize that my wheelchair is a part of my personal space and will touch it on their way by it, like a piece of furniture. At least I knew that in the worst case scenario, I could make it home on my own.

The next morning, I received a call from a supervisor with Access. She tried me at work because that was the easiest way for her to find me. I believe she also had to use her cell phone and her personal email address. She and I scheduled the return trip as a set trip and I relaxed for the first time in 12 hours. Additionally, I called in to verify my trip was on the schedule only to be hung up on after a 40 minute wait on the telephone.

Paratransit Trip Fail

When I was boarded on a vehicle going to the appointment, my apartment building called me to tell me that another vehicle was waiting for me. I figured that was a symptom of their paper and pen system and 2 vehicles were booked. I made it to my appointment got the shot in my arm and started to wait during the 30 minute pick up window for my scheduled return trip. At the 25 minute marker, I wasn’t feeling so great and called the “Day of Service” department to check on when the vehicle was coming. With the gaps and such in the coverage thanks to the technology outage, I am not even sure they could have given me a time frame. The workers in that department were also very frazzled and struggling with the situation.

I was told that my return trip was an open return and not the trip I had scheduled earlier in the day and when pushed, they finally confirmed that there was no way for them to tell me when a vehicle would be available outside of it would be a wait. I realize the situation is complex and the lack of technological support added layers of difficulty to an already bad situation. I asked the person to record my complaint and her reply was “how?” I snippily told her that there was this invention called a paper and pen that should function in that capacity.

So I ventured to the light rail station that was a little over a mile away, traveling across sidewalks with questionable curb cuts and less than ideal intersections and push buttons for crosswalks that required touch to activate. I managed to have at least one vehicle protect me as I crossed the on ramp to the highway after I was almost hit by another car as I crossed the street with a green walk light. I made it to the light rail station and made it home. Luckily the light rail only had 3–4 people in it total so it felt safe enough.

And that is how I became stranded during the pandemic on my trip to receive a vaccination to protect me from the beast that is a tiny virus, during a time when supposedly access is prioritized for people with disabilities. But what will protect me from the HUGE silent beast of ableism that if fixed into our systems?

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Michele Mashburn

Disability Advocate, Educator, & Activist * Cat Lover * Opinions are mine