A bus company based in Hoboken will pay $10,000 to a disabled veteran and institute corrective measures after the company’s failure to provide a wheelchair-accessible bus forced the veteran to miss out on most of his military reunion.
The 8-page settlement between Academy Express and the Department of Justice, which included a $10,000 fine, was negotiated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey and is aimed at ensuring equal access for passengers with disabilities, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said. It did not provide the veteran’s name or where he is from.
The 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, who became paraplegic after his helicopter was gunned down in Vietnam, was set to join fellow combat unit veterans on an Academy charter bus for a multi-day “Honor Flight” tour of Washington, D.C. area sites on Oct. 4 and 5, 2018.
Reunion organizers notified Academy more than a month in advance of the need for a bus with a wheelchair lift for the event, which included visits to Arlington National Cemetery, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial wall and a meeting with elected officials.
The veteran, who served as a staff sergeant in the Army’s 189th Assault Helicopter Company, was left behind at the Herndon, Virginia hotel on the first day, however, when neither of the two Academy charter buses had a functional wheelchair lift.
The 74-year-old, who suffers from combat-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, not only missed out on the day’s activities, but he was forced to endure lengthy, embarrassing, and unsuccessful attempts to board him on an inaccessible bus.
“The men and women of our Armed Forces have made extraordinary and selfless sacrifices to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” Carpenito said. “This office remains resolute in its commitment to honor those sacrifices and ensure that the rights of servicemembers and veterans be respected.
“Through our enforcement of the (Americans with Disabilities Act), we will continue to protect veterans and other individuals with disabilities from unequal and unfair treatment.”
The following day, authorities said, Academy sent a wheelchair-accessible bus, but the driver struggled to operate the lift. The veteran, stuck on the wheelchair lift for hours, was forced to miss another day of reunion activities.
“I have never been so humiliated in all my life,” the veteran is quoted as saying in the settlement agreement.
Gerry Sandlin, who has organized the reunions since the year 2000, said it was the first and last time he contracted Academy to handle the tours.
“They were unprofessional,” said Sandlin, who noted that Academy did not offer the 74-year-old or the group any sort of refund.
The ADA requires over-the-road, demand-responsive bus operators to ensure that passengers with disabilities who request accessible service receive accessible service. A bus operator may require 48 hours advanced notice, but if a request is made within 48 hours of a trip, the operator must provide a lift if it can do so by making a reasonable effort.
In the settlement agreement, Academy disputed that it violated the ADA, and denied any incident occurred on Oct. 5. It also stated that due to security screening procedures at Arlington National Cemetery, it could not send another bus and another driver on Oct. 4.
The bus company also said it offered to lift the veteran in and out of the bus, and store his wheelchair, but the 74-year-old declined.
Despite this, the company agreed to the fines and implementation of policies and procedures to ensure that persons with disabilities receive accessible transportation on the day and at the time and place requested.
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