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Tuesday September 2, 2014

Rutgers-NJTransit Partnership Gets Riders with Disabilities Where They Need to Go

Rutgers-NJTransit Partnership Gets Riders with Disabilities Where They Need to Go

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NJTIP@Rutgers offers clients sense of freedom and independence

Photo: Nick Romanenko
NJTIP client Charles Masker gets information from instructor Nieves Pimienta about reading a schedule at the New Brunswick train station.

'We don’t just teach you how to get on the bus; we also provide you with skills such as reading a web site.' – Shaquillah McMilllan, travel instructor

The distance from Charles Masker’s Morristown apartment to his job in Cedar Knolls is negligible – four, maybe five miles tops.

But it might as well have been 1,000 miles for someone with a disability, especially one who grew up in a remote corner of northern New Jersey with no familiarity with the state’s transit system.

Today Masker, a 53-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia, comfortably navigates two buses three days a week, allowing him make a living at Employment Horizons, where he tests and packages remote control devices, and  to function as an independent adult.

He can’t say enough for the people and the program –  NJTIP@Rutgers  – responsible for the breakthrough.  The one-on-one program, a collaboration between Rutgers and NJ Transit, trains people with disabilities to use trains, buses and light rail in seven North Jersey counties: Essex, Union, Morris, Somerset, Bergen, Passaic and Hudson.

“It was a miracle what they did for me – a godsend,” Masker says.

What senior travel instructor Larry Lindstrom did, essentially, was provide Masker with the tools to master the complexities of public transport, from reading a bus schedule to organizing his money to pay the fare.

Photo: Nick Romanenko
Masker calls the work of senior travel instructor Larry Lindstrom, right, and his colleagues "a godsend." 
Based at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, NJTIP offers travel instruction, individually or in small-group settings. With a referral from NJ Transit’s Access Link Program, people on the autism spectrum, people with Down syndrome, and people with mobility impairments and other disabilities can take advantage of the services.

Group training for older adults and people with disabilities – as well as the professionals who serve them – is available through other funding sources.

A public-transit commuter calls on as many as 27 different skills to get from Point A to Point B, research indicates. Among them are telling time, counting money, reading a bus/train schedule, recognizing landmarks, interacting with the driver – even knowing how to signal for a stop at the proper time.

“Each customer presents us with a different set of strengths and weaknesses, and we design the training around those,” says Karen Alexander, the program’s managing director. “Our goal is to give people the ability to come and go at will, and give them a sense of freedom and confidence.”

NJTIP – formally, the New Jersey Travel Independence Program – began as a pilot program in 2005 and became a not-for-profit organization in Livingston in 2007. It officially merged with Rutgers In January 2013. Alexander, at the helm since last May, oversees six trainers with experience in special education and in assisting individuals with special needs.

The instructors, many of them Rutgers graduates, are also endowed with a profound understanding of New Jersey’s train and bus systems and their quirks.

Typically, a trainer meets with an individual client several times over the course of a month or so, first determining where the client needs to go: work, a shopping center, college classes, a doctor’s office.

The trainer maps out a route and rides it at different times of day and different days of the week on the lookout for potential obstacles: Is there broken pavement which might endanger a client in a wheelchair? Are bus stop signs hidden behind overgrown foliage? Does the rider have to cross a major highway after debarking?

Only then do teacher and student take the trip together, frequently more than once, until the client feels entirely familiar with all aspects of the travel experience.

“Sometimes I’ll even follow a bus in my car to make sure one of my clients can make the trip with no problems,”  Lindstrom says. “We’re always watching for contingencies that might crop up at the last minute.”

For Masker, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and other mental-health issues, a key goal was rejoining the workforce after leaving a job as a dietary worker at a hospital close to his home. Lindstrom began working with him in February 2013, first mapping out a route to the Rockaway Town Square Mall, some 40 minutes away, and later designing the best way to get to Employment Horizons, an agency providing services to people with disabilities.

Lindstrom, who received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers in 1977, encouraged Masker to get organized the nights before work, having the correct change ready and reviewing the landmarks before the bus stop where he gets off.

In any given week, NJTIP staffers work with five or six customers at various stages of progress, explains Shaquillah McMillan, a travel instructor and 2011 Rutgers graduate with a degree in criminal justice and psychology.

“We don’t just teach you how to get on the bus; we also provide you with skills such as reading a web site,” says McMillan. She recalls one client – an immigrant from Guyana -- who depended on her daughter to take her everywhere, including dialysis sessions for kidney disease.

“Her problems were not just cognitive, but physical as well. We taught her how to take the bus to the Livingston Mall and how to get to her dialysis, and now she gets around with no help,” McMillan says.

NJTIP has “graduated” close to 270 people in its one-to-one component and another 1,200 in group training.  Participants must be 18 or older, but NJTIP may train students between 15 and 17 with the supervision of an adult family member or guardian, Alexander says.  Instruction is also available in Spanish.

She hopes to tap into the research expertise at the Voorhees Transportation Center to add to the body of academic literature on travel instruction, and to inform transit agencies and service providers nationally about the value of such programs and which approaches work best.

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