The Backroad Librarian: Fifteen Miles to Derby
Without public transportation, rural Americans with disabilities face a difficult choice: move to the city to get the services they need, or stay in their hometowns and try to get by. Even in Kansas, where nine out of ten counties have some form of rural transit, Dorothy Russell can't get 15 miles up the road for dialysis.
View of Two Rivers Coop, in Udall, Kansas
Photo: Marcel LaFlamme
Dorothy Russell is legally blind. Cataracts, retinitis and diabetes-related glaucoma have eroded her eyesight to the point that, when she wakes up, everything is completely black. Her vision is best during the afternoon, but even then she uses a high-powered magnifier to pay bills and read labels at the grocery store. She hasn’t been behind the wheel of a car in more than a decade. Yet three times a week, somehow, Russell must find a way to make the fifteen-mile trip from Udall, Kansas, where she has lived for thirty years, to the town of Derby, on the southern fringe of the Wichita metropolitan area. Her kidneys are failing, and she must get to her appointments at the dialysis center, rain or shine.
Living in a town of 763 people, without access to public transportation, Russell’s options are decidedly limited. For the past nine months, Dorothy’s husband, who works on the north side of Wichita, has been leaving work at 1pm on dialysis days and driving the thirty miles back to Udall. He picks up his wife, drops her off in Derby, and then returns to work, only to make the same trip again at quitting time. “It really puts a lot of pressure on him,” Russell admitted. The fifteen-mile drive that she once would have made without a second thought has become a yawning, almost unbridgeable chasm.
An index of rural transit quality shows Kansas as well served, compared to many states in the Southeast and Mountain West
Source: Community Transportation Association of America
Uneven or nonexistent access to public transportation remains the single greatest challenge facing people living with disabilities in rural areas. A 1994 study by the Community Transportation Association found that 38% of rural Americans were living in areas that were completely unserved by public transportation. Increases in federal funding over the past decade have paved the way for expanded access, and support for public transportation in nonurbanized areas has climbed from $241 million to $438 million in the past five years alone. Even so, consistent, reliable service in rural areas has by no means materialized overnight, and a 2005 report by the National Council on Disability warned that some rural Americans are still being institutionalized simply because of inadequate transportation to and from their medical appointments.
Some of the most promising rural public transportation initiatives fail to meet the needs of prospective riders because of the limited scope of their service areas. In 2001, nearly two-thirds of rural transit providers operated exclusively within a single municipality or county. Only one in four were multi-county systems. Therefore, according to two social scientists with the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “although rural transit may meet the mobility needs of the local traveler, service often stops at the county line, creating a disconnect that leads to a balkanized rural transit system.” Riders who are trying to access services in an adjacent county are, all too often, out of luck.
Three times a week, Dorothy Russell must get from her home in Udall, Kansas to the dialysis center in Derby, 15 miles away
Map: Courtesy of Marcel LaFlamme
For instance, Udall, where Dorothy Russell lives, is in the northwestern corner of Cowley County, 17 miles from Winfield, the county seat. There is a dialysis center in Winfield where Russell could go for treatment, but she has already established a rapport with the nurses in Derby, she trusts them, and in any event she lives slightly closer to the Derby facility. The problem is that Derby is located in Sedgwick County, outside the service area of Cowley County’s public transportation providers. Ironically, if Russell lived just four miles farther west than she currently does, she could access services from a Sumner County transit provider that would happily whisk her up to Derby. At present, though, the Sumner County providers that also serve Sedgwick County are not authorized to pick up riders in Cowley County, and vice versa.
Does all of this sound confusing? Now imagine that you’re blind, and that your life quite literally depends on figuring it out. According to Brian Atwell, executive director of an independent living center in northwestern Kansas, frustrations like this often drive rural people with disabilities to leave the small communities where they’ve lived their entire lives. “A lot of people will migrate to larger towns where they can get the services they need,” Atwell explained. But Dorothy Russell isn’t quitting on Udall quite yet. She’s heard that the Council on Aging might be able to help her find a ride up to Derby, and she’s been meaning to get herself enrolled in the State Library’s Talking Book Service.
“Would I be better off in Wichita?” Russell asked, rhetorically. “Yes. But this is my home.”
Marcel LaFlamme is the newly-minted library director at Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.