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Ban ends, and he’s got a ticket to ride

George Lewis gets a kiss from his fiancee, Gayle Tompkins, at the Bottom Dollar store before boarding the FRED bus for a trip to Walmart. / Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi

By CATHY DYSON

It took more than a year, but George Lewis  found a way to get himself—and his hefty wheelchair—back on FRED buses.

He and officials at the disAbility Resource Center in Fredericksburg spent months studying Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. They learned that guidelines have changed since summer 2011, when Lewis was told he couldn’t ride anymore because he and his chair were too heavy for the FREDericksburg Regional Transit system.

Lewis and others found new ADA regulations, which had been passed in October 2011. They said buses had to transport passengers in wheelchairs of any size—as long as the combined weight doesn’t exceed 800 pounds and the bus lifts could handle them.

Lewis shared his findings with FRED officials last month. He also sent a photo of him and his chair on a scale, with the reading of 704 pounds. His chair is so heavy because it’s motorized, and Lewis carries several batteries with him.

FRED officials agreed that Lewis was entitled to ride again. They thanked him for the information and sent him 17 fare cards.

“I’m glad it went down the way it did,” said Lewis, 45, who was born with cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair all his life. “I wasn’t about to give up. I knew there had to be some way.”

Officials at the disability center praised FRED’s willingness to work with disabled riders—and Lewis’ persistence.

“I told George he was the Rosa Parks in this situation,” said Shawn Lawrence, a community action specialist with the center. “He was denied, but he didn’t give up, he fought through it. And because he did, this will make a difference, not only for him, but for somebody else down the road.”

‘HAS HIS FREEDOM BACK’

Getting down the road has been Lewis’ focus, most of his adult life. He grew up with his parents in Spotsylvania County, and his mother was his primary caretaker until she died in 2002.

Then, Lewis had to move into an assisted-living facility, and he missed his independence. He longed for the chance to get on the bus again and go shopping at Spotsylvania Towne Centre or  local Walmart stores.

His caseworker with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board searched for a slot for him in a group home. It took nine years, but in 2011, Lewis got settled in a Fredericksburg home with three other men.

Lewis has nursing assistants who help him get dressed and fed each morning and evening, and he’s on his own after that.

That’s how he likes it, he said in February 2012, when he was featured in a story in The Free Lance–Star. It detailed how he rode his wheelchair through intersections of U.S. 1 and along city streets to reach his destination when he couldn’t ride the bus anymore.

Mary Lou Nissim–Sabat, whose agency supervises his health care, is happy Lewis is riding FRED again.

“He has his freedom back,” she said.

She talked with friends, including a lawyer, and initially researched disability regulations for Lewis.

“I have to admit I kind of let it go because I could tell he was so determined to do it on his own,” Nissim–Sabat said. “George is one-of-a-kind in being very determined  and very dogged when he wants to achieve something.”

A COURTEOUS RIDER

Lewis got a letter from Kathleen Beck, FRED’s director, agreeing that circumstances changed and she looked forward to him using the system again.

The letter arrived Dec. 12, and he rode the bus once before Christmas. Then, Lewis decided to wait until holiday crowds had thinned to go shopping again.

On Friday, he set out for the Central Park Walmart with list in hand.

He called FRED beforehand and let the dispatcher know a wheelchair-bound passenger was waiting at the Fredericksburg Shopping Center bus stop.

He was not required to call, but did so out of courtesy. Likewise, Lewis apologized to three other people at the bus stop for the time it took to get him onboard.

Loading took almost 15 minutes. Driver Louis Williams lowered the wheelchair lift and directed Lewis to maneuver his chair so he was seated squarely on the device.

Then, the two worked to get the chair into the limited space in the back of the bus. After several three-point turns, Lewis was in place, and Williams attached four floorboard hooks to the chair to secure him, as well as an over-the-shoulder seat belt.

At Walmart, Williams let off other riders at the bus stop and drove to the parking lot to unload Lewis. Exiting went faster, then Williams walked with Lewis to the sidewalk and wished him well.

Lewis thanked him and waved goodbye.

Then he was on his way.

Cathy Dyson:   540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2013/01/04/ban-ends-and-hes-got-a-ticket-to-ride/

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