Local residents with disabilities voiced concerns about equal access to effective transportation, medical care and education loud and clear to a U.S. Department of Justice attorney who visited Bakersfield Wednesday afternoon.
A crowd of about 50 people packed the offices of the Independent Living Center of Kern County and spilled into the hallway outside the meeting room. Some relayed their message to Assistant U.S. Attorney Alyson A. Berg with the aid of technology and translators.
Berg visited from Fresno to take in the comments and give the audience an idea of what the Department of Justice does to enforce civil rights. She explained that the department must have evidence of a pattern of discrimination or large-scale discrimination before becoming involved.
"What we can do is do a lot of investigation and a lot less lawsuits," she said, adding that battles aren't always won in the courtroom.
"What we really need is you to help us find other people and find companies, entities, universities or other organizations that are not giving full access to the disabled community," Berg said.
Attendees first brought their concerns about transportation issues to Berg's attention. BARC employees said more than 40 of their clients have been affected by the Gold Empire Transit's route changes because the bus stop is now farther from BARC.
"It takes 30 minutes from White Lane just to (walk) to BARC every morning and it's a very, a lot of hassle," said Yvonne Mims, a BARC client. "It's hard to get back and forth every day."
Others said allowing parking in front of bus stops makes it hazardous to access public transportation. Richard Rodriguez said efforts to get the City of Bakersfield to make bus stops a no-parking zone have been met with resistance.
"I personally have been struck by vehicles on more than one occasion while trying to get to a bus stop that I could access when there were other stops within feet of where I work and live," he said using a tablet.
Deaf attendees said local people have had frustrating medical encounters at hospitals and doctors' appointments when translators were not available for hours or were scheduled at times different than a patient's appointment.
"It's been an ongoing struggle through the medical services and the arena here in Bakersfield. Deaf people are still having to just deal with all these different excuses and not meeting their needs," said Janice England, outreach coordinator for Bakersfield Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, through a translator.
Berg asked questions and said she would like to learn more about some of the issues. After the roughly two hour meeting drew to a close, Berg said the gathering was informative but that she didn't have enough information yet to say if there could be something to the issues brought up at the meeting.
"First we have to truly identify the problem and that takes a lot of fact gathering," she said.
Organizers of the meeting asked the attendees to also lend their voices to a new effort called "VOICED," Voices of Integration: Communities Empowering the Disabled. Erika Dixon, coordinator for VOICED, said the group aims to unify all the organizations that help people with disabilities in Kern County. The group is preparing for a legislative forum that they hope to host in the first part of February, Dixon said.
"We wanna make sure that the community at large knows that the disabled community is not going to be quiet. We're gonna stand together as a joined voice to make sure our needs are meet," said Brandy Midkiff, system change advocate for the Independent Living Center.