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Developing a transportation system for individuals with disabilities on a rural Indian reservation.

Salish Kootenai College (SKC), located on the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana, is one of 24 tribally controlled colleges in the United States. One year ago, SKC realized that it was in a unique position to develop a transportation service for individuals with disabilities who live on the reservation that would greatly increase the vocational possibilities available to them.

A unique mix of characteristics at Salish Kootenai College contributed to the development of a distinctive transportation system for its students with disabilities--SKC had developed a close working relationship with the Montana State Vocational Rehabilitation Services Division and The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' Vocational Rehabilitation Project (a tribal rehabilitation service project serving American Indians on the Flathead Reservation), as well as several other agencies providing services to individuals with disabilities; the college had a well-developed motor pool and several years of experience providing transportation services to students, staff, and other tribal programs; the college had been a leader in developing services to individuals with disabilities for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and the college was centrally located to serve the reservation. This combination of factors created a situation which allowed SKC to develop a plan to overcome a major barrier to employment and rehabilitation on the reservation-transportation.

Because of SKC's involvement in disability issues on the reservation, there was a recognition of the critical need for a transportation system that emphasized access to employment and the necessary services to develop vocational potential in the local area. The Flathead Reservation, which is approximately 60 miles long and 50 miles wide and covers 2,800 square miles, is a very remote, rural area with a number of scattered population centers. It extends into four counties, although Lake County is the primary county involved. In this area, there are nine major population areas. In order to obtain many medical services and evaluation services related to rehabilitation plans, individuals are required to travel to Missoula or Kalispell, which are each located 65 miles from the center of the reservation. The only fixed route system serving the Flathead Reservation is the Intermountain Transportation Bus Lines, which runs south through the reservation between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and north between 7-8:30 p.m. Also, the bus only travels Highway 93 and only stops at one designated spot at each town on this highway. Because the area is near the Mission Mountain Range, the weather can be very hazardous, particularly during the winter when several inches or even several feet of snow are not uncommon. The special geographic conditions of this area create unique circumstances and difficulties for the development of a transportation system.

Other characteristics of the area create special problems for individuals with disabilities. Because this is a rural area, there are few sidewalks; therefore people who use wheelchairs or have visual impairments have great difficulties in making connections with a transportation system, particularly with the added problem of the winter snow, when they can become very isolated in their homes. Even when individuals have transportation of their own they are likely to live some distance from a neighbor and/or repair facilities. Also, repair services in the area are very limited, and a vehicle that breaks down may not be repaired quickly The lack of an adequate transportation for individuals with disabilities not only creates inconvenience, but at times causes undue risk as well.

A needs survey conducted by Summit Independent Living Center in Spring 1991 reported that 79 percent of the individuals with disabilities in Lake County surveyed indicated that transportation was an important issue to them. Only 38 percent expressed satisfaction with their current situation. Out of 32 issues, transportation ranked as the fifth highest need of individuals with disabilities in Lake County.

Prior to initiating the proposal that developed the transportation services project, SKC communicated with a variety of tribal and state service agencies who provide services to people with disabilities. These contacts indicated that 300-400 residents of the Flathead Reservation could benefit from a transportation system.

The staff of the Tribe's Vocational Rehabilitation Services Project has also contacted the Mental Health Services of the State and Tribe, the Summit Independent Living Center, Job Services, and Mission Mountain Enterprises to estimate the number of people who might benefit from the proposed transportation service. The estimate was that 200-300 people could possibly benefit from the proposed services. Therefore, assuming that not everyone who could benefit from services would apply, the projection of serving a minimum of 1 00 people the first year of operation appeared reasonable.

On October 1, 1993, with the assistance of a grant award (H235E30070) from the Special Demonstration Projects and Demonstration Activities Program of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, SKC initiated a project to empower individuals with disabilities to maximize their employment option, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society. The development of a unique service delivery system for the area is an outgrowth of one of the major goals of Salish Kootenai College--"to assist with the community development needs of the Flathead Reservation."

Although the project has been in operation only a short time, there is evidence that the new service has opened up a number of vocational and rehabilitation possibilities to individuals with disabilities who reside on the Flathead Reservation. In addition to these services, the project has played a role in developing an interest in the better coordination of all transportation services on the reservation, with more interest being shown in the development of a fully-coordinated transportation system that would meet the needs of individuals with disabilities.

The Consumers

The characteristics of the consumers who have applied for services over the past 6 months present a picture that reflects the problems described above. The two profiles below offer an overview of the problems that are currently being addressed by the transportation program.

The first is that of a Native American woman with a developmental disability who obtained a position in a day care center but did not have the transportation resources to travel the 7 miles from her home to the town where the day care center was located. The newly initiated transportation services have been critical to her ability to maintain employment.

The second profile is of a man in his early twenties with cerebral palsy A wheelchair and communication board user, the man is not a tribal member; but because the transportation service is open to all residents of the reservation, he also benefits from this resource. He is able to attend college classes using the transportation services to travel the 10 miles to the college from the town where his group home is located. The opportunity to attend the college classes

has opened many opportunities for this young man and his potential vocational outcomes have been greatly expanded.

Others who have been served in the short existence of the program include a person with chemical dependency who needed transportation as a result of not having a driver's license and a person with a heart condition who needed to make a trip of over 120 miles each week and who needed alternative transportation to enable his wife to maintain her employment. Another individual, who is legally blind, needed transportation to the nearest airport, 60 miles away, for a work-related trip.

The Services

A point-to-point transportation system was developed for picking up consumers, usually at their homes, and transporting them to their destination, usually their workplace or the facility providing their rehabilitation services. To accomplish this, three wheelchair accessible vans were purchased with grant funds to be used along with a previously purchased van. Rides are coordinated as much as possible; however the current volume and scattered needs of the system make coordination difficult at this early stage of development.

Whenever possible, other available transportation services are used. An example of this is the woman who was able to ride to her day care job on the busses that bring students to Salish Kootenai College.

The Results

The benefits at this stage of the project are quite limited as the project has only been operational for 6 months. However, a review of the statistical data thus far, indicates the nature of the services being provided. At this point, the project's primary publicity has been through contact with agencies serving persons with disabilities; thus far, seven different agencies have made referrals that have led to a total of 16 people being served. One hundred and fourteen trips have been provided over a distance of 2,405 miles of actual service (average length of trip is 18 miles). However, 2,404 additional miles were needed to initiate trips by the service vehicles, bringing to 36 the actual average number of miles necessary to provide each trip, which can be explained by the remoteness of the area and the geographic distribution of consumers over such a large area.

Program Issues

Because of the overall need for public transportation on the reservation, the program has received a number of requests for services that are not within the guidelines and requirements of the grant which funds the program. Requests have been made by persons without disabilities--as well as by persons with disabilities--for needs such as medical care for persons who are not in a rehabilitation plan leading to employment or who have recreational or independent living needs. The project has had to turn down a number of these requests due to funding restrictions. However, the project is exploring options of offering such trips for a fee that would cover the costs of the transportation or of coordinating some of these requests with approved trips, if there is room for others and if the additional travel does not inconvenience the eligible consumer. Also, the project seeks other transportation resources and makes referrals as appropriate.

The project has not generated the anticipated number of eligible applicants for services at this time. One problem is that the eligibility limitations of the program are difficult to describe succinctly to the public via advertising. Therefore, the advertising may be confusing and may not be attracting new applicants. Also, in a rural area the acceptance of and use of new programs are slow to develop, as people in such areas tend to rely more on word-of-mouth information when considering available resources. Ideally, there would be one advertised number to call for transportation information. The Transportation Advisory Committee is attempting to establish this.

Also, an expansion of the reservation and area highway system is currently under study; a transportation consultant has been contracted by the State of Montana to explore this issue. The consultant's early impressions are that SKC may be the best alternative to coordinate a public transportation system because of its early successes with the reservation wide education transportation system and the disability transportation system described in this article. Although it is unusual for a college to coordinate a public transportation system, this demonstrates how rural areas must deal with a variety of problems. A separate public transportation system would be uneconomical; modifying a system that is already in place often is the best solution. The consultant also suggests that such a system could become a training center for other reservation and rural transportation systems because of its link to the college. Such expansion would certainly lead to further program issues.


Because the project is so new, this article must be limited to a description of the possibilities of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Vocational Rehabilitation Transportation Project, rather than a review of results and potential for generalization of techniques. However, it is hoped that the article provides information related to unique problems of rural reservations and a description of the problem solving and creativity necessary to meet such needs.

Mr. Hermanson is Transportation Grant Director, Ms. Landstrom is the Transportation Grand Coordinator, and Mr. Domitrovich is the Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation Services Coordinator at the Human Services Department, Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Montana.
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Article Details
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Author:Domitrovich, John
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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