By Dayna Worchel of the Caller-Times
Marshall Burns is busy breaking down barriers one bus ride at a time for people who need help finding their way.
As the mobility coordinator for the Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority, his main job is to work with people with disabilities and older adults to help them use public transportation so they can travel the city independently. Teaching people with autism, high anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, those who are blind or deaf, or those who have intellectual disabilities to navigate and use the city’s bus system could be challenging for anyone.
But Burns, who was born blind, is not just anyone. He’s used the public transit system in Corpus Christi since he moved here from Seguin in 2005. And he says it’s all about independence for those with disabilities.
“When I was growing up, I was raised as a mainstream kid, to be independent and self-reliant,” he said. “There was nothing wrong with me except I couldn’t see.
“I always wanted people like me to be as independent as possible.”
Burns, who sees light and some objects, said he has used a cane to get around to get around since he was three years old. He also graduated from a special training program in San Antonio a year ago with a special friend — his guide dog, a Labrador retriever named Duncan.
The lack of eyesight never slowed Burns down. After he moved to Corpus Christi in 2005, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in 2009 and worked for several nonprofit associations, including the South Texas Lighthouse for the Blind. Burns also served on the RTA Commission for Accessible Transportation and acted as an advocate for riders with disabilities before he took his current position 4 ½ years ago. He may work with a rider six or seven times to make sure he or she can safely use the bus system.
“When someone calls me, I meet with them in a one-on-one interview and I ask them what they want to learn and what’s keeping them from riding the bus,” he said.
From there, Burns maps out a special route for the rider from home to work, where he teaches them to plan trips, read schedules, and works with them on community and mobility skills, such as having their fare or bus pass ready. He works with the rider until they can handle the trip independently, then drives in a separate vehicle with a co-worker to make sure the rider is successful at navigating the trip. After that shadowing is over, the rider graduates, Burns said.
“I like seeing riders I’ve worked with going to their job or going to get lunch,” he said.
For a rider who has a more severe disability, the RTA has a Paratransit system on which riders can schedule a round trip from their home to wherever they are going. Sometimes, that is the safest option for a rider, Burns said.
Eli Read, who depends on the bus to get to both of his jobs on time, knows very well the value of the services Burns provides in the rider training program. Read, who has Asperger’s syndrome, credits Burns with helping him become independent enough to get to his two jobs and live by himself. Read had moved to Corpus Christi with his mother, who was giving him rides to and from work every day.
“I knew I had to get independent fast or I would be dead in the water,” he said, adding he felt guilty relying on his mom, since she had her own job.
“Marshall helped me focus on what I needed to do,” Read said.
Kelly Coughlin, interim marketing director for the agency, is impressed with Burns’ skills navigating the city and helping riders. He has a GPS that tells him the address of each building as he walks or rides by it.
“Marshall guides me just knowing the streets where we need to go,” Coughlin said. “When we go somewhere in my car, he says ‘Kelly, you can turn off your GPS.’ “
“I say ‘Marshall, are you really blind, or are you just messing with me?’ ” she said with a laugh.