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Miami-Dade Bus Drivers Accused of Repeatedly Booting Rider With Service Dog

On a Sunday afternoon back in December 2014, Charlie Silberman boarded a county bus at the Omni Bus Terminal with his psychiatric service dog, Oscar. He was grateful for the ride — at that point, Silberman says he had already watched two other buses pass him by.

But as he hopped on the bus with Oscar, the driver told Silberman no animals were allowed onboard. She told him she wasn't going anywhere until he got off. 

The other passengers grew furious. They screamed and cursed at Silberman, demanding that he exit. A "riot-type atmosphere" broke out on the bus, lasting 15 to 20 minutes. But Silberman refused to disembark. 

Eventually, the bus driver told everyone that a supervisor had advised her to continue on with the rest of the route. But the situation was both embarrassing and frightening for Silberman, who says his dog was prescribed to him by his psychiatrist, Dr. Sara Bodner.

"My diagnosis is major depression recurrent with severe psychotic episodes. When I have an incident where people are screaming at me to 'get off the fucking bus,' it harms me," Silberman says. "It was terribly upsetting."

Last week, Silberman, a 60-year-old Miami Beach resident, filed a federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade Transit, accusing the agency of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and breaking its own rules about how to accommodate riders with disabilities. 

"It happened so many times before I even made complaints on it," Silberman says. "I'm not one to complain because my coffee was served a little cold — sometimes you just accept those things — but it got to the point where it was unacceptable." 

The transportation department has not yet filed a formal response to the allegations in court. Reached by New Times, Bruce Libhaber, an attorney for the county, declined to comment, citing a policy of generally not doing so in regards to pending litigation.

Silberman's complaint includes three examples of what he calls blatant discrimination by Miami-Dade bus drivers who are "totally ignorant about the laws." In each case, he says he emailed the county's ADA compliance officer, Marcos Ortega, to let him know what happened.

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In emails to Silberman, Ortega agreed that the bus drivers were in the wrong.

"It is our conclusion that the operator clearly failed to follow not only the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also MDT's own internal procedures and training in what concerns service animals and riders with disabilities," Ortega wrote after the December 2014 incident, according to the lawsuit.

Silberman, who doesn't have a car, says he now opts to take Uber instead of the bus, although it's a much pricier option. He hopes the lawsuit will result in more compliance training for county bus drivers and encourage more respect for people with disabilities.

"I don't know what goes on in the training room, but I certainly know it's not effective," he says. "We should have more compassion and understanding for people."

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