Joy Rindels-Hayden never thought of herself as a political agitator. A former schoolteacher and preacher's daughter, the 87-year-old Minneapolis resident likes to spend her time knitting and volunteering at a community center for the homeless.

But even before lawmakers arrived at the State Capitol in January, Rindels-Hayden was already hard at work, calling and writing letters to push for a measure to bolster bus safety for thousands of older Minnesotans and those with disabilities, particularly during the perilous winter months.

Now, her vision is on the verge of becoming reality thanks to a four-sentence provision tucked into the 268-page transportation bill approved by legislators. It requires Metro Transit drivers to receive training on helping those with disabilities and limited mobility enter and leave buses. The training would cover scenarios in which access is made unsafe by snow, ice or other obstructions.

"My first thought was: 'Oh thank God, because I truly didn't know if I'd live long enough to see this day come," she said. "It was now or never."

Her proposal, which came to be known as "Joy's bill," was among a flurry of measures that passed late in the legislative session that advocates say will significantly enhance the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities.

Often overlooked, disability rights emerged as a major political issue this year: Lawmakers approved changes that will expand access to affordable housing and higher education for people with disabilities and will help address the workforce crisis by increasing Medicaid rates for service providers. Legislators also approved a ban on seclusion for younger students with disabilities and a change to the state's building code to require adult-sized changing tables in public restrooms — a change that will enhance access to public spaces for larger children and adults with disabilities who have difficulty using toilets. They also codified disability hiring goals for state agencies.

"These changes will have a lasting, lasting impact," said Julia Page, public policy director at the Arc Minnesota, a disability advocacy group in St. Paul. "It feels like we've built a foundation for moving toward true inclusion for people with disabilities."

Injury spurred action

For Rindels-Hayden, the bus safety legislation fulfilled a promise she made to herself five years ago after she suffered a near-debilitating brain injury.

At 3:40 p.m. on Jan. 9, 2017, she had just finished physical therapy and was making her way off a Metro Transit bus at 38th and Chicago Avenue when the hydraulic ramp failed to lower correctly because of snow piled on the sidewalk. The back wheels of her walker caught on the uneven ramp, and Rindels-Hayden fell, slamming the back of her head. She suffered a stroke caused by internal brain bleeding and would spend the next 17 days in the hospital.

Soon after the accident, she teamed up with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance for help in crafting a bill to improve transit safety. At first they wrestled with the idea of mandating that all bus stops to be kept clear of snow and ice — before dismissing the idea as impractical in Minnesota's winters. Then, after replaying the accident over and over again in her mind, Rindels-Hayden concluded that it could have been prevented with a modest amount of extra training for bus drivers.

"The accident has had a deep impact on my life, and I didn't want this to happen to anyone else," she said.

Twice her bill failed to pass, yet she pressed on.

During the 2022 election cycle, she began calling promising candidates from her kitchen phone even before they were sworn in as legislators. Eventually, Rindels-Hayden became something of a celebrity at the Capitol, working the hallways from her walker. Just getting there by public transit was a manifestation of her will: Rindels-Hayden has chronic arthritis and has undergone multiple knee and hip replacement surgeries.

"You need the constitution of an ox to get a bill passed," she said.

Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, a member of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, described Rindels-Hayden as "absolutely tenacious." The Minneapolis DFL lawmaker recalled receiving 10 handwritten letters from the octogenarian while she was still on the campaign trail. Then on Jan. 3, the first day of session, Sencer-Mura arrived at her legislative office to discover two voice mail messages and multiple emails from Rindels-Hayden.

"I was really moved by her diligence and her testimony," said Sencer-Mura, who sponsored the House version of the transit safety bill.

More work ahead

In a written statement, Metro Transit said bus drivers receive instruction on assisting people with mobility devices, such as walkers and wheelchairs, during initial training and throughout their careers. In winter months, drivers are instructed to stop where they feel it is safest for riders to board or exit, based on road and sidewalk conditions. Accidents from boarding or exiting Metro Transit buses are rare: The agency recorded 31 such accidents last year, down by more than half since 2019,

Yet Rindels-Hayden insisted that her work on improving transit safety was not finished.

The law states that Metro Transit must provide training on assisting passengers with disabilities but is silent on the specifics. Rindels-Hayden wants to help craft the curriculum, and she plans to lobby the agency to bring her in as a volunteer trainer.

"For me to stop campaigning, I'd have to be at death's door," she said, laughing. "And right now, that still feels a long way off."