It's been over a year since I rode AC Transit, or any bus, on purpose.
This is not, as you might imagine, because I am a snob, or am too good to ride with other people. On a bus, theoretically, a wheelchair lift descends and then you get on without a hitch, smiling and waving to the friendly bus driver as you drop in your coins or scan your Clipper card. Then you proceed to one of up to two different assigned seats, which are swung up to make room for your wheelchair by the bus driver. The bus driver then asks for your consent to touch you or your chair, and asks which “restraints” (this is what they are called, and does make a bitch feel like they are being institutionalized) you would like, to hold you and your chair in place.
This exchange is supposed to be polite and simple. This is the fantasy.
On the day I last intentionally rode a bus, close to my birthday, with my father, the bus driver mocked me, told me not to “take a tone,” and said I “could just shut up” when I asked if the restraint that was being pulled across my neck and chest could be looped behind me, to hold the chair in place and not me, when I countered that I was not trying to mess with him or his job. I have gone through the motions many times—I've learned that people who have received disability assistance training as a side note for their job, often interpret laws very very differently. Some drivers believe they will actually be punished if they ask the disabled passenger what they want, instead of assuming. This man was clearly having a bad day, and I had questioned him, which is something I get in trouble for a lot in life.
My dad was sitting nearby and is hard of hearing in addition to being a pacifist, so he didn't get involved. Once the bus driver was back up in his seat, I tried to tell my dad about the exchange, because I was crying and he was concerned. As soon as I tried to repeat what had happened to my own sweet dad, the bus driver screamed back at me that I was telling the story wrong, and that I shouldn't talk if I was going to tell it wrong.
It's pretty triggering to have someone be all up in your space in a way your body and their job necessitates, and then have them scream at you for talking back about what they’ve just done to you.
No, I did not report him—please stop asking. It's not my goal to get one dude fired from his job. (If he was a cop, a politician, or a doctor, that would be another story.)
When I stopped riding buses, I started riding my power chair everywhere that BART cannot take me. For a chair user, the differences between riding buses and riding a train or subway are ambivalently positive and negative. To get from the street to a subway platform, all elevators between must be working. In the Bay, elevators break very often, especially if they are old. In New York, there aren't even elevators at every subway station.
Something that I like about trains: if all the elevators lead to success, I don't have to directly interact with any personnel about the space my body and chair take up. If trains are crowded, I do, however, have to say multiple, “Excuse me's!” and “Oh pardon me yes sir thank you goddamn you are too kind!”, which I slather on as thick as possible because I am sometimes met with entitled resentment from those whose two feet actually could slip to the side out of my way. After getting to and from multiple 2-3 hour long errands and doctor's appointments a week using only my power chair and BART for several months, I began to see how unsustainable this was.
Sometimes I was holding too many things and my gimp hands gave out to pain and cramping and I couldn't open doors when I needed to, including the one to my house. Sometimes my whole body hurt after hours of not being able to move out of one position as I crossed streets as quick as I could. Once I fell off a shoddy ramp and broke one of my legs. Another time I fell into a literal hole in the ground and was unable to free myself because my chair weighs over 250 lbs.
Paratransit is meant to serve a purpose equal to that of buses or BART, and is meant to be more accessible to those who cannot ride bus or BART due to our disabilities, or cannot ride them all the time. I thought that this would solve all of my problems, as Paratransit can come right to your door and I would have the ability to choose to travel with either manual or power chairs. What I learned is that Paratransit costs money—in fact it costs more than BART. What I also learned is that you have to call in advance, up to 48 hours in advance to guarantee a ride, or else have a standing (lol) appointment. Also, you cannot book anything after 5 PM.
Equal access? I don't think so.
So many of my experiences of disability are unpredictable. And yet I find myself having to be more planned, more logistical, more organized than almost any nondisabled person I know.
Whenever I can afford it, I turn to taxis and rideshare apps, and I’ve been using these more since I started working. It's still not ideal, because I have to use my manual chair when I use them, and then I have to somehow get a ride to everywhere else I go throughout my day—conversely, if I use my power chair, I can roll anywhere in walking distance but can't get a ride.
Local taxis have been pretty awful; multiple times I have had someone not show up when I revealed that I used a wheelchair over the phone. Once, a taxi drove off with my friend half in and half out of the car as soon as he saw my wheelchair. Other times, I have been subjected to endless questioning about my disability and body.
This is not to say that this doesn't happen with rideshare apps too, but less often. I used Sidecar for awhile, mostly because it wasn't as evil as Lyft or Uber. I even made friends with a couple of drivers, one of whom has a radio show about African music and is from Kenya and has been trying to get his book published for a long time (I love you Edwin!). But eventually Sidecar became so incomprehensible to use, and started charging my account whether or not I got a ride, that I had to stop. I was bummed.
So now it’s Uber or Lyft. Unlike taxis, at least they make it possible to call my driver once they are already on their way, so I can tell them (it feels more like warning them, honestly) that I use a wheelchair and I’ll need them to pull up close to the curb and perhaps help me carry things out of my house.
Last week, I was already later than I wanted to be to work when I was trying to get a ride. Five Lyft drivers in a row said something akin to, “Wait, a wheelchair? How will I know if it will fit? Did you see my make of car? Do you travel with a wheelchair a lot? I don't know if I should come.”
One of them, after I cancelled the ride which he was far too dubious about giving me anyway, took the time to drive by my house just to flip me off for cancelling the ride. By that time I was full of bubbling rage and I screamed through my screen door, “Yeah, fuck you too!!!”
I have been let down, stretched thin, strung along, humiliated, and had my bodily safety put on the line by every transportation option available. Despite the fact that disabled people have existed since the dawn of time, and despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act and subsequent disability rights incentives are now nearly three decades old, I still constantly hear that old refrain:
“You're the first one I've had (seen, talked to...).”
Wow. Nothing like making a girl feel special.
Somehow, a lot of the world still gets away with ignoring the existence of disabled people, despite the fact that we are the largest minority in the world. Here's to wishing that, like the laws of the X-Men universe, mutant status came with the ability to teleport or fly.