Many of us living with paralysis, either because of good fortune or maybe a studied myopia, see the world out there as generally sympathetic to our plight. In fact, speaking for myself, my main complaint is that most people I encounter are a little too friendly, irritatingly solicitous, and treat me like a helpless senior citizen. The occasional ramp-less entry way aside, I don’t run into that much trouble. I certainly don’t encounter rank hostility or prejudice. People might secretly think I’m a pathetic, useless, social-service-sucking member of society, but they hide it behind a supportive smile.
Then something happens that jars me back to reality.
In this case, it happened to a friend of mine. His name is Michael Dougherty, born with spina bifida and currently trying to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter. The Writers Guild has an excellent film series of unreleased or newly released films and Mike likes to see every one of them. He gets to the WGA Theatre from his home in Hollywood via public transportation. In his wheelchair, he takes the new LA Metro Red Line subway to one stop and then grabs an MTA bus – the 720 -- to a stop near the movie house. When everything runs smoothly, it’s a piece of cake.
Last week, Mike was leaving the theatre at a typically late hour and found that the first two 720 buses approaching his corner were filled to capacity and passed him by. This had happened before, even with not so filled buses, so Mike was resigned to wait on a third bus. He was a little nervous. If he didn’t hit it right, the subway might make its last run of the night and leave him stranded, adding hours to his trip home. So when Bus #3 pulled up, he breathed a sigh of relief and hopped on.
The bus wasn’t full, but passengers were sitting where the seats came up to allow space for a wheelchair. Mike waited politely for the driver to politely ask a couple of passengers to move to another seat. Instead, the driver, an older Hispanic man, spun around and instructed Mike to “get off my bus.” Mike was a little stunned – the guy had just put the bus ramp down for him to get on the bus – so the driver raised his voice a couple of notches. “Get off the bus!!!”
Mike knew that getting into a shouting match with the guy wasn’t going to help, so he pointed to the sign reading “Priority Seating for Elderly/Disabled Passengers.” “Sir,” he said, “the sign says ‘priority.’ I have a right to be on this bus.”
The driver snapped back, “Don’t tell me how to do my job. The sign doesn’t say that. That sign is a CHOICE. Nobody has to do anything and I’m not going to move them. I did my job.”
No passenger had budged during this whole encounter, leaving Mike with the impression that they weren’t planning on moving. Maybe some didn’t speak English or understand the situation. Maybe not. Finally, probably tired of the delay, a couple of them huffed and switched seats. Mike now had a place on the bus, though the driver only made a half-assed effort to secure his chair with straps. Mike just held on, keeping the lowest profile he could.
Finally getting to his stop, the driver unstrapped him, gave him a little shove, and topped off his visit with another loud, “Get out!” Shaken, Mike caught the Red Line and made it home. He figured he’d get a measure of justice for this blatantly discriminatory behavior by reporting the driver to MTA headquarters the next morning. He figured wrong. The lady in the Accessibility Department said the driver would hear from someone about his rudeness, but in the same breath, told Mike that the driver was essentially right – passengers were encouraged to move in that situation, but not legally obliged to. That’s how the law in California was written, she said. End of conversation.
Whatever the fine print of the law, the message Mike got on that bus ride was as clear as a kick in the head. The driver resented his presence. It was extra work for him to accommodate Mike and he didn’t get any extra pay for doing it and he couldn’t care less about Mike’s problems. But the bigger message – the really ugly one – is that the other passengers, mostly of color, seemed to resent Mike, too. No one stepped forward to resolve the dispute. Legally, Mike saw himself as a second-class citizen, but as a human being among other human beings on a city bus, he saw himself as a pariah, a lesser-than – the pushy, always-looking-for-special-treatment crippled people. And the best way to let that person know his lowly status is by not moving out of your seat.
The ADA is twenty-two years old, but the cultural impact of the ADA – at least in some quarters of the culture – has yet to register. If you are disabled, you’re still on the bottom rung.
“Get off of my bus!”
© 2012 Allen Rucker |