I, like many members of the disabled community, do not drive. This makes it a common story to rely on other forms of transportation to get to everything from jobs, doctor appointments, social gatherings and basically the movements that make up any full life. I’ve always been rather uncomfortable with the idea of public transportation for entirely unrelated reasons. I have no sense of direction. I’m terrible with maps. I get lost easily. You get the picture. This has meant that for most of my life I’ve been unaware of a kind of privilege I have by being able to depend on my fiancé or family members to drive me from place to place.
As a teenager, this is easy since your world is pretty small and in college I could take my wheelchair from place to place on campus. Because we were both full-time students, (I was only working freelance) my fiancé could usually take me any place else I needed to be. However, as my college experience began to draw to a close I started looking around at what the options were for me to travel as a writer if I couldn’t learn to drive.
I had taken a special bus service for the disabled back and forth to my first high school, job but the service was so difficult to work with and offered such crazy time windows that I knew that was out of the question.
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Next came the train.
I had always been told trains are a great option because living in New Jersey puts me close to both N.Y.C and Philadelphia for job opportunities. So, to see how easy this was I took the train to D.C. to visit relatives and try out the process. The process of taking a train as a wheelchair user (or anyone in need of assistance I think) is supposed to look like this: You buy a special ticket (which is usually cheaper), then are assisted onto and off of the train by employees called redcaps who meet you at your destination.
My train experience went a little more like this: My parents have to help me onto the train but because a couple refused to get up from the seat that was meant for me they were almost taken away on the train with me, till another place was offered to me at the last second. Upon returning from Washington I was asked by an employee at the train station what my stop would be and when I told them Philadelphia I was told a redcap would be waiting for me. Instead, when we arrived in Philadelphia no one was there to assist me and a woman at the front desk tried to convince my father that the only disabled woman on the train was instead headed for Newark. Only because my father broke the rules by coming down to the platform and pointing me out to someone who worked there did they stop the train allowing me to safely exit.
This was about the same time that stories started showing up about disabled folks who were suing airlines for being forced to crawl off of planes.
When protocols are followed the experience of flying as a disabled person feels invasive. Pat-downs are extensive and often involve being asked to standup from our wheelchairs. Once that is finished, our chairs are taken away to be further inspected for bombs and smaller airport wheelchairs that fit through the isles are supposed to be provided with our own chairs awaiting when we arrive. In the cases mentioned above, passengers were forced to crawl down the isle of the plane and in some cases onto the tarmac. Of course, because lawsuits were filed in these cases the airlines insist that changes are being made.
As someone who travels for writing events as well as for enjoyment, I have done a fair amount of flying in my life and though I’ve always found the process uncomfortable I was led to believe that I was never in danger and that these cases would bring about change. Then just a few weeks ago Hannah Cohen’s face came across my television screen. This young woman was on her way to undergo treatment for brain cancer. In a wheelchair and having issues with vision as well as understandably panicked when she was grabbed by a T.S.A agent who proceeded to beat her face bloody.
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Within a matter of days, stories broke that the metro system in Washington D.C. did not have a proper evacuation plan in place for riders with disabilities and expected they would be assisted by firefighters in the event of an emergency. This would leave disabled riders vulnerable until firefighters could reach them. Knowing this, an offer was made to disabled passengers that they could ride for free in order to take the burden off the assisted bus system, which had become expensive to run. Friends of mine in the area who depend on the system to get to work have begun to fear for their health and safety.
Writer Natalie E. Illum tells me:
I’m not a regular metro rider, mostly because I’ve thought it was unsafe for people with disabilities for a long time. If I was using a mobility scooter or even walking with my crutches, I wouldn’t be able to evacuate the train safely under the tunnels if there was a crash or fire. The tunnels aren’t/weren’t designed for people with disabilities or people of size to navigate. However, I did use metro recently, after “safe track” started, to get to a physical therapy appointment.
The trains were so delayed, during rush hour, that there were lines/rows of people 8 to 10 feet deep. When the doors opened, I didn’t even have enough room to exit the train onto the platform using the scooter. I need about 3 feet of clearance and I was terrified of knocking people into the tracks after the train left, or running over their feet, because nobody was paying attention, even when I raised my voice, due to their cell phones and the crowd. I was literally in a sea of people and worried for their safety as I made my way to the elevator. I was 20 mins late for my PT appointment and panicking by the time I got there. Completely unsafe for any body, regardless of ability. And that was during the first week of metro’s safety “improvements.”
One of the biggest complaints I hear about the disabled community is that we do not contribute enough to society. The stereotype that we want only to sit around living off of government assistance has followed me around most of my life. However, now that I am entering the post-college working world and have taken a look at my options I am left with only one question.
How are we to participate in the working world if our options for transportation treat our safety, at best as an afterthought and at worst as something they can disregard entirely?
I, and ever other disabled person I know, wants to contribute to the betterment of the world around us.But, when we constantly have to be concerned about how we move through that world and know that our safety is not protected in doing so, what great work is the world missing out on.
The world at large suffers because the members of my community cannot focus their energy and talents on broader issues. Those living in fear do not live their best and fullest lives. Thus, they do not offer their full potential to the world.
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[Feature Image:A black and white photo of a fair skin person sitting in a wheelchair outdoors, on a city street in front of a business. The person has chin length hair and a bang and is wearing a skull cap, dark coat and pants as a bag rests in their lap. They are looking ahead at the camera. By: Gregor Fisher, Flickr.com ]