The year that I turned 55, I gave up any last control I thought I may have had over what other people think of me as a disabled person. The transformation happened when I got a disabled persons ID card from the Transit Authority to allow me to use disability passes on public transportation in the City. The pass I use is one of several that the TA offers and it allows the holder to get a discounted fare and gives access to priority seating on all city buses.
The idea is that the first 8 or 10 seats near the front door of any bus are designated as priority seating, reserved for the elderly and the disabled. This way the pass holder can quickly get a seat and not have to navigate far to get off the bus. The area is very clearly labeled on the seats themselves and on signs posted around the seats. If an elderly or disabled person gets on the bus and the priority area is full, an able bodied person is required to relinquish their seat. While this is indeed a kindhearted notion, I quickly found that this isn’t always what actually happens. It took me almost a year and many public and private confrontations to get people on my bus line to show me this courtesy.
Riding the City bus system on a regular basis and actually depending on it requires a particular mindset. This is especially true if you use some of the inner city lines where people depend on the buses to navigate even the bare essential life activities. On these lines passengers can be seen transporting children, grocery bags, carrying laundry and even staying off the streets until the shelter opens. Riders wrangle folded up baby strollers- as well as the baby that came out of it, shift bags and packages to fit wherever and even transport just ordered carry out pizza and sodas home for a meal.
Wheelchair bound people regularly board and debark these buses as well as those who use canes and walkers. These take time getting positioned and the walkers have to be folded up and gotten out of the aisle as much as possible so others can walk by. There are also always ambulatory but otherwise disabled ID card holders in the mix. Everybody and anybody is trying to get somewhere on the too few buses that traverse the city. Morning and evening rush hour are especially crowded.
I have traveled on the City buses off and on for over 50 years. As a child I remember taking trips downtown to shop. Later I attended high school as well as college and graduate school on the City bus. I faithfully got to work every day I was supposed to on the bus during my undergraduate years.
As a bus traveling child and young adult, the fact that I was missing my lower right arm and hand didn’t make much functional difference, I was strong and could hold on if I ended up standing in the aisle. When traffic got congested and the driver was challenged, I could just hold on tighter and it didn’t matter. Bus passes for the disabled community were not available then and if they were it wouldn’t have occurred to me to get one.
By the time I reached 55 years of age, the lifetime effects of using one side of my body more than the other began to take its toll. A misalignment of my backbone was aggravated by trying to stand and hold on to a pole or overhead strap on a moving bus and resulted in chronic back and headaches. This began draining my overall energy and it was time for me to get a disabled persons bus pass.
During this period, I had a job that required me to take two buses to work. While the distance wasn’t far, my commute required that I catch one bus that was reliably packed all the way up to the front door with school kids and then transfer to another bus on a corner where every aspect of inner city life could be observed.
To get on the first bus I had to start about 1 ½ hours before I was due at work. I had to go to a corner 6 blocks away where I was sure the bus would actually stop. There I joined a bunch of kids at the curb to wait. When a bus stopped I might be able to squeeze on only to stand packed against the wall or a pole or another person. Thankfully the crowd thinned out substantially when we reached the first High School. Then I could usually move to a seat.
On my transfer corner, while some groups of people stood politely at the stop and waited for the bus, others smoked in the bus shelters, spit freely around the benches, talked way too loud on cell phones, ate their breakfast and threw the trash and uneaten portion on the ground. Some riders begged for money, others preached to the bystanders. Homeless people dragged their belongings around and made their presence known by their odor as well as their appearance. Pigeons landed all around to eat fried chicken and pizza crusts left in the street.
Bus arrivals were often very unpredictable and when they did come, all of the people at the stop piled on. I have waited as long as an hour for one of the connecting busses and also raced for one of three of the same bus number when they all showed up at the same time. Often the coaches themselves would be less than clean and in need of maintenance. On these busses and sometimes on the stops themselves, it could very well be a situation of every man woman and child for himself!
This was the environment of my daily work commute and I came to accept it. As I waited for my bus and watched the people, I often turned over plans in my mind to improve the world for me and those on the bus stop who I saw as doing their best but in need of a boost of some kind.
The first day that I got a disabled persons ID card and hung it around my neck, my relationship to all of this shifted. Everyone, including the bus drivers, owed me a courtesy and a seat on the bus and I decided I would have it. This was my way to get to work and I intended to take advantage of it.
The challenges of this endeavor were both personal and public. I had years ago come to the acceptance of myself as a person who was missing my lower right arm and hand. While I myself had accepted this particular feature within myself, I knew that other people still had their reactions, thoughts and opinions about my “condition”. For the most part I just let people be where ever they were. Most often when other commuters shared with me what they thought of me and my arm, in a good natured way I just let them. I had been enjoying a peaceful co-existence with all of God’s children.
When it came time for me to claim my rightful place in a disabled persons seat on a city bus, my intention to do this often created a conflict. There were able bodied people who wanted to sit in the disabled seating while disabled and elderly people stood on a rolling bus. Additionally, there were drivers who didn’t care that this was going on. To press my point, I had to put myself on display in a public way on a bus and speak my very personal feelings. While my needs dictated that I do this in a clear and straight forward manner, my values required that I embrace my highest regard for the worth of the person I was addressing. It was important to me that I not react in disgust and be demeaning.
I remember one morning after fighting my way to a seat on my first bus and then transferring to my second bus and again finding all of the disabled seats full. The first three seats at the front were clearly designated and labeled for the elderly and the disabled. In the center seat was a mother with a small child on her lap. Next to her on one side was an older daughter and seated on her other side was her son who looked to be about 13. I asked him for his seat and he stood up without hesitation. I gratefully sat down and thanked the young man for his courtesy.
In an instant the mother began berating me in a loud and harsh voice. She was not very articulate but that didn’t stop her tirade. A litany of what she considered to be my character flaws, my unfair treatment of her son and my overall bad behavior flowed nonstop out of her mouth. I sat there and when she took a breath I quietly said to her “If you want to fight about this, the law is on my side”. She disregarded my input and continued her tirade for several more blocks. When I got off the bus (before she did) the driver quietly expressed disbelief to me that anyone would talk to another human being that way. I myself wondered how and why the driver would allow it. The next day when I got on that same bus and sat in a disabled seat, another passenger from the back of the bus came forward and in a loud but kind voice apologized to me for that woman’s behavior. She flatly declared to me and everyone else that “it is just ignorance!”
Any illusions I may have had up to that point about my arm not being noticeable were officially blown. My issues were front and center for everyone’s information and entertainment. City buses are not private places.
Another drama occurred one morning when I got on the bus and saw a high school student sitting in a disabled persons seat. I asked her to let me sit down. She said “no.” I told her she was sitting in a disabled persons seat and she said she didn’t care. Another passenger who was sitting in a regular seat thoughtfully gave me hers.
I knew which school that student was attending and when I got to work I called and reported her behavior to the principal. The next morning when I got on the bus-there she was again-sitting in a disabled persons seat! I sat down across from her and told her that I reported her behavior to her principal and that I would do it again. She got a hurt look on her face and said “Why would you do a thing like that?!” She further explained to me that it didn’t make any difference where she sat. The next day when I got on the bus and she saw me, she got up and went to the back of the bus, leaving the disabled seat for someone like me who needed it.
Several times over the next month I called the schools of the students who sat in the disabled seats and wouldn’t move. I knew which schools they attended by the uniforms they wore and I let the principals know what kind of impression their students were making in the community. Eventually this thoughtless behavior decreased and the students more often offered these seats to the people for whom they were intended.
In addition to the riders who needed feedback, there were several bus drivers who had something to learn. It became my practice when I boarded a crowded bus to tell the driver that I needed a seat. Many drivers called out to the riders- “I need a seat up front for the lady in the red coat!”- an announcement worthy of a Royal arrival at the Ball! Some drivers made sure they didn’t move the bus until a seated person got up. This was very helpful and I always made sure I thanked the driver and said a gracious thank you to whoever stood up. Sometimes I called the bus company and complimented the driver.
Often there were problems that arose with the drivers, usually in the afternoon while I was on my way home from work. I think it may have been in part from me being too tired to put up the battle. On these occasions I boarded a very crowded bus and told the driver I needed a seat. When the driver said “I don’t care!”, or “I can’t do anything about it” or “That’s not my problem” I got off the bus, made note of the coach number and the time, called the bus company on my cell phone and reported the driver. I did this enough times that the drivers eventually stopped saying this to me.
Over time I got a reputation with both the riders and the drivers and people made sure I got a seat. I was always gracious and thankful to the person who got up for me. Riders became more attentive to elderly people standing while a younger, abler bodied person sat.
Looking back on all of this, I can see that the whole experience was indeed a gift to me. While I had always been touched by the humanity I saw every day, piling onto and off of those buses, somehow I had always held myself as separate. In some quietly arrogant way I thought I didn’t really belong there and in some secret way I was better than this. After about 600 trips back and forth, on those same busses, through that same corner, with people who became familiar and even asked after me, I caught a glimpse of myself. I was there on that corner because I needed to get to work and I didn’t have a car. I needed my daily living just as much as every single person out there. I was one of them and not one single ounce “more worthy”. A mentor that I had once would have called this “a profound relationship with what is true.”
I also learned some lessons in kindness. On the hot summer afternoons when we were all waiting on the same uncomfortable corner for a bus that just wasn’t coming, all of us were hot and tired from getting through whatever our day had held. We all wanted to get where we were going. Still, there were people who spent their energy extending kindness to me because of my arm. Instead of distancing myself because they were noticing, I learned to open my heart and accept it. Accepting a kind word or gesture could become a connection where we both felt better for the expression. Yes, I do indeed have a shortened right arm, and no right hand- and I let it in when people are openly generous with me because of it.
The writer acknowledges that this recounting is reflective of only two bus lines during a specific time period and are not necessarily reflective of the entire City bus system.