Ah, public transportation. Buses. Trains. The uncomfortable chairs coated in a sticky substance. That smell! I just don’t want to know what it is. There’s the suffocating press of bodies squeezed together. A quiet exchange of sweat that, in any other circumstance, would be disgusting. The long lines and a schedule that’s loosely based on our current understanding of time, space, and relative dimensions.
It is convenient, I’ll give it that, and it’s good for the environment. I’m not a scientist, obviously, but I do know that things with engines are bad for the stuff we inhale. Driving less means we die slower? Either way, saving what’s left of this little plant is a good idea because mars looks dusty and, you know, allergies.
I’m all for recycling, sustainability, and reducing foots prints on places. I consider myself a green person. I’m all for the three R’s. Where are my green people at? Whoop! Public transportation though? Uh, well, I just…You know what it is? I…Um… How do I say this? Uh, I don’t like it.
I can tolerate the creepy guy sitting way in the back. His bag placed strategically over his lap. The volume on his earphones cranked a little too loud. His breathing grows heavier. The bag bounces rhythmically. You’re not fooling anyone! We all know what you’re doing and, you know what, do you booboo. No one likes to wake up early and we’ve all gotta get ourselves motivated somehow. Most of us drink coffee but I guess your way works too, I guess.
The other man, old enough to be my grandfather, reaching for the handhold and oops, his hand slips. It lands somewhere inappropriate. He smiles, shrugs, apologizes, while storing that moment away for later. Maybe the train ride home? You’re nasty. I’m not interested. Do it again, and my elbow will connect with your oopsy.
What the hell’s an oopsy?
Okay, it’s not all bad. Public transportation has some positive attributes. It beats sitting in rush hour traffic for three hours. It’s gotta be better than trying to find a parking spot that doesn’t cost more than my car. It’s better than driving twenty minutes out of the way because road work takes up four city blocks. When world leaders are in town for some sort of summit?
Yay public transportation!
No, I’m not trading in my car keys for a bus pass. Also, I’m not placing the blame on creepy men, bad odours, and sticky seats. Here’s the thing about buses, trains, and all the rest: They terrify me. Why? Thanks for asking! You’re very kind and considerate. That’s what I like about you.
My chronic illness has left me with some mobility issues. Sometimes I walk with a limp and a cane. Other times I appear just fine. You could pass me on the street, and you’d never know that I’m struggling. Which makes riding on a bus or train very complicated. It becomes trickier if dare to sit in THAT seat.
You know the one I’m talking about right? It’s the chair closest to the door. There are signs with words and pictures. This spot is reserved. The ass that sits here belongs to someone in need. Trespassers will be yelled at, cursed out, and scolded aggressively. You’ve been warned! Sit at your own risk.
The problem is, not everyone with a disability looks like the pictures. We don’t all resemble the characters on your favourite medical shows. That image, while true for some, doesn’t apply to all. According to one survey, 74% of people with disabilities don’t use a wheelchair or other aides that signal a disability. We have, what’s called, an invisible disability.
Sometimes my outsides match my insides, and it’s obvious. My legs don’t bend and I walk like a drunk penguin. These are the days that I pull out my walking stick for a little extra support. Other times the discomfort is internal and invisible.
Inside I’m in pain. You can’t see pain. You can’t see the metal rods in my legs. You can’t see the old scars and or feel when they burn. You can’t hear the crunch and grind my knees make when I walk. You can’t hear my hip pop or my back crack. If you looked at me, on a good day, you wouldn’t know because I don’t look like the pictures.
For those of us with mobility or medical conditions, riding on a crowded train or bus can be a nightmare. Just getting to the platform is horrible. There are at least a hundred steps to climb. Sure there’s an elevator but it’s usually locked. The key is almost always several stations over and the guy holding it is on his lunch break.
I’m not waiting an hour for a ride that takes less than a minute, so I take a deep breath and begin the climb. I hug the railing so others can walk past. Most don’t give me a second look. They’re busy people with places to go. They step around and continuing on their merry way.
Then comes a poke. Once, twice, three times. Behind me, a man sighs loudly and pokes me in the back. He uses an umbrella with a long metal tip. He jabs me again and I turn around. I tell him to stop. I tell him I have mobility issues. I’m going as fast as I can. I suggest, politely, that he goes around like everyone else. He calls me an unkind name and tells me to move *expletive* faster. Then he raises his umbrella to punctuate his point.
I threaten to call the police and kind strangers step in to help. He curses again and steps around me. I’ll ice the bruises later but at least it didn’t escalate. I know, sadly, that some of you have had worse experiences. I’ve heard of people with disabilities being kicked off buses and left stranded late at night. Some have been assaulted so severely they’ve ended up in the hospital. Others have been hurt so horrendously they’ve lost their lives.
Why did it happen? Well, for one, we’re easy targets and bigotry is real. In some cases, it happens because we don’t match the pictures above that seat. We don’t look like a character on a tv show. The image of what being disabled means has been distorted and we don’t measure up.
I’ve been told that I’m, “Too young to have a disability.”
Then why do we have doctors for babies and hospitals set up to treat sick, injured, children? I know, that’s a head scratcher.
I’ve been told, “Prove it.”
How do I prove something that’s invisible? I can’t! I can try to explain my situation but if they won’t hear me out? Well, the situation can escalate very quickly because they’ve made up their minds. A disabled person looks like a disabled person. I do not. Therefore, I’m not a disabled person? The logic is pretty solid if you squint, stand on your head, and hold your breath.
Public transit used to be my go to mode of transportation. I was studying downtown, and it was just easier to hop on the train. I put up with the abuse and the lack of empathy. Begrudgingly tolerated the inaccessibility and the ignorance. For the sake of convenience, finances, and the environment I sucked it up.
Every time I walked into the station or stood by the bus stop, I braced for the fight. I knew I was going to be pushed around by hurried crowds. I’d have to climb stairs because the elevator was locked and the escalators were broken. There would be at least one person who yelled at me and I had to prepare for someone to do worse than that. All of these things were inevitable and exhausting.
Now, I avoid transit at all costs. Luckily, I’m can choose my mode of transportation, but many aren’t. They have to put up with the inconvenience and the abuse. They have to fight for their right to sit in that seat. In some cases, they have to fight for their lives because ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance put them in mortal danger.
All that being said, as someone who’s needed that seat, I appreciate the people who speak up. You’re trying to do the right thing because you care about the people around you. Your compassion is remarkable and, too often, a rarity. Speaking up, stepping into help, makes you an exceptional human being. Thank-you for that and please don’t stop.
There’s a “but” coming. Can you feel it? Here it comes.
But when it comes time to speak up, can we do it without anger? Can we do it without name calling? Can we try patience and understanding? Do we really have to curse people out? Can our words be as kind as the sentiment behind them?
I don’t mind if you ask as long as you’re respectful. Personally, I have no problem talking about what I’ve been through. That’s not true for everyone, but you can ask nicely. Something like, “Hey, uh, I get that not all disabilities are visible. Just checking that you’re okay.”
Maybe that’s cheesy. Yeah, it’s cheesy but if we’re willing to fight then we can start with a little diplomacy. Instead of starting with anger, begin with kindness and compassion. Ask, be respectful, and be open to the response. Our hearts in the right place so how about we let our hearts guide out words?
We can’t tell what someone’s struggling with by looking at them. Not everyone will look like the pictures. Our disabilities are invisible but we aren’t so please, please, please choose kindness. Follow your heart and be kind.