Monday, November 1, 2010

Mile High Fight Club

SkyTrain cars are probably the most disabled-friendly vehicles in the TransLink system (if you don't factor in rush hour, which makes NOTHING disabled-friendly). They're easy enough to get in, and easy enough to get out, and usually it doesn't take too long to do so.

For the uninitiated (or the unobservant), each SkyTrain has blue accessible stickers at some doors to indicate where accessible seating is located. On the old MK1 trains, this points you to the side-facing flip-up seats. I can wheel in and park there next to the door without obstructing people. On the newer MK2 trains, this points you to side- or rear-facing flip-up seats. These are less obvious and fewer people know about them, and are actually more difficult for me to use as well. (This is why I actually prefer the older trains despite their age and generally gloomy looks.)

One day, I was at Surrey Central Station on an unusually busy off-peak day. I had to wait for the next train because the crowding simply didn't allow me to get on the train. So I moved far away from where the stairs and elevators are, so I can avoid the crush of people coming into the station from the bus loop. This meant that I would get on the front car.

The train arrived. Some people were waiting at the same spot as me, and got ready to enter the MK1 train. The doors opened. And there was a huge mountain bike in the way, with some guy sitting in the accessible flip-up seat, with his earphones blasting away. Nobody could get on because the bike was blocking the entire entrance (not to mention people gave me boarding priority because I am in a wheelchair).

"Excuse me!" I said. No response. "Sir?" No response. I love heavy rock music as much as the next person, but this was a bit much. He wasn't paying attention to anything going on around him.

Faced with the prospect of NOBODY getting on and the doors closing soon, I had no choice but to reach out and move the bike's wheels so we could at least get on. Everyone squeezed on just as the doors closed. He remained in the priority seat, his legs splayed out in a V-shape as if to take up as much floor space as humanly possible.

As the train started moving, I felt a tug on my sweater. "Guy!" the Mountain Bike Guy barked at me. "If there's a bike on the train, you should just get on another one. Now you're just blocking the way."

I thought he was joking. But apparently not. "Well, you're in the accessible seating area. How am I supposed to get out of the way when you're in the spot?"

"I can't just move. I have a bike with me. You're not supposed to get on if I have a bike and need this space."

I was astounded. Ignoring how he seems to be clueless that my mobility is even more restricted than his, I calmly pointed to the sign on the wall. It read, Priority seating for people with disabilities and seniors. "What about that sign, then?"

"It doesn't matter," he insisted. "I'm following the rules. I have a bike, and I'm supposed to be in this space. You need to get off and get on another train." He pointed to some other guys at the other end of the train with bikes. "Those guys over there, they're not following the rules. They're not supposed to bring bikes through that door."

He was right about the other guys; I'll give him that. But at the same time, he claims to "know the rules" when he actually doesn't. According to the official TransLink website on the page about bikes on SkyTrain:

Give priority to wheelchairs, scooters, baby carriages and passengers with service animals such as guide dogs.

I was about to blow a gasket on the Mountain Bike Guy. I was tempted to start cursing him out and such, but from past lessons I know that's not a good idea. Usually, when someone with a disability starts acting out, he/she can easily end up looking like an entitled princess (regardless of whether he/she has the right of way to start with). I was sure if I kept on going, I would've completely lost it anyhow, so I silently endured while imagining the oh-so-many ways to torture him, Guantanamo Bay style.

Another passenger who saw the whole thing caught my eye. His eyes and body gesture read, "What the hell is up with that guy?" I replied with a body gesture reading, "Hell if I know." What I didn't see was another passenger who also saw the whole thing, and wasn't ready to let this slide. I'll call him the Angry Passenger.

As the SkyTrain left Scott Road Station and started crawling towards the SkyBridge, that Angry Passenger spoke. "Hey, you," he said to the mountain bike person. "Take a look at the other guys with the bikes. At least they're standing. They're not taking up a seat. You could at least stand up with your bike and give your seat to him."

Mountain Bike Guy said, "Why should I? I'm supposed to be in this area. I know the rules. This is my seat."

Angry Passenger then got angry. Or angrier, rather. "WRONG," he said. "Look at the sign on the wall. Wheelchair users are entitled to that seat. You're not."

Mountain Bike Guy didn't back down. "But I have a bike with me."

I decided to get in the fray a bit. "Can you read that sign on the wall?" I asked calmly.

"Yeah," Mountain Bike Guy said.

"Then work on your reading comprehension," I replied. "Because obviously you have no idea what it says."

"Shut up," he shot back.

Angry Passenger stood up. "If you're going to talk to him that way, you need to get off the train RIGHT NOW. You're acting so 'tough' hiding behind your sunglasses while telling someone in a wheelchair to shut up and get off the train. We don't need people like you on board."

"You'd better sit your ass back down," Mountain Bike Guy warned as he stood up as well. "I have a can of mace and if you don't sit your ass back down, you're going to be sorry."

Uh oh. The last thing I wanted was an altercation while we're on a train whizzing over the Fraser River. "All right, stop!" I yelled. "You [to Angry Passenger]! Sit down. And you [to Mountain Bike Guy]! Sit down!"

They continued to bark at each other, with some really colorful language (and that's saying something, coming from me, since I'm usually known for my colorful language as well). Some other passengers also chimed in against Mountain Bike Guy.

Mountain Bike Guy's position got weaker and weaker. He accused Angry Passenger of threatening him, to which Angry Passenger replied, "YOU were the one talking about using mace!" Eventually, he realized the battle was lost. He finally said, "I'll get off the train, but next time, y'all better know the damn rules."

After he left, I gave a small thank you to Angry Passenger and explained to him that when I told both of them to back off and sit down, it wasn't because I didn't appreciate his help, but rather I wanted to avoid a fistfight over the Fraser River.

Afterwards, I had mixed feelings about the whole incident. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, but also a little proud.

I was embarrassed because it was a confrontation over me. I felt like the kid in the middle of a parental dispute right before a divorce. The confrontation would never have happened if I wasn't there. I guess you can say there's a little bit of guilt in there as well.

I felt uncomfortable because all the other passengers on board had to witness the whole incident. The train's doors were closed as it went over the river; they couldn't escape the situation even if they wanted to. Any time there's some sort of dispute or confrontation, I really hate to see other people being forced to see it.

But at the same time, I felt proud of Angry Passenger. There are so many times on the bus or SkyTrain when there'll be someone who needs one of the priority seats (such as a senior citizen or someone with a disability) and nobody would give up a seat -- and nobody would say anything about it. It's quite rare that someone would actually stand up to someone like that. Angry Passenger basically personifies all the pent-up feelings a lot of people have about this issue.

Whenever I'm on a bus in my wheelchair, I'm obviously in the wheelchair bay. But I stay alert. If someone comes on board who needs the priority seat, I would look at the seats and see who can give up the seat. If that person is unaware of the situation, I'd get that person's attention and a seat would be freed up. Thankfully most people aren't like Mountain Bike Guy and usually oblige.

Oh, and I don't think mace is allowed on SkyTrain.

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