Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"A long time ago, we used to be friends"

(Yes, this blog post's title is taken from the theme song of "Veronica Mars.")


This morning, I came across the following on Twitter:

Jeez, no matter how late I'm running, I'd never yell at someone in a wheelchair for "slowing down the bus". #shakesheadless than a minute ago via Twitter for Android

It seems like a nonchalant tweet that doesn't mean much. But there is much more to this tweet than meets the eye.

If you do a simple search on Twitter for "wheelchair" and "bus," you will find that there are a lot of angry commuters out there who find wheelchair users on public transit to be a nuisance. The general gist of it is, "I'm in a rush and now a wheelchair user needs to get on. Stupid wheelchair users, making me late for work/school/etc." There are other various complaints as well.

What's interesting is that some wheelchair users today might have been one of those people once.

The other day, I attended a wheelchair basketball clinic at Douglas College in New Westminster. If you know the location and its topography, you will recall that the campus is very close to the SkyTrain station -- but has a 33-degree incline between the station and campus. Obviously going up (or down) that hill in a wheelchair is not really something you want to do, especially when it is raining like it was that day.

So instead of risking life and limb, I decided to simply take a bus from the station, even though it is only a one-stop ride. I didn't feel good about taking up all that time boarding/de-boarding for a one-stop journey, but what other choice is there?

At the basketball clinic a few hours later, I was chatting with someone else who I had previously met at GF Strong Rehab Centre during another event and the steep hill entered the conversation, and subsequently the necessary bus ride.

When I mentioned how it was uncomfortable taking that much time for only one stop away, the person said, "You know... It's interesting because before I was in a wheelchair, I was one of those people who would HATE it when someone in a chair had to get on. So when I got in a chair, I would avoid the bus as much as possible because of that." She said she got over that after a while, though obviously both of us agreed that it was best to get on and off as quickly as possible.

I think there is a certain transition period when you first start using a wheelchair. One of the steps in the transition is going from someone relatively anonymous to a sort of "performer" who is being watched by the audience. The bus is one such stage, and when all eyes are on you, it feels rather scary that you are now the centre of attention.

Of course, when you watch something, time tends to slow down. ("A watched pot never boils" comes to mind here.) I have a theory that is the reason why there are so many upset commuters out there who direct their frustration at wheelchair users, because we are so visible. It's much less common that you would hear the same frustration at people who are slow at taking out their fares or who have to ask the bus driver questions.

There is a certain level of discomfort for us wheelchair users too because we are being watched and have no idea whether you're watching for curiosity or watching while thinking, "Stupid wheelchair user. Let's roll him/her off a cliff or feed him/her to a pack of wolves or something." It may be paranoia talking but I have always found this rather unnerving and it takes a while to get used to.

In short, being a "performer" rattles me and these negative comments I keep seeing don't help. If you feel angry or upset at wheelchair users on the bus, consider the fact that perhaps we once shared the same thoughts as you and we don't want to be in our present condition any more than you want us to delay your commute. I really hope that one day most people wouldn't get so upset about wheelchair users sharing the same need to commute by public transit.

(If you really need to be in a rush on most days, perhaps consider adopting the "30 Minute Rule" at the bottom of this previous blog entry.)

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