Saturday, August 13, 2011

Invisible/subtle disabilities and transit: Not always a good mix!

As a wheelchair user, there are certain perks on public transit. The most obvious one is that we usually get loading priority as well as first dibs on the space at the front of the bus. It does not matter if there is a stroller or a walking person already in that place -- we trump everyone else.

The general hierarchy is generally, from top to bottom: wheelchair users, people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with strollers. To be honest, sometimes I do not feel very good about this hierarchy because it sometimes puts some people who actually need or deserve the priority seats at a disadvantage.

Before I go further, I have a confession to make. I can walk.

Okay, I cannot walk very well and it takes a lot out of me in terms of strength, energy and stamina (not to mention there is a significant risk of losing my balance and falling). But as long as I'm wearing my leg braces (sometimes accompanied by crutches), concentrating hard and going slowly, I can walk to a certain extent.

However, people often do not realize that not all wheelchair users are unable to walk. Some just have great difficulty walking or find that they cannot function fully without the use of a wheelchair or other assistive devices. Some may not need those devices but may have other limitations that restrict their physical abilities.

Where am I going with this? The other day, I boarded a 16 bus in downtown Vancouver heading towards Arbutus. A passenger boarded the bus and from my angle, it was quite obvious that she had some sort of condition that affected her muscles (my best guess was cerebral palsy). She had some difficulty with balance standing on board a jerky trolley bus and since her hands were affected, holding on to a pole was possible but still not optimal.

Since it was during peak hours, the bus filled up quite quickly and at one point, several elderly passengers came on board. Some healthy-looking young people did not surrender their seats for some reason (some were immersed in their Blackberries and some were even sleeping). Eventually the young woman gave up her spot since nobody else was doing it.

As the bus started to move, she tried to hold on to a pole but had difficulty doing so since the bus was absolutely packed. Since I was paying attention, it was obvious that it would be better for safety if she had a seat. However, people are so accustomed to giving their seats to people who are either visibly aged or use mobility devices that she was more or less ignored or overlooked.

Since there was a fold down seat in front of my wheelchair spot that would not impede me and I was getting off near the end of the route anyway, I immediately folded it down so I can offer it to her. Right away, someone thought, "Oooooh! A seat!" and tried to take the seat for himself. I had to assert myself at that point and say it was specifically for that woman. It was interesting how confused everyone looked; they did not understand why she would need a seat, until many stops later and after much visual scrutiny.

This is not the first time I've seen someone with an invisible or subtle disability ignored or overlooked. The most common situation in this category is younger people with conditions requiring more subtle assistive devices, such as a blind cane or walking cane. (Yes, some younger people have to use canes to get around too.) Theoretically they could ask for a seat, but this is Canada. We are often almost too polite to ask.

I guess the point of this story is to show that while it is a challenge to take public transit as a wheelchair user, it is a million times more challenging to do it as someone with an invisible or subtle disability because those people are often seen as "able-bodied" even if they use certain assistive devices. So if you are young and able-bodied and sitting on a priority seat, please stay alert (and awake) and be on the lookout for anyone who may need it.

P.S. -- other points:
  • Even for wheelchair users, some people actually do not realize that they need to give up their seats. I have had to be assertive and actually tell them what to do (no matter how obvious it may be).
  • I have tried going on public transit without a wheelchair before, wearing leg braces and using crutches. Not impossible but not something I ever want to do again.
  • If you're young and able-bodied, please do not fall asleep in the priority seats. How do you know if someone needs them if you're unconscious?
  • Know your bus: it makes things a lot smoother if you notice where the wheelchair seating spots are on the particular bus that you are on, so you know if you need to move.

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