Internet — information — criticism — poetry — connection — feminism — open source — open spaces — translation — digression — recursion — boats — wheelchairs — disability rights — ranting — the future — by Liz Henry
I was going to the bus stop yesterday, on a wide sidewalk on Mission, and I passed a couple who were standing by the bus stop bench about to sit down. I was hugging the wall by the pizza place and nail shop and about to turn to wait for the bus just a little ways down from the bus bench. So, I was something like 8-10 feet away from the couple.
The woman looked up as I passed and said “OH!!! Sorry!!!! I didn’t see you!” and kind of mimed as if she were getting out of my way. This was weird, since she wasn’t in my way, I wasn’t in her way, and there was nothing indicating that I was about to be anywhere near them.
“Uh…” I said, super coherently. “Well, I saw you, so, ok.”
Then I waited for the bus without anything further happening but I could see her weird discomfort. She was still bothered. She kept looking at me and kind of acting agitated. Her “Sorry!” was actually not a sorry but was more like a hostile accusation as if I had done something wrong and actually I was supposed to apologize.
This happens all the time (basically a microaggression). Like what happens when someone exaggeratedly holds a door open for me, and I don’t want them to, and I have to ask them to move out of the way because they think they’re holding the door open but they are literally blocking my path through the doorway and I don’t want to run them over. Or even if i can get by, I don’t want to put my face in their armpit.
People doing this kind of thing aren’t helping — they get angry if you don’t respond “correctly”, and then it becomes clear that they started out angry with their bogus offer of help. They are full of resentment and are uncomfortable with my presence and they want me to behave in a way that is apologizing for my presence.
Once you’ve experienced this multiple times a day every day, as you are just minding your own business, you will know what I mean.
And, actually, I’m not always so proud, I often act in a placating manner to make other people comfortable, especially in a crowd, while waiting in line, on the bus, and so on, because honestly it just makes thing easier. For example I normally feel like I am “supposed to” thank the bus driver at least 6 times while getting on and off the damn bus, once at every stage of the interaction like, they see me and start to lower the ramp or lift, they then offer help of various kinds or do stuff, or they give me unneeded (bad) advice or warnings, and I have to acknowledge it and I try to be polite. Probably, y’all get on and off a bus with maybe one “thanks” if you exit at the front but that is not my experience.
So, back to our story.
Time passes. I sit at the front of the bus playing Pokémon, and everything is remarkably peaceful for a middle of the day ride on the 49 bus. The driver remembers I’m there and also, I remembered to push the “ramp please” button well ahead of time and there is only one guy in front of me who is kind of trapped and has to get off the bus to let me off by the ramp, but the driver still yelled at the top of her lungs, “WHEELCHAIR COMING OFF WATCH YOUR FEET I SAID WHEEEEEEEEELCHAIR COMING OFF” I thanked the driver and said have a nice day. While the yelling is often unnecessary and unpleasant it does get the job done. The thing is I can say “excuse me” or “con permiso” myself to the people who I need to get by who are usually looking right at me anyway and can tell I am intending to get off the bus and can see perfectly well what needs to happen.
OK so, now I’m off the bus and it’s an even wider sidewalk than on Mission where I started. The sidewalk is at least 15 feet across. I suddenly realize that same couple who were at the bus stop with me had gotten off at the back of the bus and were on the sidewalk, again near the curb while I was on the far right side of the sidewalk by the buildings. The woman fidgeted around (not sure how to describe this – but it’s like someone doing a lot of “pay attention to me!” body language like they are about to speak to you – as if awkwardly trying to get the attention of a waiter including being frustrated at not already having that attention). And she did a little laugh and said “Oh!!!! I’ll TRY not to get in your WAY this time!!” and mimed “getting out of my way” again even though I was nowhere near her and not aimed anywhere near her.
It was so irritating!
I said “You weren’t in my way before and you’re not in my way now” and stared at her with what was probably the rudest face possible of incredulousness as if a cartoon though balloon that said “You’re an idiot” was floating over my head.
“Gaaaaah! I was JUST JOKING!” she said huffily…. making a little scoffing noise. Her husband stood there looking awkward and probably wishing he could sink into the ground with embarrassment.
I did not behave with the proper level of humility for this beeyatch to accept my presence on the public sidewalk!
I beetled uphill at a goodly clip, my maximum 5 miles per hour, wishing I were a goddamn rocketship to get away from this rude person even faster!
Lady… Let me just be clear…. Madam Fussypants, stick-up-your-butt, REI-clothing-wearing-probably-a-unitarian-white-lady-who-loves-calling-the-cops lady from my neighborhood…..I can snap judge you too! (Thusly.) I dunno what your deal is but you want me to perform some sort of role here for you that I am unwilling to perform!
I am notorious for chatting in a friendly way with total strangers on the street but she was such a jerkface that instead she got my “fuck off” attitude and nearly got me to stop dead in my tracks and pop off in an enormous harangue that would not have helped her obvious feeling of discomfort with my MERE PRESENCE IN THE PUBLIC WORLD.
Whatever demon she is wrestling with, whatever fear of disability…. I wish she would go deal with it in therapy and stop letting it hang out all over the sidewalk. I can’t be the only wheelchair user she ever sees in this town especially if she takes the goddamn 49 bus! What is her problem!
As my mom would say… Some people just need a good slap!
OK, so, all of y’all, don’t do this shit, it’s ridiculous!
Random encounter: On the 49 bus yesterday I explained my scooter to a woman who was very interested in one for herself. Then had to start over but this time in Spanish for another woman and then the first one began translating for someone who spoke Mandarin. 5 people took cards with the name of the scooter on it (at least…. I may have lost count). Somewhere between 24th St. and 14th St. I finally just took the whole scooter apart, folded it up, passed around the lithium battery, then put it back together (by request). “FREE SHOW Y’ALL!!!”
The first lady (the Chinese translator) nearly got off the bus with me to try it. She had opinions on reupholstering, making it easier to fold, a better cup holder, my decorations, the good qualities of the little bell on my handlebars (which she kept reaching over to ring, looking at me and giggling)
It was a little bit emotionally exhausting and I missed my usual Ingress hacking/Pokémon catching fun for the bus ride but it was also super fun. We had good cameraderie going in the front section of the bus.
If everyone I talk with about mobility scooters gets one, none of us are gonna be able to fit on the bus 😀 They will need more and better buses, that’s all!
Random encounter on the bus yesterday on the way home. The bus was a little crowded, enough that I thought the bus driver might not let us on, but he started to lower the lift for me and to ask some folks to move back. As he did, an older woman with a walker came up and I fell back a bit to let her get on first (on the theory that I am sitting down, she is standing up, let her get settled). She nodded at me in a very definitive way as if to say, “CORRECT”.
But the bus driver even more correctly said, No, wheelchair first, and I realized that if the lady with the walker got on first I would not be able to go past her easily to get into the wheely spot because of the particular configuration of the bus, so I got on first (with some attempt at conciliating explanation ) As I settled into a seat and pulled my scooter into the little open slot next to it I realized I should save the empty seat next to me for her because she was very short and the other open seat near the front was the kind over the wheel well that is a few inches higher (too high for my feet to reach the ground if I sat there) So I stopped a middle school kid from sitting next to me. Walker lady saw this with a keen eye and sat with me triumphantly. Ada came to stand behind my scooter with her back against the upturned seats, messing with her phone.
We smiled at each other a lot. She then pointed out that my red flowers on my scooter matched her red walker and jacket. I agreed and said I like bright things. “This is from Guatemala (her bag), This is from Mexico (her brightly flowered huipil) This is from Peru (her woollen striped headband) And me, from Mexico” I admired her colorful ornamentation and said where I was intending to get off. She was going to play bingo at the church on Cortland. I told her about the free tai chi classes at the neighborhood center across the street.
During the bus ride every time someone new got on she quickly assessed the seating situation and decided where the new people should go. And she made it happen with very little English – and perfect confidence – in fact we both conspired (in a way hard to describe but which meant we had to both indicate with body language that people were welcome to go past us or that we could slightly move our machinery around and back again). Her bus-packing logic was impeccable, factoring in frailty, youth, and encumberment.
On this bus, I generally get off at 30th Street because it’s a more major stop than the one a bit closer to my house, and more people get on and off there. If I wait for the closer stop, then the bus fills up and I have to make my wheely way past many people’s toes, so it’s better to leave during the period of greater churn. I would have liked to explain my reasoning to the maestra of bus loading but instead wished her luck at bingo.
“Do you see that lady a lot?” Ada asked me once we were on the sidewalk. No — I just somehow loved her instantly because she was so cheery, and also because she was super into figuring out bus seating optimization. 😀 That’s my story…. It is uneventful – but I enjoyed the entire thing.
Also! That was a particularly decent bus driver to let us both on without fuss and I intend to compliment him through the 311 system.
A bad incident on the bus in June led me to file a formal complaint. I described the incident as it unfolded on Twitter, and then gathered the tweets about it here on Storify: Screaming wheelchair-hating SF MUNI bus driver. I routinely go through moments where bus drivers resist the idea of letting me on the bus, or just pass me up, or act a little rude or horrible. In those cases, I have sometimes filed a complaint, and sometimes not, and let it go at that. Life isn’t perfect, neither are people, and I don’t expect my encounters with everyone to be ideal. But this was over the top. Here is an example of how to file a complaint about San Francisco bus service. My goal in explaining this at length, and in filing a bus complaint in the first place, is to improve bus and public transit service for disabled people in the SF Bay Area.
First of all, I twittered the incident as it happened. This gave me a written, public record of my memory of the incident, while it was fresh in my mind. It gives me the date and time stamps of when I got on and off the bus, as well. Afterwards I collected the tweets on Storify because I wanted to be able to refer to them later. For a person without a smart phone this could be done with pen and paper.
Second, I noted the time, bus number, and driver’s badge number. Noted on paper, as I carry a small notebook and a pen in my vest pocket from long habit.
Third, I quickly filed a complaint through the SFMTA feedback form on the web. You can also do this by calling 311. You have to choose a complaint category. The categories are a bit confusing. I believe I filed this as “Discourteous Driver”. I asked for an in-person hearing, and checked the box that said it is an ADA complaint. I got an email response within a few days from SFMTA, saying that they got my complaint and assigning it a reference number. (There may have also been a snail mail letter.) I then got a email asking me to call a local number to schedule the in-person hearing.
Fourth, I emailed the local Independent Living Center, the ILRCSF and asked to talk with their lawyer, thinking maybe they could explain what happens at, and after, these hearings. The center staff were very helpful and nice, and met with me to chat about the incident. It is possible to ask their lawyer to go with you to this kind of hearing.
Fifth, I called to schedule the hearing with SFMTA. As the hearing date approached, I had to reschedule it because of illness. You are only allowed to reschedule once. I have to mention the person I talked to on the phone was super nice and helpful. I got letters from her almost immediately, confirming the hearing time and date, with clear instructions how to get to the hearing location. That email’s contents were in a Word document so likely the staff has a template for responding.
Sixth, I looked at the Americans with Disabilities Act, wondering if I should file a complaint through ada.gov. My conclusion was: No. That is more for a group complaint about systemic and sustained discrimination, that a local government doesn’t respond to. What I’m describing here is one specific incident. If there were such a complaint it would be under Title II of the ADA. Anyway, I am a busy person and this is already taken up far too much of my time and energy.
Seventh, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the video and audio from the bus’s built in surveillance system, since the bus videos are public record. On the web, I found clear instructions on how to file a FOIA request to the SFMTA. I used this template example of a FOIA request in California for my letter. I was able to file this request by email, and regular mail was an option too. I got a response very quickly, I think the same day, by email. Just yesterday, I got two DVDs with video and audio clips. They played on a Windows machine, with the viewing software built into the DVD, showing 8 or 9 different camera angles in different parts of the bus, with one audio track.
Here’s the video. It’s a little over 4 minutes long, and includes 3 segments edited together. When I switched to footage from a different bus camera, I backed up the video a little bit, so some segments repeat for a few seconds from the different angle, for continuity. (edited to add, I realized last night that the 3rd segment was missing, so I added it as a separate video below)
First the driver refuses to let me on. He then pulls the bus up to me, and we argue further. His arguments included, that he isn’t allowed to let people on except exactly at the stop; that he has inspectors watching him; then, that there isn’t room. He then lets the ramp down. I get on, he yells some more, then he gets up again to tell me I can’t sit in the bus seat but must sit in my scooter. I refuse. The bus then moves on and the video jumps to when I get off the bus, the last person to get off near the end of the line downtown. I ask the driver for his badge number, he gives it, then he yells at me some more.
The complaint hearing is this Tuesday.
Interesting information from the hearing confirmation:
Hearings last approximately 30 minutes and include a professional neutral hearing officer, the transit operator, and customer. After the hearing officer reads the complaint, the customer and the operator (or his/her union representative) are offered opportunities to comment and ask follow-up questions. Afterward, the hearing officer evaluates the evidence, and a written decision is forwarded to the customer within seven days.
Please note that your attendance at the hearing is required in order for the hearing officer to make a decision regarding your complaint. Please bring photo identification (such as a Driver’s License, State ID, or Passport) so we may confirm your identity.
I wonder how many policies or public transit operator the driver broke in this incident. From watching the video, here are some possibilities:
1. The driver does not pull up to let me board. I was clearly indicating I wanted to get on the bus. In the best practices I’m familiar with, bus drivers pull up just beyond a bus shelter, to let a wheelchair or walker user board, asking other people to board at the back of the bus. This is efficient and fast.
You can see in this photo still from the video, from 8:28:11am, that there was room for a person in a wheelchair to board and ride the bus. There are empty seats. No one is standing in the front section of the bus. It is very clear.
2. The driver refuses to pull up to let me on.
3. I ask him again to let me on the bus. He refuses and tells me to catch the next bus, several times.
4. The bus driver then moves the bus up about 10 feet, stops, and gets out of the bus, to stand over me and yell at me. Surely this is not supposed to happen at all.
5. He tells me that there inspectors watching. It’s unclear whether that’s his excuse not to let me on, or whether he’s using them as a kind of threat. He tells me he’s going to get them to deal with me.
6. The driver then tells me the bus is too crowded. It isn’t. Also, as time went by during our argument, more people boarded.
7. The driver then tells me that I should not be demanding to get on the bus.
He continues yelling as I board.
8. After I was seated, the driver got up to stand over me and yell some more. He claims that I have to sit on my scooter and can’t sit in a bus seat. This is not true.
9. The driver then complains to another passenger that my wheelchair is blocking other people. It was not.
Here is a photo of my scooter on a bus in exactly the configuration I had it on the #14 on June 2.
10. As I exit the bus, the driver insults me by saying that disabled people complain all the time and “that’s how y’all live”. and calls my wheelchair a stroller.
11. The driver tells me “be there tomorrow” meaning, I think, be at the stop on his line and see what he will do. I assumed that meant he will not let me on the bus next time or will be hostile in some other way.
So much to unpack.
It is a little sad that no one else on the bus said or did anything to help me. I can understand that they may not have been paying attention until things went badly. By that time, who knew what was going on, and who was at fault. And getting involved might make things worse or mean more delay. Everyone wanted to just move on! However, I would have spoken up as a passenger to say that the driver should have let me on the bus and that it wasn’t right to yell in my face the way he did. I encourage anyone reading to think it over and do what is right.
Sometimes, it is other passengers who start to yell at me out of their perception that I am a parasite on society, that I shouldn’t be allowed on the bus, or out in public, and so on. This happens once in a while, and I will explain to any such person at length about the law, the 504 sit ins, how people blocked the buses in Denver, and any other piece of defense of myself and all of us that I can think of. It is certainly upsetting and enraging. I try to keep my cool.
During this incident, I did not outright lose my temper, swear, or anything like that. I stated my rights and told the driver there was room on the bus and room to put the lift down. Repeatedly. Frankly I was mad as a hornet that this driver was probably going to pass me up for no reason. And likely as not, so would the next one. My power is not in my body. It is in my mind and voice. You can see that from how I never shut up and kept telling the driver to let me on.
The time I found the most upsetting was when I was on the lift, and the driver got up to stand over me, yelling that I should stop talking. I stopped talking. I finally felt intimidated. I wanted to get to work. I wanted the confrontation to end. Fine. I was on the bus. I did not feel good about shutting up when told to. However, it seemed practical. So it was shocking that the driver then came again to yell at me and stand over me. It seemed best not to argue, but to passively resist. I decided I would not get off that bus till I was at my stop and if he called the police to throw me off, he would be very much in the wrong. Luckily, that did not happen. The driver finally realized he should leave me be, and move on and do his job.
My memory and the tweets mostly match up with the video. I don’t hear the part I remember where I said, it is the law you have to let me on. I think it’s in an inaudible part, but I know I said it. That’s what the driver responded to when he says “That’s a rule, too”. I did not remember that he got out of the bus to stand over me on the sidewalk and yell. Wild. I still don’t. But there it is in the video. Also, I described the driver as “screaming”. After seeing the video I would not say that. I’d call it “yelling” instead. We both had to yell to be heard. As I exited I thought that he had said something like, “Be here tomorrow and see what happens.” But in the video it’s clear he said “Be here tomorrow… ” twice, and then closed the bus door. So I was extrapolating the end of the sentence, but that’s not actually what he said. Otherwise my memory is pretty accurate.
So, I did eventually get on the bus, got off the bus at my stop, and got to work on time for my meeting with my boss. Great. But….
I believe that the driver was discriminating against me because of my disability.
I don’t look forward to confronting this man in a hearing at his workplace. I also don’t like the idea I will be riding a bus with him any time in the future, but that seems likely to happen. Hopefully if it does, we will not need to interact beyond the minimum of politeness.
Bus drivers work hard and have to put up with a lot of bad behavior from the public. Clearly the 14 (and 49!) are no picnic to drive. I can see that I was annoying to the driver with my persistence and my insisting that he let me on the bus. However, he should have let me on in the first place. I would have paid my fare and thanked him, asked for my stop, and we both would have had a fine day. For the middle of the ride, I observed the driver be friendly and polite, chatting with all the other riders as if trying to prove to himself that he was a nice person. Or, perhaps to show to the other riders that he was “the good one” and that my behavior was bad, in other words, to try and show me up. Maybe both at once. The point is, I could see he knows how to do his job well.
My expectations from this complaint are that SFMTA will take the complaint seriously. I hope they will appropriately train the driver to interact with wheelchair users and how to let them onto the bus in a normal and efficient way. I believe they should also look at their training process since it is not uncommon for me that drivers refuse to let me on the bus, or simply pass me up without stopping. Passing me and other wheelchair users up is particularly a problem on the MUNI train level boarding stops above ground. Drivers are also often hostile and rude.
The drivers who are nice, or simply businesslike, I very much appreciate.
I like to get around town, by myself or with my friends or my kids, without being yelled at and humiliated in public.
Feel free to tell stories about accessibility and bus drivers in the comments, if you like.