As you may have noticed on various social media outlets, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association kicked off its campaign this week in anticipation of National Mobility Awareness Month in May. Annually, NMEDA gives away three customized wheelchair accessible vans to deserving individuals they have deemed “local heroes”. Contestants must submit their stories and share them to secure the largest number of votes and win the vans. While it’s exciting that three less people will be without accessible vans, the notion that this “contest” must exist breaks my heart, and it should break yours.
The idea that adequate transportation remains such a dream for millions of disabled people that it must be battled over in a contest makes me want to cry. You may be thinking to yourself that lots of non-disabled people don’t have cars either. That is true. But remember that the transportation struggles are compounded for people with disabilities, as those who cannot afford an accessible car are too often denied access to public transit as well, simply because many buses, trains, and taxis remain unable to accommodate wheelchairs, and many of the powers that be have little interest in changing that.
The ever popular “get a ride with a friend” is frequently not an option either, unless you feel like being heaved into the front seat by a friend with lifting skills and dragging along a folding chair that you can’t move on your own unless you aspire to ride around in little circles all day. You can guess that this option is less than enchanting, given that the lifting process often causes moans of pain that sound like they came from a dying yeti.
Paratransit, or door- to- door bus service for people with disabilities may seem like a great solution… that is, if you’ve never experienced the vortex that is paratransit. In addition to costing nearly $4.00 per way, paratransit is kind of like paying to get a ride with a friend who never passed their road test, or forgot to pick you up because he was distracted by the glowing beacon of a nearby Taco Bell. When one calls to complain about a late or missing bus, the matter-of-fact automated voice will routinely ask if the time window has “expired”, as though the thirty minutes the bus had to come to the house just passively went bad like old leftovers in the fridge.
The fact is, time windows do not just casually “expire”. They end… because underneath all the euphemisms, the driver is late. Again. And eventually if you’re lucky, a zoned out driver will appear as if forty minutes late is just part of the experience. And if “the experience” people to miss work, internships, interviews, or other things that happen when one gets off the couch, the dispatcher is usually unsympathetic.
I could go on all day about the ills of paratransit, but I return to my original point. The transportation situation is complex for people with disabilities. Still, in 2014, people are left to scan confusing maps for platforms deemed accessible, and a wheelchair accessible taxi is about as common as a unicorn. Fifty percent of the taxis will be accessible by 2020 according to a recent agreement, but not before former Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed that the greater distance between driver and passenger would result in fewer tips, and that the "the suspension is a lot worse and its harder to get up and pay the cab driver and get in and out and that sort of thing". The continued prevalence of arguments like these is just laughable and no one seems to be pointing out that inaccessible cabs, in fact, result in fewer tips because millions of disabled people, who… gasp, have MONEY, are unable to tip the driver if they can’t access the cab in the first place.
Essentially, all things considered, an accessible van is the only option for many people if they don’t want to spend countless days sitting at home. The choices are few in this market, and the prices astronomical. A non-disabled person has a choice to buy a pricy car with all the bells and whistles, or an old junker that smells and has roll down windows. The only choice for disabled buyers who must remain in wheelchairs is an expensive van with expensive modifications. In our world, a fully adapted van can be close to $40,000 dollars, and the closest thing to an accessible junker is maybe one with manual doors. You can guess how these conditions leave too many people unable to go anywhere, deprived of the opportunity to contribute their talents to society. You can guess how these conditions may cause too many to compete, essentially for their right to participate in the world, in a contest that is “liked”, “tweeted”, shared, emailed and texted to anyone and everyone. The intentions of NMEDA are wonderful, but let us not allow intentions to mask the underlying heartache that for the three people who win those vans in May, there are thousands of others who will remain stranded, thinking “maybe next year”.
Then, of course, there is the “local hero” aspect, one that bothers me the most. Contestants are required to submit their stories about why they are a “local hero” who is overcoming mobility challenges. Again, the intention is good. Promoting awareness is good. But we cannot ignore the conversation about privilege that should follow. We are required to “overcome mobility challenges” in large part because the systems around us remain resistant to including us. Because our options are limited due to prohibitive costs that ensue once the word disability is mentioned. As usual, people with disabilities must “inspire” and “overcome” to get their rights. They must assume the role of a hero, whose worthiness to participate in the world around them is determined by their ability to make the World Wide Web feel warm and fuzzy inside. Maybe warm and fuzzy enough that no one will have to confront the inequities that led to the “contest”.
People should not have to be “heroes” to get what they need. They should not have to inspire anyone to make up for the fact that they cannot even get on the (inaccessible) bus and are seeking an alternative to being stuck in the house. But compulsory heroism still seems to be a requirement oftentimes, and the expectation seems to be that someone will inspire his or her way to equality. I am glad that three people will be more mobile after the contest ends, but instead of voting on who “deserves” the distinction, we should be voting for legislation that makes accessible transportation a priority, not an afterthought or a half- granted privilege. Two hundred thirty one accessible taxis in a city of millions of people are just not good enough.
We live in a time of progress, when people no longer have to sit in the back of the bus because of who they are. But so many people with disabilities still cannot even get on it because of who they are. Meanwhile, until we can have meaningful conversations about transportation equity, I would propose that rather than leave the winners to be determined by their perceived inspiration value, all those eligible should just have their names put in a hat, with three chosen at random. That way, no one can declare the disabled student that dreams of driving herself to school more valuable than the woman who dreams of adequate transportation for her disabled children, or her more valuable than a teenager that wants to be able to meet up with her friends.
I cannot stress enough that when you are clicking around on social media, scrolling through the stories of contest hopefuls, you should be thinking deeply about justice and injustice. You should be envisioning a day when opportunities are not granted to only those who can get the most votes, and remember that there are 560,000 Americans with disabilities today who never leave home because they have no transportation. No one should have to be a superhero to change that.
American Association of People with Disabilities (2014). Equity in
transportation for people with disabilities. Retrieved from
W. Peace (October 22, 2011). Mayor Bloomberg rails against accessible
taxis (blog post). Retrieved from