Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hey You, My Name Is Not Wheelchair

Grumble grumble grumble. Transportation. It remains one of the biggest obstacles for people with disabilities, especially if you can't get out of the chair to travel. If you can get into the vehicle at all on public transit, it's usually in a tiny cramped space that smells like an armpit. Backpacks and pocketbooks swing in my face, and there I am, at “butt level”, hoping that nobody has gas.
Then, there is paratransit, the charming alternative offering door-to-door service on a smaller bus just for people with disabilities. Paratransit buses, like the “short buses” I rode in high school, are known for being only vaguely reliable, and they usually offer their passengers very large time windows, as though they have nothing better to do all day than wait for buses and leave home at 7:03 for a job that starts at 9am in an office two blocks away. These rides often feature drivers who tell inane, unfunny jokes and feel the need to narrate your ride on the lift with condescending “wheeeee!” noises. After the very thing happened earlier this week, I feel very compelled to say “wheee” the next time one of these ambulatory offenders climbs up the stairs and compliment him on his skilled and inspiring use of his limbs. I could go on about transportation all day, but that is for another article.
The other morning, paratransit wanted to pick me up at 7:32 although my academic commitment, some ten minutes away does not start until 9 AM. My personal assistant does not come until 7 AM, so unless we had superpowers, being ready in 32 minutes was just not going to happen. Clearly, whoever makes the bus schedule has never tried to put on pants with cerebral palsy, or experienced the feeling that sitting up on the side of the bed can't be that different from the “insanity workout” many of my peers have mentioned. Being ready in 32 minutes is an enchanting thought, but it is only possible in the world of paratransit, where we fill out ten pages of paperwork about our every impairment, only to be treated as though we should be able to race out the door whenever they see fit.
In light of the fact that having pants on is a prerequisite for most professional endeavors (I say most to be open-minded), and I knew I couldn't possibly be dressed that quickly, my other assistant and I made the daring decision to check the regular bus schedule and join the masses. After settling into my tiny little space, praying for safety in the sea of butts and backpacks, I was off to meet the day.
Then, the driver said loudly: “Is the wheelchair ready?” Hm. Last time I checked, the wheelchair is not able to answer any questions. I am not ashamed of my wheelchair and I don't have a problem acknowledging it, but I don't appreciate my entire identity being swallowed up by it, as if an empty wheelchair is riding the bus, ready for a successful day. The image is amusing, my wheelchair motoring through town independently. The way the driver objectified me made me feel as though my wheelchair goes out by itself and picks me up at daycare after work. I am still cracking myself up picturing it rolling through the door and saying, "Honey, I'm home!” All jokes aside, I am still a person, and even though I have a wheelchair, the fact that there is a person in it should not be forgotten. The reality that everyday speech allows for our humanity to evaporate into the metal and plastic and overpriced neoprene on which we sit says something about the way society treats us. Words lead to actions, and based on this woman’s words, I am just a wheelchair.
The driver also addressed me as “wheelchair”, as though I should be expected to answer not to a name, but to the mention of my mobility device. My wheelchair is very much part of who I am, but it is not me, it is just the way I get around. If this were truly a way to talk about people, then maybe next time I should address her by saying “Hey legs!” in a loud voice and assume that she will answer.

Because I know this phrase often comes up in situations like this, I will add I have never been a fan of the colorful, often cheesy posters beckoning people to “SEE ME, NOT THE WHEELCHAIR.” While I don't want my personhood to disappear into the wheelchair, I do not think my wheelchair should have to be treated as invisible to see the person sitting in it.   Acting like my wheelchair has to go away in order for me to earn my personhood at best triggers the hilarious image of non-disabled people putting on some kind of new age goggles that make me appear as though I’m sitting on thin air. At worst, it triggers the thought that others don’t see “wheelchair” and “person” as compatible. If you can only see me as a person when you don’t see the wheelchair, it implies that the presence of the wheelchair negates the ability to treat its occupant as a human being. My wheelchair is my constant companion, and rather than calling me “a wheelchair” or willing the chair away in order to see me, I challenge you to see me and the wheelchair, and at the same time, see someone who is moving along in the world, looking for the same opportunities that so many people take for granted.