Wednesday was supposed to be the “good” outing day as I was off to Mayfair Mall in Victoria, B.C. to meet Linda for lunch. I am using very specific names on this blog today because I had very specific and humiliating experiences for one reason only: I was sitting in a wheelchair. And while I may blog about how being in a wheelchair is forcing me to redefine the image I have of myself or am trying to project to others please make no mistake, I am not a wheelchair: I am a person who uses a mobility aid.
Victoria BC Transit offers new wheelchair users a one to one mentor who helps you plan out trips and goes with you if you want. She and I had planned out the easiest way for me to get to Mayfair Mall and back again with one bus transfer. At the appointed time I was at the bus stop nearest my house. And then it started to rain. Rain really sucks when you are in a wheelchair because my rain jacket can’t cover my legs or the cushion or back rest so I am in my jacket, leaning over trying to keep my legs dry as I wait for the bus. It comes, and I get off outside Crystal Gardens instead of continuing to downtown. The reason I got off early is that it is near the start of the bus route I need (#30/31) and I won’t have to compete with all the different people trying to get on and off the buses at the downtown stops (all in accordance with the plan drawn up by my ‘transit mentor’). I sit in the shelter with the other 12 people. The shelter has no walls and with the wind, the rain is hitting us vertically anyway. After 10 minutes my bus, the number 30/31 shows up and I roll toward it. But the bus driver refuses to lower the ramp. “No room” he tells me as the 10 other passengers walk onto the bus. The bus pulls away and I am left sitting there in the rain. A #30/31 bus has three spaces for manual wheelchairs or 2 for electric, I thought I might have seen one electric in that bus, and there is nothing I can do now, so I roll back and watch it drive off. The rain keeps coming down. I am trying to figure out how two passengers with wheelchairs could get on a bus when it has only gone 5 blocks from the start of its run. Later I realize that with the rain, there are many, many strollers (which take up a lot of room). However, as the Victoria BC Transit Website states in the only bold letters on its webpage: “Strollers MUST be collapsible. When the wheelchair positions are required by another customer using a wheelchair or scooter: the customer should fold the stroller, move to another available seat and store the stroller between the seats. If you cannot collapse the stroller, you should request a transfer and exit, and take the next bus”
Telling moms that they must fold up their stroller or wait for the next bus is a gigantic pain in the butt for both the driver and the people with strollers. Indeed, it creates a lot of negative feelings and makes the bus run behind schedule. Leaving someone in a wheelchair in the rain however causes none of these problems.
Previously in the week, my father, a Victoria Transit driver, knowing I was making this trip, told me in all his driving years he had only ever left one person in a wheelchair at a stop due to other passengers in wheelchairs being present, but only after notifying a supervisor and the passenger in a wheelchair so that alternative transport was sent or reserved for them. Right now, it is cold and I have another 10 minutes to wait in the rain for the next bus; I’m not happy but that’s life, right? The next #30/31 rolls up and I have closely scanned the inside; there is not a single wheelchair in the bus; it looks like there might be a stroller but no wheelchairs. Alright!
The driver does not even fully come to the curb but as I roll forward, he opens his door and holds out his hand in a “stop” sign. “No room” he says, as a passenger hops on, and before I can speak, he has closed the door and the bus is in motion, up the street, leaving me sitting by the curb in the rain. I am now stuck at this bus stop. My 'mentor' choose this stop because it is flat. But it is also at the bottom of a giant hill leading to downtown. With my heart condition, I cannot wheel up that hill. I also cannot catch the bus which brought me here to take me back home for another hour. I cannot wheel to another bus stop. It has been 20 minutes in the rain and now TWO buses have left only ONE person at this bus stop: the one in the wheelchair. I really want to go home now. Only now do I realize how incredibly helpless I am; only now does it sink in that I will get wet and tired because someone else can’t be bothered and that right now, I have no other options but to continue to wait on the “good will” (or rather when I bought my bus ticket what I assumed was "professional ethics") of the next driver.
Some of this must have shown on my face as a passenger comes to the stop and wants to find out where I am going and convinces me to take their bus, the #50 in five minutes instead of waiting 10 minutes for another #30/31. I do and the driver lets me on. He raises the ramp while I back into position (wheelchairs almost always face the rest of the bus, riding backwards) and I am almost there when the ramp at the front finishes loading back in and the driver, without a word, floors it, taking off up the hill. My wheelchair is not yet in position, nor do I have my locks on. As he speeds up I and the chair are thrown forward and I clamp my hands around the wheels to stop from having my face accelerated into a wall partition. I have to hang on to this grip until he reaches the top of the hill and stops for a light, when I can finally finish backing up and put on the wheelchair brakes (Drivers are supposed to ensure, at least verbally, that wheelchairs are locked before progressing).
I am not amused, indeed I am very, very angry. I am hoping that some mysterious figure in a cloak will appear before me and tell me to “Release your anger! Give in to the dark side and your training will be complete!” because, honestly, being able to pick up objects with my mind and ram them into people’s heads at high speeds (say certain bus driver’s) sounds like a REALLY good idea right now.
I get to Mayfair mall and have some time before Linda arrives so I go shopping. Or should I say I TRY to go shopping as all the clothing stores have added rolling “Sales” racks to so many parts to their store that I am reduced to rolling back and forth in front of a store trying to get the attention of an employee to come and actually move some damn stuff so I can actually shop there (which I assume is the purpose of clothing store...to sell clothes to people). I am still on the lookout for some styling printed top which say something about me like “mournful but really good with knives” or “Girls are skary!” In one store I find four tops to try on and the sales woman takes me to the changing area: there are 10 changing rooms, one of which is specially built for wheelchair customers. When she opens the door, it turns out that the wheelchair changing room has been used for quite some time as the extra storage room and is full of clothing racks, signs and broken junk. She drags out enough stuff so I can get into about 1/3rd of the room (enough for my chair), I get in and ask, “Where is the mirror?”
“Oh, that room doesn’t have one. You’ll have to come out here to look in a mirror.” Okay, a women’s clothing chain with a changing room without a mirror, another first for me. I try on the tops and roll out and while the assistant comes and comments on the other people changing (“that looks really good”, “Do you want another size?”, “I think the blue would look great on you.”), I notice that whenever I emerge, she quickly retreats into the forest of clothing racks. I presume this is because she doesn’t know why I am in the chair and doesn’t want to offend me (“That really hides your hump”), but in the end, by treating me as a social leper, it makes the experience sour enough that by the time I get to the third top I have a “what am I doing here?” moment. I have had enough of this crap: I am changing clothes next to mannequin arms for goodness sakes. I try to leave but of course, have to wait for a sales person to help move some of the displays in order to actually escape the store.
I am so pissed I start rolling really hard, letting my arms do the talking, which isn't so bright as my thumb rolls right under a brake, ripping the skin right off and leaving blood trail. Luckily, I have a bandage. Does pain make me strong...or just feel stupid?
I meet Linda and we go to the one “alternative” t-shirt shop who, unlike the day before is not staffed by intelligent, alternative, wants-to-talk girl but rather surly, “oh my god, there is one of ‘those’ people in my store” girl. She will not help us, she will not answer questions on size. Still I find a couple shirts I like and ask to try them on. She leads us to the “change room” which is a small add on closet. Without looking AT me, she looks at the doorway and then at the wheels of my wheelchair (there is no way it can fit in there) and then, without a word, she turns, walks to the back of the store and disappears into the “employee only” section. Gone! Linda is a little freaked and we both just stare for a few seconds at the door where she disappeared. I look behind me and it is a shallow store with complete floor to ceiling glass; everyone in the mall walking by can see us. Linda wants to leave but then, Linda has not had my day or is still damp from outdoor bus experiences.
“If that’s the way they want it, that’s the way they will get it.” I say and start to strip off my clothes, right there, on the sales floor, nothing visually between me and the people walking by in the mall outside (I do have my back to them). Linda freaks a bit more. “I came here to buy t-shirts,” I say to her, “and I need to try them on.” Do I like that I am forced to strip down in public, on a shop floor while people in the mall are watching me? No. It is humiliating. I do not like being left by the staff with the only choices being that either “maybe someone (something?) like me shouldn’t be shopping there” or that I don’t deserve the same right to body privacy as others. But is it going to stop me? Damn no! I find a shirt I like. I put my clothes back on. It burns to have to PAY the girl who now has magically reappeared to take our money. Where are those “dark side” mental powers when I need them? However I really did like the shirt, and post it up here for your approval (and if you know what is good for you, and don’t want my dark powers making your coffee mug fly into your head, you WILL like it too).
We continue on to a mall stand which sells alternative jewelry but whose owner is giving me what I call the “pet treatment.” I ask her a question like; “Where is a good place to find some alternative clothes?” She turns to Linda and says, “Downtown in Chinatown there is a good place.” Everytime I ask a question, or want to see something, she either gives the answer to Linda (who is standing, so at her eye level) or looks to Linda for APPROVAL for me to see something. Hello! Once again, I have mobility issues: not a slave, not a pet, not being “taken for a walk.”
After trying to go into one more store whose aisles have had so much added on to them that I am unable to even turn around and must back out after an aborted attempt to enter simply the first quarter of the store, I decide to go home. I have had it. In my shopping there was not ONE CLOTHING STORE in Mayfair Mall that I tried to enter in which I could, as an individual, shop or try on clothes in an equal manner as others, much less those stores where even entering and viewing what was on sale was impossible. What really angers me is that this is a form of discrimination which, because it is physical instead of verbal or posted, in so commonplace as to be accepted. If any one of these store had posted a “No Black or Asian customers welcome in this store” sign; there would be a huge article in the paper the next day with letter writing for weeks to come. Yet, by their physical placement policy and the attitudes of staff that this was normal and to expect otherwise was the odd thing (or a store where I might be able to shop on my own without needing assistance) clearly states, “No wheelchair customers welcome here.” (or in the more physical restricted stores: “No wheelchair customers allowed”).
I’d like to say that this was an issue that has bothered me for some time but the truth is, when I was an able bodied duty manager at a retail outlet the first thought I would mentally have when seeing a person with a wheelchair enter the store was “Oh no!” Because I KNEW that the head office had repositioned the aisles to “just” be compliant and THEN piled things in front of the aisles, hung things from the aisles, added bins and sales displays and that this person in a wheelchair was just going to get frustrated and pissed and probably yell at me (hey, I was just following orders, like any good drone; now keep in line as you enter the gas chambers!). I wanted the person in the wheelchair to leave because their very presence in the shop facing such obstacles WE put up showed how little we cared about them. Yes, I was a hypocrite and now, I am telling you, so that you can learn it before, like me, you have to see “Oh geez, here comes a problem” written on the faces of sales managers and staff every time YOU roll towards a store in later life.
Going home on the #30/31 bus was again quite an experience. Though the transit guide said that all buses on that route were wheelchair accessible, the first one to arrive was NOT. Cue everyone getting on and leaving me behind AGAIN. The second one did have space but the driver put down the ramp so close to a brick wall that it was physically impossible for me to make the turn to get on the ramp (also, you begin to notice that some drivers are too lazy to take the time to lower the hydraulics on their bus which makes your ramp the equivalent of rolling up a mini Everest). After three tries and almost crying in frustration, a couple passengers stepped forward and actually lifted me onto the ramp – so all is not lost with humanity. I just wish I did not have to rely on the “kindness of strangers” because that day, it seemed a bit of a hit and miss thing. Of course there was a woman sitting across from me who after staring simply said, “So when where you in a car accident?” (Linda suggested I counter with “So when did you change your underwear”)
I will say that on my transfer bus back home the #3, I was treated like visiting royalty. No driver ever made me feel more welcome or glad that I was on HIS bus. I don’t know if this is what guys mean when they talk about chivalry, but lesbian or not, I could learn to live and appreciate that (particularly on public transit).
The transit story however does not end there as I called Transit customer service and detailed my sitting in the rain while drivers drove off that morning IN DETAIL. However I had reached the “our corporation doesn’t make mistakes” customer service guy who told me things like, “people aren’t required to move from wheelchair seats so a wheelchair can sit there if they don’t want to.” Or “Drivers don’t have to try to make room for a wheelchair if they need to make up time.” His response to being left in the rain: “Drivers need to keep to their schedules.” He told me that a driver can CHOOSE to assess if they have enough room for a wheelchair (but they don’t have to; thus not letting you on), and that if they think there is enough space, the decision of whether to ask people to move and make space for a wheelchair is again up to them (so if they don’t FEEL like it, then they don't have to let you on) and only if everyone wants and chooses to move does the transit driver then let you on. He also had answers (lazy answers) for what I already knew from my father was the proper procedure. Me: Could the driver radio to find out for a passenger in a wheelchair if there is no room how much room the next bus would have? Him: They wouldn’t have that information (from the Victoria Transit page: “If a bus that arrives is not accessible and the schedule indicated a low floor bus, or if the wheelchair and scooter positions are full, the driver will advise you of the next accessible bus.”). Me: Could they notify a supervisor that a passenger in a wheelchair was left behind. Him: No, that would serve no real purpose.
I explained how I was now very reluctant to travel Victoria transit as it seemed that particularly on rainy days, if drivers didn’t want to confront people with strollers that I could be stuck by the road for ANY length of time, up to an hour or more, and that it was “pot luck” whether I got a ride or not. The official representative of Victoria BC Transit Authority on the phone with me agreed. There was no apology, I was not offered or allowed to make a complaint but when I reported the times and numbers of the buses involved, I was told it “would be noted” (I did also make him write down the exemplary service I had received on bus #3 from the driver)
That’s odd because on their web page it says: “Accessible seating on the bus is prioritized to best meet the needs of all transit customers…The priorities are as follows:
1. Customers who use wheelchairs, scooters, or other mobility aids.”
My father was not amused. I think he is talking to HIS manager today, fathers get touchy when their daughters are left out in the rain. On a side note, one time, due to the passengers failure to comply, he emptied an entire bus, loaded the passengers in wheelchairs, then allowed the other passengers to board. He really takes those priorities seriously.
I immediately called the Transit administrative offices and asked to speak with the person who would be in charge of the official wheelchair policy since what was on their web page and what I had been officially “told” was in complete opposition. They patched me through to the Training and Safety Managers voice mail. I have waited over a day to hear back; with no response as yet (I’m not holding my breath).
So that was my shopping day. I got a cool shirt, I got a real education on discrimination and crappy service (hello people, if North America is suppose to be a ‘service economy’, could you try a little harder when someone is actually WANTING to buy stuff from you?) and I got so angry I woke up with three zits. My training mentor is so appalled she is writing a report for her supervisor but I do not expect much. Only now am I being to understand the question: Is the person with mobility issues disabled or is the society itself disabled because they are incapable of integrating a person with mobility issues?
3 hours ago