Last summer, while I was riding the bus home from work, an older man with a walker boarded the bus, explained to the exceptionally grumpy driver that he had vision and hearing problems, and asked to have his stop announced. He wanted to be dropped off on 152nd street, I believe. When my stop on 149th street came along, I rose to leave, but was blocked by the man with the walker.
“Is this my stop, driver?” he asked in strongly accented English.
“What?” the driver demanded, sounding irritated.
“My stop? Is this 152nd street?”
“No, this is 149th street. Now move, this lady needs to pass by.”
“But…but I need to get off on 152nd…”
“Look,” the driver snapped, in quite possibly the most discourteous tone I’ve ever heard a bus driver use with anyone, “I announced your stop and you didn’t get off, so it’s your problem, not mine. Now get out of this lady’s way, it’s her stop!”. I was about to interject—I knew for a fact the stop had not been announced at all—but I seemed to be frozen in place. I was shocked at the driver’s rudeness, upset on behalf of this poor, confused passenger, and thus unable to do much other than stand there and gape. I’ve always had great respect for bus drivers, and didn’t feel quite prepared to begin questioning his authority on his own bus. As it turned out, my passivity was a mistake.
“I did not hear you announce it; I told you I have hearing problems. Could you guide me across the street, so I can catch a different bus?”
“No, I can’t, now move!”
“How long will it be till we are at Westmount station?”
“Not for another hour.”
“I can’t wait that long…what should I do…”
“Look, just. Sit. Down. I don’t really care what you do, as long as you stop holding us up. . You’ll just have to wait until we get back to the station; you can figure out your own way from there. Now, get the hell out of this lady’s way.”
The man sat back down with a forlorn sigh, and I moved slowly towards the door of the bus. My head was full of possibilities: should I call the man a cab? Should I offer to guide him across the street myself? No, bad idea. What if I messed up and got us both lost? The blind leading the blind isn’t always the best option, even though I did know the area quite well. So what on earth could I do? And, more importantly, did I dare?
Apparently not. Even if I’d dared to speak out, I was so choked with tears that I couldn’t have said much anyhow. I knew and understood that the driver couldn’t do much to help, but did he have to be so heartless? . I remember standing on the corner, waiting to cross, tears continuing to pour down my cheeks. I’d never felt so helpless, ashamed, and angry all at once. I was angry with the world, for having such harshness in it. I was angry with the bus driver, who’d handled the entire situation so roughly. Most of all, though, I was angry with myself. True, I could have done little more than give the driver the rough side of my tongue, but surely anything would have been better than standing by and watching it all happen right under my nose?
I remain frustrated with my utter powerlessness against small injustices which too often go unnoticed. I am, of course, especially hurt by those injustices which I myself could easily face in place of another. Watching someone with vision problems, among others, being treated so shabbily is beyond description. As separate as we often are from each other, many of the blind people I know feel a small measure of protective solidarity with each other, especially when mistreatment is involved. Watching someone being mistreated the way I have been, (and will be), is painful beyond words.
Sadly, I hear stories like this all the time. Stories like these are not the aberrations we’d like them to be. They are common, widespread, and indiscriminate. Most of the time, I only hear about them after they’ve happened (if I hear about them at all) and am forced to nurse my rage and frustration in silence and impotence. If you have any type of noticeable disability, it’s not if you will be mistreated, but when and how and by whom. Even if your disability is a result of normal aging, you’re very likely to face this kind of treatment at some point, no matter how lucky you are.
People commonly believe—whether they know it or not—that disability is a state of complete otherness. Those who don’t have noticeable disabilities tend to think that they are both separate from and invulnerable to disability of any meaningful sort. Unfortunately, none of us are invulnerable. Many of us have latent disabilities (like chronic pain, or mental illness, for example), and a few of us, like myself, have more noticeable disabilities. This noticeability encourages the idea that disability is some kind of obscure shroud that drapes itself around certain people, (never you, of course). That bus driver was probably thinking of the time he was losing because of that disabled gentleman, but perhaps he should also have been thinking of how he might be when he reaches that passenger’s advanced age. I hope that that bus driver is treated with more kindness than he has given; if he isn’t, it will be a harsh road for him.
When you see these small injustices, (and you will see them), I urge you not to choose the path of least resistance like I did. Do what you can to help, even if it doesn’t seem like you can do much at all. If you don’t do it for me, or for anyone else, at least do it for yourself: you, too, may become disabled someday. Last year, it was an anonymous old man. Today, it’s me. Tomorrow, it could be you. So if altruism isn’t enough, (and it’s okay if it isn’t), fight these small injustices, in the hope that someday, someone will be willing to fight for you.