Paratransit Is Bad (But Your Judgment Is Worse)

If you want to get a group of blind people to sneer derisively or rant passionately, simply mentioning the word “paratransit” will often do the trick. Paratransit, for those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, is the general term often used to describe specialized accessible transportation. Many cities offer this service, under several different names, to ensure that people who cannot take public transit can still travel. There is a very wide range of people who use these services, so they can be quite complicated to administer. Coordinating schedules is complex, particularly when life’s everyday interruptions throw a wrench into carefully-planned runs. As you can imagine, this creates an awful lot of frustration for just about everyone.
When I first signed up for paratransit, it was out of dire necessity. I was living off-campus for the first time, (I grew up in an area so rural I did not properly understand basic intersections until I was seventeen), and I needed a reliable way to commute each day. Due to less-than-ideal circumstances, I found myself living in a part of my city that was nearly impossible to navigate without sight. It certainly wasn’t pedestrian-friendly, transit was sporadic, and my options were severely limited without the ability to drive. At my roommate’s urging, I agreed to investigate paratransit.
Paratransit, I soon discovered, had its serious downsides. Drivers had a generous half-hour window for pickup, so I never quite knew when I would arrive anywhere. I had to arrange to be extremely early for everything, because I couldn’t predict how long the trip would be ahead of time. The same commute could take ten minutes one day and an hour the next, depending on the whims of the dispatchers. Scheduling was tricky and the rules were quite strict, such that abrupt schedule changes could rarely be accommodated. Even now, when I’ve been using the service for almost a year, I become anxious each time someone sends me a last-minute invitation to dinner, or I wake up feeling a migraine approaching. Since there are thousands of people using the system, my personal ups and downs aren’t met with much sympathy.
Worse still is the attitude of so many working for paratransit. While I only have firsthand experience with my own city’s system, the stories I hear are all variations on the same sad theme: disabled people’s time is neither valued nor respected. Paratransit is treated like a charitable service for which we should be quietly and reverently grateful, even though many of us pay well for it. So many seem surprised that getting to work on time is of importance to us (or that we work at all). Some appear to believe that disabled people only ever go out to attend medical appointments. Still others, mostly in administrative roles, are unmoved by the idea that, no, I can’t cancel my trips 24 hours before a migraine strikes. I don’t have that much warning. I’m human, and therefor subject to the unpredictability of my body. Disabled people are often plagued by medical issues, so the inflexibility of many paratransit services, where last-minute cancellations are penalized, suggests a startling lack of familiarity with and understanding of the very population they’re trying to serve. I am, therefore, disappointed to say that paratransit systems, in my city and elsewhere, are in need of major changes if they’re to be a viable option for disabled people with full, active lives.
Above all else, though, what make using paratransit hardest are the criticism, judgment, and snide comments of fellow blind people. Many who have had to depend on paratransit in the past speak of their transition to ride-sharing services (which not everyone can afford) or public transportation (which is not always an option) with a kind of triumphant contempt. They describe paratransit in terms so dismissive I wonder if they actually remember what it was like or if they simply had unusually terrible experiences with it. Blind people in my own city, some of whom have never even tried it, have such condescending attitudes toward it and toward people who use it that I felt as though even admitting that I use it would mark me somehow. Paratransit, I learned, was for desperate, dependent souls who are either too lazy or too incompetent to use “real” transportation. Further, some of these people actively discourage others from using the service, supplying hyperbolic horror stories that are sometimes third-hand. As I was following the long and drawn-out procedure to sign up, I was warned, again and again, of how huge a mistake I was making—so huge, in fact, that a three-hour daily commute on public transportation was supposedly preferable.
I’m pretty quiet about my use of paratransit services, but when a new acquaintance posted about her own struggles on Facebook, I paid attention to the comments she received. Many, like mine, were understanding and supportive: yes, it’s terrible, but it’s okay that you still choose to use it despite its flaws. A few, though, had a much different tone—the tone of contempt I mentioned earlier. Apparently motivated by their own misfortunes, these people seemed intent on judging anyone who uses the service by choice, as though any self-respecting blind person would get out there and learn how to use the damn buses already. After seeing this one too many times, I felt compelled to speak up at long last.
When a disabled person complains about paratransit, empathize with them. Give them advice if you have any that is relevant to them, and focus on being kind. Hold your judgment and—yes, I’m going to use the P-word, which I rarely do, so listen—check your privilege. It is a privilege to use something other than paratransit. It is a privilege to have the mobility skills and confidence to use public transportation. It is a privilege to live in an accessible location. It is an even bigger privilege to have the means to use ride-sharing services, which are financially out of reach for a lot of people.
I beseech you: next time you find yourself judging people who use paratransit, or cajoling someone into dropping it, stop and think about whether these comments will be productive or respectful. Does the person you’re talking to have personal reasons for using the service? Do they have other disabilities that have an impact on their travel needs? Do they have the skills and confidence to use public transport? Do they have the money to use ride-sharing services and cabs? Are they, like me, plagued by anxiety and a severe lack of outdoor orientation and mobility skills for various reasons? Is it, perhaps, none of your concern?
For me, and for all the people I know who willingly use paratransit and feel it is the best current option for us, do us a favour. Let us complain. Pat us on the shoulder and make comforting noises. Be there for us if we decide to switch transportation method. Do not, however, tell us yet another horror or conversion story. We’re frustrated enough as it is—after all, our ride is late again!

The Man Who Taught Me To Fish

Being disabled means having your competence questioned at every turn. It means accepting that your intelligence, your autonomy, your very worth are always up for debate by those least qualified to make judgments. It means, therefore, that you must be strong, whether or not it comes naturally. Finding this strength, this essential self-reliance, can come about in many ways. For me, one of the fortunate ones, the tools for independence were introduced early and often.

* * *

We kneel together on the thin carpet of my bedroom. My favourite cassette tape, a collection of fairytales, is in my small, tentative hand. Speaking softly, my father explains how to slide the tape into the player—gently, now—and places my fingers on “play.” As the opening music rings out and understanding of my new skill breaks over me, I can only smile widely enough to split my face, thinking dreamily of how delicious growing up can taste. It’s a small step, playing my own audio books, but the joy lingers.

* * *

Each time I learn something new–even something as mundane as, say, the location of straws at the Starbucks near my apartment—I experience a moment of undiluted triumph. Often hesitant and rarely overconfident, I am not the archetype of success some would wish me to be. Instead, I skirt the gaps in my knowledge and abilities with an unthinking ease bolstered by years of practice. While my blind peers pursue adventure and hone new skills for the sake of doing so, I hold my shameful passivity close to my chest, owning what is necessary and burying everything else. Showing weakness, I have learned, is a grievous sin; admitting I’m comfortable with where I am is worse. Even so, when I break this ancient habit and push my boundaries, I feel a thrill that once coloured each day of my childhood, when there was someone there to rejoice along with me. Of course he would still do so, if I called him on the phone and said “Hey, Dad, I learned a new route today.” Surely, my cheerleader is still waiting in the wings, should I ever need him.

* * *

We are traipsing through an amusement park in the sweltering summer heat. I am sulky and bored in that particular way of children. I’ve had my fill of rides and novelty food; I am ready for familiar surroundings and a good book. As I prepare yet another whiny entreaty—let’s return to the car, get a cool drink, pull out the Harry Potter novel I wish I was reading—Dad pulls me aside to examine a life-sized, intricate statue of a cow. It occurs to him that I’ve never touched a real cow before, despite having driven past them a hundred times. As he runs my hands over the statue, describing each part with astounding patience and enthusiasm, I realize I’m feeling just a little less blind.

* * *

The process of spontaneous discovery was a common feature of my childhood years. Seized by inspiration and vicarious wonderment, Dad would pause and encourage me to notice a truck, an earthworm, a bird’s nest. New kittens were placed delicately in my eager hands, and I was free—encouraged, even—to hammer in a few nails and help paint a wall. If it captured my interest, it was mine to touch and try and learn. Assumptions about safety and propriety and ability were seldom made. Mine was a world of discovery, because Dad had no doubts, no reservations, no unreasonable fears.

And so, I had no fears, no doubts, no reservations of my own.

* * *

“I’m just bad at math, okay? I’m stupid, I guess.”

Salty tears stain the Perkins brailler I’m using to hammer out surface area calculations. Slightly flummoxed by all the tears, Dad makes a joke about me rusting the metal brailler if I don’t stop crying. He coaxes a grudging laugh from me, but the levity doesn’t make the work any easier. I have sat before this useless tactile diagram of a cube for literal hours, convinced that I must be less intelligent than fellow students, all of whom had exclaimed that this unit was incredibly simple. I, a star student then, had trouble accepting this reality in which I was in need of help with my homework.

I look up to find Dad placing a wooden cube in my hands.

“I went to the shop and made you some shapes. I think your problem is that you’re not understanding the book’s diagram. I think this will make way more sense for you. You’re not dumb; I know you can understand this. See?”

Sure enough, as he points out each facet of the cube, telling me how they correspond to the ones on the page, something clicks into place. Suddenly, I’m finding surface area as easy as everyone else had, all because someone was able to teach in a way I could grasp.

I am not stupid after all, or terrible at math; I am just blind—blind, and very bad at deciphering diagrams, apparently.

* * *

Blindness has taught me to work more diligently than others. In my slow, steady climb, there is little room for surrender or self-doubt. On this journey, there is no room at all for giving up. When everyone else seems poised to give me an out, to say, “Well, Meagan, you tried your best; you can go home now…” I am compelled to reply in the same way each time: “Never.” The stubbornness and refusal to concede, (the very qualities that justly infuriated my father while I was growing up), are the sources on which I draw for support through each new hurdle.

When voices say, with stolen authority, “Meagan, you’re blind. You will never—“ another voice pipes up, strident even in its secret uncertainty: “Watch me.” Much as Dad must have cursed my inflexibility, I think he has grown to respect its power. He should, for I believe he is the one who gave it to me.


Dad taught me to fish, of course. I’ve been fishing since I was so small that my rod had to be tied to my life jacket. He taught me to cast and jig and reel in even the most unwilling ones. (He also taught me to respect the fish, never causing undue suffering or taking more than my share.)

But, as you may have guessed, he taught me to fish in other, less obvious ways. His unwavering faith in my personal abilities meant I was rarely allowed to think of myself as excessively disabled. I was not permitted to wallow in self-pity or allow anyone else to feel pity, either. Through patience and determination, my father convinced me that I am strong and capable—not constantly, but often enough to succeed. To this day, my dad is the person I think of first when I prove to myself, once again, that blindness doesn’t have to ruin my life or my career or my dreams. Whenever he describes something new or lights a much-needed fire under me, I remember and honour the joy of learning to fish—because at the end of the long, hard day, all I have is me. I have my father, among many others, to thank for making sure I’m a damn good person on which to lean.
So, thank the people who taught you how to fish, and those who remind you that you still know how. You owe them a lot.