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!

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5 thoughts on “Paratransit Is Bad (But Your Judgment Is Worse)

  1. I love this so so much.
    Two years ago I wrote a post from the point of view of one of those privileged ones, those who have the training and confidence and experience to rely on other means of transportation. I asked a question like the ones asked in this post: Why WOULD someone take paratransit if there are other options available. And then I realized that I was asking all the wrong questions:
    https://blindbeader.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/getting-angry-a-simple-question/

  2. Great post Meagan! in Australia we don’t exactly have paratransit but we do have taxis and ride sharing services although ride sharing services are mostly in the city. I’ve been a regular user of taxis and if my parents are busy or they’ve had a few drinks I can just call a taxi if I want to go somewhere and they pick me up from home to go out or take me home if I’ve been somewhere. I prefer to use the taxi rather than catch busses around here as busses don’t always stop in areas accessible for me although it’s free travel the taxi is more accessible. We do have wheelchair taxis which if we have a few of us going out we always ask for a wheelchair maxi taxi for those of us who wish to go out if there are more than 4 of us. Our taxis where I live are so much more predictable than the ones in Melbourne Australia as a lot of the city taxi drivers are imports from overseas and it’s never repeat business and a lot of them don’t even know their way around and it’s often let up to us to guide them around and it’s thankful I know a lot of the taxi drivers in my town. For convenience my parents set up an account for me when they went on holidays to Vietnam so that I could go to and from TAFE each day and didn’t have to find money each time. What I said about the taxi drivers in the city was derogatory and racist but it’s the truth and it’s why I rarely go to Melbourne. I’ve had a few incidents with the taxis that have left me asking questions though. One incident my mother and I were waiting at the children’s hospital for a taxi after an appointment and we wanted to go to the train station. One driver pulled up and said he couldn’t take us because it was a short fare. Another incident was when I was in Melbourne after my second kidney transplant. I had a taxi card and one driver said my card was defective and I had to go to the taxi directorate to be issued with a new one. I question now whether the card was defective or the driver just flatly refused to take it. Another incident was with the taxis in my town although it was a minor issue about addresses. I’d been to my employment agency one day and I’d asked for the taxi to pick me up at 15 Eli Street. They thought I was at the motel that was nextdoor which was central Wangaratta and the office building with my employment agency was Wangaratta central but the signes had the wording in the opposite order so that was the confusion. Driver pulled up at the motel and I rang and gave them a piece of my mind not realizing the lady I was speaking to was the wife of one of my favourite drivers so I rang mum and said come and get me. I got home and rang the taxi financial lady and apologised and as it turned out this driver’s wife had just ocme back to work after having buried her father in law and she was under a bit of strain. Thankfully I haven’t had anymore real issues there.

  3. Meagan, have you considered submitting this post – or any other concerns like this – to the City? I’m wondering how aware they are that the system isn’t functioning the way it should. Just a thought. 🙂

  4. Enter your comment here…I adore you. I wish I knew you better because you say literally everything I think and feel and am. You are you. But also, you are me.

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