“A” is for Advocacy

I’m not a parent, but the internet has exposed me to the struggles, joys, and everyday dilemmas of parenting in this ever-connected, ever-judgmental world. I read discussions about how to teach kids to interact more gracefully on the playground; how to remove bread from a hot toaster; how to play traditionally-inaccessible board games; how to shave sensitive areas of the developing body. Each time I see one of these, my heart soars. My parents had to raise me with sporadic, impersonal support, while parents who knew nothing of disability looked on with varying degrees of disapproval. They made it work, but there are many gaps in my basic skillset that might have been filled by an online community of disabled people who were willing to share their wisdom. If Disability Wisdom or VI Talk had been around when I was growing up, I might not be so wary of toasters.

The one skill that seems underrated, particularly in rural settings, is advocacy. Several of my teachers, visual consultants, and special education coordinators were adamant that I master an array of miscellaneous skills, like cutting paper with scissors, drawing the human form (with what little vision I had), and writing a legible signature. My childhood involved hours spent cutting a piece of blank paper into a series of meaningless rectangles that were destined for the recycle bin. I practiced my signature each day in a special book, trying vainly to copy the raised signature on the front cover, and wondering why sighted people were allowed to have illegible scrawls while I had to achieve perfection. (These days, my signature is defiantly unreadable.) I connected dots on graph paper. I completed strange worksheets with tactile circles, using a different colour for each one. These exercises ensured that I’d always be comfortable with scissors, and have a rudimentary idea of how to draw a human face, but they didn’t teach me how to stand up for myself, or ask for accommodations, or interpret my rights as a disabled person. Every now and then, someone would mention that I must always be my own advocate, but the concept was never expanded upon, and far more attention was paid to how I held a pencil—a pencil I’d seldom use, since I couldn’t handwrite—than how well I understood what being a disabled adult might be like.

Steeped as I was in traditional Catholic culture, I was an obedient student rather than a respectful one. Fear and anxiety were far more influential than respect or interest, and while I enjoyed school and hungered for knowledge, my primary and secondary education rarely encouraged me to grow into anything more than an unquestioning rule-follower. I’d occasionally be chastised for seeming too passive, or criticized for failing to take initiative, but years of conditioning kept me from voicing disagreement or making my own decisions in almost all cases. After all, what did I know that grownups did not? Who was I to request accommodations that made sense to me when someone who earned a lot of money and used plenty of high-level language felt differently? How could I ever provide insight about my own learning style when someone with decades of experience knew best? I carried on in this way for far too long, wanting to take the wheel but convinced I’d cause a wreck. Systematic rejection of my ideas and insights bolstered the illusion. By the time I left grade school to start my postsecondary adventure, I had very little idea that my rights would constantly be challenged, or that I had disability-specific rights at all.

In university, I soon figured out that even though I had no foundation to build on, I’d have to learn how to be my own advocate, and learn it quickly. My life and education were in my own hands, and those hands were more capable than many had let me believe. With ample coaching and encouragement from newly-discovered disabled friends, I engaged in the controversial art of speaking up. I practised saying “no,” or “yes, but not that way,” or “please Don’t grab me,” or “I want to try this instead.” When roadblocks were put in my path, I didn’t docilely accept them as immovable parts of my reality. Sometimes, I was even a little bit firm. I worked to let go of “I’m sorry, that’s probably silly” and “What do I know?” In place of those familiar crutches, I paid attention to what worked for me, and asked for it. When charm failed, which wasn’t often, I used blunt logic, and usually won. It was a novel and exhilarating way to live, though it came at a cost. Since acquiring advocacy skills, my life has never been as calm and peaceful as it once was. Taking control of your own life is exhausting business.

Living in a more tolerant and accessible world doesn’t mean everyone can sit back, relax, and forget how to take ownership of their lives. If anything, widespread complacency about our supposedly-civilized society means parents need to be even more diligent about instilling advocacy skills in all children, not just disabled ones, early and often. I’m not suggesting that children should be taught to despise authority or behave disruptively for the sake of it, but they should be as prepared as possible for the ignorance, bigotry, and exclusion they will inevitably face. Adults are not always right, and it’s neither healthy nor safe to teach kids otherwise.

Whether you’re a parent of a disabled child or a newly-disabled adult, don’t ignore the limitations of a life without solid advocacy—a life far more limiting than a disability could ever be. Be mindful that third-party advocacy will never match the advocacy you can do for yourself. Value the insight and experiences of experts, but be open to customized solutions. Seek advice from the disability community, but remember that conventional wisdom is not without merit. Recognize that not every problem is a disability problem; some of them are just ordinary problems that can be solved in ordinary ways. Emphasize the powers of courtesy and respect, but never underestimate well-harnessed anger. Acknowledge social hierarchy, but be aware that hierarchy is commonly abused.

Parents may resist teaching advocacy skills, and I have the greatest sympathy with them. Advocacy is frightening, and frequently disappointing. It is delicate, thankless, much-maligned work, especially when it’s done by young people. It will not always produce the hoped-for results, and it’s rarely much fun. Understand that advocacy is tough to cultivate, and likely to inspire nasty pushback from people your child loves and trusts. Be ready to deal with the possibility that your child’s advocacy will sometimes be directed at you, and that you won’t like how it feels. Know that you will need to respect their advocacy, even if it hurts or upsets you. Accept that you are not exempt. Shudder at these harsh truths, and teach it anyway.

Advocacy skills have guaranteed that my education was useful and comprehensive. They prevented me from being barred from services I required. They help me be productive and successful. Advocacy is the cornerstone of every fruitful thing I have ever done for my schooling, my career, and my relationships. It keeps me on my feet when the wind is doing its best to knock me over, even and especially when that wind is coming from an unexpected direction.

Before you worry too much about signatures and scissors and the exact method of removing bread from a toaster, remember that A is for advocacy. Start there, and everything else should follow.

Advertisements

Counting My Spoons: A Life Lived in Pain

It’s easy to be philosophical about blindness. I don’t have to stretch much to say it’s opened doors I never would have discovered if I were sighted. Blindness has compelled me to meet interesting people, acquire specialized skills, and develop a readily adaptable spirit. It’s not always fun—not even mostly—but it’s not without its upsides.

I am not philosophical about the chronic pain I’ve lived with for almost ten years. A decade of tension pain and migraines has weathered and exhausted me in ways I’m still attempting to put into words. If blindness is like the common cold, interfering with everyday life but easy enough to accommodate, chronic pain is like the flu. Just when you think you’re finally feeling strong enough to conquer your to-do list, or socialize with friends, or get some writing done, it sweeps over you, leaving you in a nauseated heap. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to slink off to bed, cancelling plans and sowing disappointment as you go.

Often enough, I can hack it. How else would I manage to hold down a job and maintain some semblance of a life? On most days, I grit my teeth, slather on the peppermint oil, and plaster on my smile. I carry tissues for when my eyes water with the pain, and can occasionally be found slumped over my desk with my head in my hands, but I can usually be depended upon to seem healthy and energetic.

Usually.

If you’ve ever spent any length of time with me in person, there’s an excellent chance I was fighting pain. If you’ve tried to arrange a phone call or coffee date with me, I’ve probably pulled out at the very last minute. If you’ve worked with me, you’ve seen me press my fingers into my forehead when I think you’re not looking. If you ask, I’ll say I’m fine. Most of you know I’m full of it, but it would be far too awkward to pursue the matter.

Loved ones have received text messages like “I’m not in pain today!” People who know me well have seen me cry, throw up, or lash out when my headaches are stronger than my resolve to seem normal. Managers have heard a dozen variations of “I need to leave early,” or “I need to sit quietly in this corner until this backs off.” On the very worst days, they get “I’m sorry. I tried, but I can’t come in today.” Housemates and partners have sent me back to bed after I’ve insisted I’ll be okay. Each time feels like a battle I’ve lost.

My fiancé deals with the brunt of it. No part of our relationship is untouched by the unpredictable whims of a body in pain. Dates are postponed, and postponed again, and eventually forgotten altogether. Dinners are skipped because my migraine has sapped me of my hunger. Harsh words escape because while my control is exceptional, it is not perfect, and pain makes me feel as defensive as a wounded animal. Domestic duties are shirked, and I watch guiltily from bed as he sorts laundry I am too sore to hang because I can’t reach above my own head. Many a time, he has cooked, cleaned, and run errands while I cuddle my heat wrap and take enough Excedrin to make an elephant tremble. I interrupt intimate moments, rolling away to hide angry tears; I am too tired, too sore, too weak to participate. Through it all, he is incredibly understanding, but the inequality is its own kind of pain.

And then there are the good days: days when I’m thrumming with energy, ready for anything. During these rare days, sandwiched between “okay” and “terrible,” I sing, clean, write, and tackle all the tasks I’ve left undone. I squeeze every moment of life I can into these precious pain-free days, balancing my enjoyment of the freedom with the knowledge that it never, ever lasts. My good days fool everyone into believing I’m all right. Unlike me, they still have faith that it’ll stay that way.

The crash, after a string of good days, is the worst.

I count my spoons with care, trying to account for the unpredictable. Do I spend this “good day” doing housework or writing? If I only have the energy for one social gathering, but I’ve booked two, which should I cancel? Which friend would I rather upset? Whose disappointment is easier to bear? Which task can I afford to push back? Since work is normally my top priority, and getting through it each day is costly, what should I do with the few hours before bed?

Know this, dear reader: my heart is so much bigger than my energy. My desire to connect with you, return your email, meet you for lunch, text you when you’re lonely, help with your creative project, is infinite. My ability to fulfill that desire is decidedly finite. If I’ve missed your call, cancelled our plans, failed to meet your deadline, ruined your good time with my exhaustion—I am truly sorry. I want to do better. If I had enough spoons to make everyone happy, I’d use them, because all my friends and all my family members and all others who depend on me are worthy.

So I ask everyone I’ve hurt, everyone I’ve disappointed, everyone I’ve let down: forgive me. I am getting better at this pain thing, but I am still learning. I don’t always distribute my spoons wisely. I overestimate my strength and overbook myself. I make promises I fully intend to keep, and need more time than I thought because work and basic housekeeping and mere survival take precedence. On good days, I sometimes forget to be careful, and pay for it on bad days. And, readers, I know you’ve paid for it, too.

No, I’m not philosophical about pain. I can never pretend it opens doors, or enhances empathy, or makes my world a richer place. Mostly, it just makes every little thing I do harder and more complicated. It turns an organized, driven person into an unwilling canceller of plans. I’m nothing if not adaptable, though—thanks blindness—and I’m slowly learning to count those spoons. I’m learning strategies to keep the pain from taking over my life. I’m becoming more accurate in measuring my energy levels and prioritizing what really matters.

In the meantime, I ask for patience, not only for myself, but for everyone you know who lives a life in pain. No, we’re not always fine, and no, we can’t always tackle what needs tackling.

But we love you. We’re trying. We’re playing the worst of all juggling games, and we are so, so tired.

But by God, we’re trying.

 

The Blind Girl Who Sings

In her memoir, Hourglass, Dani Shapiro writes about a “third thing” that all married couples should have in order to live happily together long-term. The first thing is you, the second thing is your spouse, and the third thing is the external glue that unites you. It could be a common taste in music, or the process of raising your children, or a mutual love of the outdoors. Whatever it might be, you need a third thing to give your relationship shape. And, as I read about this concept, I realized that music is the “third thing” in my relationship with myself. There’s me (first thing), disability (second thing), and music (that essential third thing).

I’m a complete nobody, but while I was growing up, I had a modest musical reputation. Rural surroundings made it easier to stand out, and my family’s love of music was all the encouragement I needed. One of my earliest memories is picking out “Mary had a Little Lamb” on my grandmother’s piano, refusing offers of help with growing stubbornness. At five, I was singing publicly. By the time I left home for university at seventeen, I had sung competitively for eleven years, and was a common figure at local fundraisers, funerals, weddings, and other community events. I’d never be Idol material, perhaps, but I was dependable and versatile, occasionally bringing crowds to their feet. Sometimes, I’d even win competitions. It was enough.

Once I began studying communications and preparing for a career centred more on writing than music, I let much of my talent go dormant. I still sang to myself constantly—to the dismay of my roommates, I’m sure—and found the time to sing with friends and perform at the occasional family funeral or wedding. I had shifted gears dramatically, releasing my careful posture and letting my exceptional lung capacity deteriorate. Music seemed to have no fixed place in my new reality, and city living meant that if I’d wanted to claw my way back up to where I’d been, I’d have to fight for it. Stressed as I was by academic pressure, chronic pain, and mental health struggles, I didn’t have that fight in me. I focused on writing, sang exclusively for fun, and made noises about joining a choir someday. Two years have passed since my graduation, and serious musical pursuits are still at the bottom of my to-do list.

Though I’m occupied with other things, I miss being a singer every day. I miss it for the obvious reasons: the rush of performing for an enthusiastic crowd; the joy of learning new and challenging pieces; the grind of endless rehearsals that somehow turn into effortless beauty when you’re looking the other way. I miss dressing up and connecting with strangers and congratulating fellow musicians. It could be gruelling, but I miss it dearly.

There’s another dimension to my longing: music was my conduit to a life less defined by disability. People often thought of me as “that blind girl who sings,” it’s true, and many of them waffled on about my vocal gift being divine compensation for my undesirable eyes. Even so, while I was singing, I wasn’t thinking about cane technique or traffic patterns. When people flocked to me after a performance to tell me my voice had meant something to them, no one was dwelling excessively on my broken eyes. If someone reached out to touch me as I passed, it was out of a desire to express something more positive than “You’re going the wrong way! I must save you!” Adjudicators were mostly impartial, occasionally referencing my lack of eye contact with audiences but otherwise more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like on stage. With a few exceptions, I was judged for my talent, hard work, and emotional expression. Nobody who watched me earn a standing ovation with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was likely to label me incompetent, graceless, or pitiable. Music, especially in the minor leagues, was as close to meritocracy as I was ever going to experience, and I had no idea how valuable it was until I had to live without it.

The musically-talented blind person is a narrative with which society is comfortable and familiar. Few people questioned my right to inhabit that world. My “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” moment came in a rhetoric class, a couple of years in to my communications degree. I was unpacking my laptop, lost in thought, when a student I’d never spoken to before approached me.

“Why are you here?”

The question came with no bark on it. It wasn’t hostile, but there was a straightforwardness to it that made it shocking. Immediately, other students began to gather around, wondering how this would unfold.

“I’m in this course, so…”

“Right,” he continued, “but why are you here? In university?”

“I’m taking the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, and this class is one of the option courses.”

“I know, but blind people can’t be writers.”

It dawned on me that I didn’t have to participate in this bizarre conversation. I was being baited, or insulted, or something. Being a dedicated glutton for punishment, I responded.

“Of course we can be writers.”

“But how?”

By now, he was starting to sound genuinely curious. Receptive, even?

“Well, I use a computer, like everyone else…”

A few other students pressed closer, making disapproving noises. The student continued, sounding defensive.

“Well, I’m not up on all the technology…”

Clearly not.

Class began at that moment, interrupting one of the most unsettling conversations I’d ever had. As the instructor introduced the course outline, I realized, all at once, that I was back at square one, back to proving myself, back to basics in the worst way. Blind communications professionals made less sense to people than blind musicians, it seemed, and I had never felt more disabled. The student and I eventually became friendly, and I’ve since learned that the blunt approach I found so off-putting is simply part of his communication style, but he reminded me, whether intentionally or not, that I must always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to explain my place in the world.

The oft-repeated observation about minorities needing to work harder, shine brighter, climb higher than everyone else just to be regarded half as talented still holds true. Being disabled is a little less demoralizing when you have some talent or skill that helps you stand out for something other than your disability. If your reputation as a singer or designer or writer or chef becomes more powerful than your reputation as the weird girl with the stick, or the weird guy with the wheelchair, you’re winning. The trick is to train people to see your brilliance before they see your supposed deficiencies. Distract them with your finer points, and maybe they’ll forget about all the ways you don’t fit in.

There’s plenty of bitterness buried in this truth, but I’ve found a way to put a more encouraging spin on it. Instead of looking upon music as the only part of my life that made much sense, I choose to view it as a valuable skillset that set me up for greater success in other facets of my life. All those public performances have cured me of paralyzing stage fright. Public speaking doesn’t scare me, and thriving under pressure comes more naturally than working in slow-paced, gentle environments. Musicianship expanded my social circle, increased my confidence, and helped me shape my identity outside of the box marked “blind.” I may have been the “blind girl who sang” to most of my community, but that’s still better than simply being “the blind girl.” Now, I can be “the blind girl who writes,” or “the blind girl who edits,” or, you know, “another disabled human trying to live her life.” I’m happy enough in all of those boxes.

I hope every disabled child has the opportunity to find their third thing. Maybe, like me, they’ll discover fourth and fifth and sixth things, just to keep life interesting. These days, writing and editing have become almost as essential to my identity as music.

Discover that third thing. Give your relationship with yourself shape and definition. Allow others to see past the cane, or dog, or walker, or their own perceptions. Do it for yourself, primarily, and watch as other people begin to notice you in ways far more pleasant than “Hey! There’s that disabled person I always see at the bus stop!” Perhaps you’ll master that third thing to the point of renown, or perhaps you’ll choose to embrace it quietly. You do you.

Wherever your journey takes you, find your third thing, and be seen.

The Settling Kind

In may, I visited my very first escape room. I expected some hiccups, but was nonetheless excited. Escape rooms sounded like the ideal amalgamation of everything I find fun: low-key activities, free of unnecessary stimuli, packed with puzzles and bolstered by a team atmosphere. I’m not naive, and I anticipated visual challenges I’d be unable to meet, but I assumed there would be enough tasks I could manage to make the experience worthwhile. Besides, I was used to settling for a little less. It’s an art form at this point.

The escape room proved less accessible than I could have imagined. We didn’t make it through the entire sequence, so I can’t guarantee there weren’t accessible brain-teasers lurking near the end, but everything we encountered was, at minimum, partially visual. Even the logic puzzles required such complexity of description—and such perfect recall on my part—that I gave up completely. While the fully-sighted participants swarmed the claustrophobic space, ransacking shelves and deciphering tiny writing on the walls, I hung back, at loose ends. Occasionally, some sympathetic soul would try to include me, but the activity was on a tight timeline, and none of us could think of a timely and effective way to let me participate at all, let alone as fully as everyone else. Ultimately, I was of no more use to anyone than the toddlers running around our legs.

I left the room disappointed, berating myself for being so. Shouldn’t I have expected this? Shouldn’t I be used to this by now? Why did I let myself hope, anyway? I ought to know better.

When you grow up rural and disabled, disconnected from opportunities and understanding peers, you’re likely to adopt the art of settling as a survival mechanism, and quickly. If you’re unable to be at peace with missing out, you’re probably in for a war of attrition.

It wasn’t all bad: My family and friends were unfailingly accommodating, and my sister was denied many an activity because my parents worried it would exclude me. Cousins and friends modified games to make them easier for me to play, and valued my participation almost without exception or complaint.

The rest of the world wasn’t so inclusive, and I came to accept, at a very young age, that I’d better get used to the sidelines. After a few years of skipping rope on the stage while my gym class played dodgeball, or solving math equations while my classmates took swimming lessons, I even grew to prefer the fringes. It seemed safer there—more suited to my introverted, self-conscious personality. Inclusion seemed like an unreasonable burden to place on anyone, and when you grow up surrounded by nondisabled people, you tend to prioritize harmony over desire.

By the time I started university and amassed a group of disabled friends, I noticed how demanding—that’s how I viewed them then—they all seemed to be. They wanted described video and tactile museum exhibits and blind-friendly versions of mainstream sports. Their determination to participate felt foreign and frightening. I’d spent years convincing myself I was happy to spectate. A deeply-embedded combination of habit and self-protection had let me hover on the sidelines without acknowledging my own desire for a life more fully lived. All this time, I had thought myself the kind of person who hangs back, sits things out, and says no to anything that seems too fun or messy or adventuresome. With the exception of my musical performances, I’d rarely permitted myself to reach beyond my limits and ask for more. On the cusp of adulthood, I was forced to accept that I had contorted myself into the settling kind to avoid rejection and exclusion. It’s easier to say “I don’t want to be included,” than to say “I wanted, and did not get.”

Growing pains set in, and some of them persist today. I still catch myself being a “no” girl. Settling for less than everyone else comes far too naturally, even now, and I continue to demand higher things for others while quieting my own dangerous longings. Loved and encouraged as I am by my family and friends, I still instinctively reassure myself that I don’t need inclusion. I don’t need to be welcomed. I don’t need to transcend my most basic needs. If I can pay my bills and hold certain types of jobs, what right have I to anything more frivolous?

Growing pains are not eternal, and look how much growing I’ve done! I’m now more focused on inclusion than access. I’m more inclined to ask for a pleasant experience, rather than contenting myself with a bearable one. If my reaction to the escape room is any indication, I’m becoming downright spoiled, expecting to enjoy social gatherings and play an active role in activities I’ve paid for. I’ve practically become a princess!

I’ve come a long way, but I won’t diminish what it took to get me here. Dismantling my tendency to settle has been a painful and unpredictable process, with many discouraging moments when I’ve judged myself or others for wanting what nondisabled people are given by default. Occupying my place at the table has been, and remains, an ongoing work-in-progress.

Are you a settler? Have you learned to think of inclusion in terms of what you deserve, while believing it’s a right for everyone else? Is fun something you force yourself to earn? Do you pretend you like the margins because the centre might reject you?

Don’t settle to survive. Do not place yourself in a supporting role because main characters have bodies and brains that pass as “normal.” Break the pattern of treating less like it’s more. Be grateful, and be patient, but be a little demanding, too. Realize that a more vibrant life is possible, and allow yourself to want it, because no one else can make it happen for you.

Most nondisabled people don’t tie themselves in knots, wondering whether they deserve to enjoy their lives. So, my fellow disabled people, why should we?

Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons

I’ve been a paratransit user for almost two years, and I don’t like to talk about it.
The reason I keep relatively quiet about my paratransit use is that I understand the stigma that comes with being a frequent rider of the short bus. Assumptions are made about my supposed lack of self-respect. Pity and scorn flow freely from disabled people, many of whom are former (and to their thinking, emancipated) paratransit riders. Horror stories are dredged up from decades past, often third or fourth-hand and seeming more dramatic with every telling. Potential employers cringe.
Whatever you might think of paratransit services, the reality is that they exist, many people depend upon them, and until we live in a utopia where public transit is perfectly accessible and adequate mobility training is available to everyone, it’s going to keep existing. I’d prefer to focus on the ways it needs to improve, rather than insisting it needs to be eliminated.
Here are some uncomfortable truths and tough life lessons I’ve learned since becoming a regular paratransit passenger. Sharing these will, I hope, make for interesting reading. Beyond that, I hope this post will be engaging for those who have had similar experiences, and instructive to those who want to educate themselves about paratransit and the people who use it.
Disclaimer: Paratransit services can vary widely from location to location. My personal experiences may not reflect those of all passengers.

Personal Space? What Personal Space?

Paratransit services are typically designed for a vast range of clients. Some clients, like me, require very little assistance, while other clients need help with basic tasks like climbing into the vehicle and fastening seatbelts. Like many one-size-fits-all solutions, paratransit drivers are given training that isn’t able to address every possible situation. Drivers are often trained to assume clients are completely incapable, because not all clients can communicate how much assistance they need.

This means drivers will lean across me to fasten my seatbelt. They will place their hands on me to steer me into a seat. Occasionally, they’ll try to guide me in unwieldy ways: by the hand, by the shoulder, even by the waist. Once I make it clear I don’t need or want this assistance, most drivers back down and apologize, though the odd driver will argue. Even so, I routinely find myself physically handled in ways most people would find invasive, despite repeated assertions that I don’t want to be touched without prior consent.

While I recognize that this pattern is mostly the fault of training that tries to do too much for too many, it’s indescribably wearing to flex your advocacy muscles day after day–muscles you’d normally reserve for the general public. More than once, a fellow client has violated my personal space in ways that are wildly inappropriate, only to have drivers shrug and assure me I’m in no real danger. I’m not in the habit of fearing fellow disabled people, but that’s not of much comfort when someone is stroking your arm and tugging repeatedly on your hair.

Even though paratransit is a service built specifically for disabled people, it doesn’t always feel like a very safe one.

Nine Rings of Scheduling Hell

Coordinating the schedules of thousands of people is no mean feat, and I admire the staff that somehow manages to make it all come together. Much as I respect the complexity of the job, I can’t help but notice that my time is treated as elastic and unlimited. I book in such a way that I’m far too early, just to avoid being far too late. Trip-booking is a logistical nightmare, because:

  • The pickup window isn’t always based on when you want to arrive at your destination. In my city, it is based on when you want to be picked up. So, you have to estimate your travel time within a half hour window, and hope that estimate is accurate.
  • The current policy for the service I use states that a client can be kept in the vehicle up to 90 minutes. Depending on scheduling, weather, and traffic, it can take over an hour for a commute that would normally take about 15 minutes. Good luck planning around that.
  • If a driver picks you up after the half hour window has ended, they are considered “late.” However, “late” is a pointless distinction because drivers arrive when they arrive. A driver missing the end of your window just means you’ll be waiting as long as it takes, regardless of how time-sensitive your personal schedule might be.

Many clients who use paratransit have jobs. That means we need a practical scheduling system that allows us to have a reasonable amount of control over when we’ll be picked up and dropped off. Employers don’t appreciate unpredictable employees, and who can blame them? In my city, my trip to work is considered no more important than a trip to the mall, or to church, or to Starbucks.

The worst bit is the apparent bafflement and annoyance booking agents and dispatchers express when I insist that my time does matter. Shocked as they are that I don’t only go to church and medical appointments, there isn’t much regard for my time–and that disregard extends to many disabled people I know. For a group that already struggles to find and maintain employment, a service that doesn’t prioritize a working person’s time is one more needless barrier in a line of others.

Change Ruins Everything

Besides my job, whose schedule is quite rigid, I tend to lead a rather spontaneous life. I’ve always been an agile gal who didn’t mind sudden changes–until, of course, paratransit became part of my life.

Since my trips usually have to be booked several days in advance, and must be cancelled with at least two hours’ notice, paratransit is not ideal for someone with a dynamic lifestyle that is subject to change without much warning. This isn’t so much a flaw in the system as it is an unavoidable consequence of trying to make one service work for thousands of busy people. It’s understandable that paratransit wouldn’t be able to accommodate sudden schedule changes, and I’ve made my peace with that, making other arrangements for those times when I’m left without a ride.

But there’s a darker side to this issue. You see, for a service that is tailored to the needs of disabled people, paratransit is surprisingly unresponsive to some of our most basic needs. I have migraines and chronic pain, neither of which are in the habit of giving me 24 hours’ notice before they strike. Since I can’t always travel when dealing with severe pain or nausea, I find myself cancelling trips at the last minute more often than I’d like. Agents sometimes grumble, but once I explain, they don’t penalize me.

At one time, though, this was not the case in my city. A friend and inveterate paratransit user remembers a time when cancelling at the last minute was always penalized, regardless of the reason. Missing too many trips could result in suspension, which is a scary thought for people who rely on paratransit to take them to important appointments. It took considerable advocacy from the disability community to make the city realize that an inflexible service for people with disabilities made no sense whatsoever. Our lives are complicated, and we can’t always bully our bodies into cooperating with us. A service that doesn’t bake this reality into its policies serves no one.

Welcome to the Margins

I’ve always identified as a marginalized person, simply because having multiple disabilities seemed to place me well within that category. Not until I took paratransit did I get a glimpse of what being marginalized could look like. Every day, I meet clients who are so far on the fringes that it feels as though we occupy two different worlds. Some can’t communicate verbally, and struggle to make themselves understood when a driver goes the wrong way, or drives right past their house. Others love to chat, but are ignored or grudgingly tolerated by drivers and clients alike, whose patience and compassion have either eroded over time, or were never present at all. Still others are struggling with sudden injuries and medical crises that have permanently altered their lives. I’ve listened as clients howled with pain, trying to maneuver themselves into high vans and buses. I’ve heard seniors apologize profusely as the driver buckles their seatbelts, humiliation colouring their voices. I’ve sat quietly by, helpless, as a client tried in vain to engage their escort in conversation, each overture rejected. I’ve cringed in my seat as a nonverbal client screamed in pain, or distress, or some other violent emotion I couldn’t decipher, while the driver focused on the traffic ahead.

No doubt these clients live happy, fulfilling lives, and I’ve chatted with enough of them to know they are just as interesting, warm, and spirited as the rest of us.

But, in the confines of those vehicles, it can be hard to forget about the margins that hold them in place. It can be hard to get over the fact that I’ve ignored people like this myself, when having a bad day or feeling irritated by something else. It’s impossible to pretend I haven’t played a part in the marginalization of at least one of these people, out of fear or ignorance or a desire to be left alone. It’s hard, in other words, to praise the progress we’ve made when confronted so frequently with how far we still have to go.


There are many things I appreciate about paratransit. Door-to-door service means I feel safe, even in dangerous neighbourhoods. I can avoid pitted sidewalks and inaccessible areas. If I don’t know the route to my job interview or my doctor’s office, I can still get there. My abysmal outdoor mobility skills don’t completely constrain my life.

By and large, paratransit services appear to be run by compassionate people who really do care about managing it well. They want you to get the times you asked for. They care if they pick you up outside your window. They show empathy when you’re in pain, and they’re happy to help where they can.

Still, we mustn’t get complacent. Paratransit has many deeply-rooted problems, and since it fills service gaps for so many people, we need to fix what we have rather than tearing it all down in a fit of cynicism, or dismissing those who still use it.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this post, I hope you’ve offloaded a few assumptions and re-evaluated some stereotypes. I hope you know that there is no archetypal paratransit user. There is no typical use case. There is no neat, tidy template into which you can shove those of us who, for one reason or another, need a special service to get around.

Whether you’re a paratransit user, an employer, an educator, a social worker, or a paratransit staff member, I hope you come away with plenty to think about.

Got some thoughts to share? I think this post calls for a lively comments section, don’t you?

Singing up the Mountain

There’s a piece of wisdom I’ve often heard, though I’ve never traced its origin:

In life, we’re all just hiking up the mountain. You can complain about how your feet are sore, or you can sing all the way up. Your choice.

I’m no champion of relentless positivity. I maintain that, for people whose brains are wired like mine, mantras and affirmations bring on more depression than inspiration. I don’t wear rose-coloured glasses well, and even my most indulgent friends remind me to watch my pessimistic streak.

Yet, the idea of life as a long, mandatory hike appeals to me. Some will have an easier time than others. Some will find the path to be wide and accommodating, designed for their every need and wish. Others, especially those who represent at least one minority, will find the hike more arduous. Perhaps the path is narrow and winding. Perhaps your equipment is in rough shape, and you don’t have the means to upgrade. Perhaps your way is obstructed by treacherous pebbles that will send you tumbling if you’re not careful. Perhaps it’s littered with concerned strangers telling you to turn back, choose a less ambitious path, or adjust your pace to a speed they consider more appropriate.

Whatever your mountain looks like, whichever obstacles you might encounter, only you can decide how best to climb it. You can take advantage of the wide, welcoming paths, never sparing a thought for those on more dangerous journeys. You might decide to stray from your comfortable stroll to shift a boulder or clear a trail for someone else. If, like me, your hike is rocky and unpredictable, you may want to contribute to a large-scale effort to make the hike safer and more equitable for everyone who is stuck on this mountain with you. (This mountain is yours. There is no right way–only your way.)

There is another choice to make, and as I experience one of the most trying periods of my life, I’m thinking more often than usual about this mountain of mine. There have been times—and I’m sure there will be more—when climbing felt natural and simple. Boulders were moved from my path by forces much stronger than me. Fellow hikers let me lean on their broad shoulders. The map was clear. I knew where I was going and how I’d get there.

At this moment, my landscape is much more uncertain, and I am tired. My feet are sore. My canteen is nearly empty, and my fellow hikers carry burdens even heavier than my own. I can’t hear myself think for the struggles around me, and my desire to broaden the path for others is tinged with despair at my own sad smallness.

But as I write this, as I contemplate a path that has never seemed less welcoming, I know that it’s time I started singing again.

My song might falter while I cling to jagged places. Tears and frustration might dampen its beauty. Sometimes, I’ll be making up the lyrics, or humming nonsensically, because damn it if I haven’t forgotten all the words.

But I don’t know of any other way to keep climbing.

So I’m gonna sing my way up this mountain. It won’t be pretty, but it will sustain me. It will have to do, because turning back? Giving up? Slowing my step to suit someone else’s comfort? These aren’t options—not for me.

Yes, we can still complain that our feet are sore, that we are tired, that we can’t read our maps. These admissions are valid and necessary. We will need to pause, rest, drink some water, lean on the nearest shoulder.

But whenever we can, wherever we can, let’s not forget to sing.

The Empathy Gap: When “Been There, Done That” is not Enough

As someone who has been told several times she is too empathetic to survive in this harsh world, I assumed I knew a lot about empathy. I never pretended to know how to kindle it in others, but I rarely had difficulty placing myself in even the most unusual positions to investigate all sides of an issue. While this tendency to favour the empathetic response is often involuntary and sometimes overwhelming, I always viewed it as a net positive. Surely, by being such an effortlessly empathetic soul—if not an effortlessly kind one—I must be adept at feeling and demonstrating compassion for others, especially when I’ve walked in similar shoes. Since I’m privileged to be trusted with so many personal stories of struggle, my well-ingrained empathetic response was one of the few traits about which I was fully confident.
Like so many of my long-held and cherished assumptions, I ran into compelling evidence that I was wrong. What is more, I should not have needed a formal study on the empathy gap to convince me; my own negative experiences with the disability community should have been sufficient. According to the authors of this study, the common belief that walking in someone else’s shoes ought to inspire compassion and even leniency is statistically inaccurate. This might not feel true at first, but the more I pondered it, the more sense it made.
Take this example from a few years ago, when I was beginning to find my place in the disability community: An acquaintance, who lived with physical and mental disabilities, was finally able to obtain permanent, fulfilling employment. I expected he would dedicate some of his emotional resources to encouraging others who had not yet reached that goal, or at least affirm that the struggle is, in fact, real. Within months of his triumph, however, he was already cutting fellow disabled people down, suggesting that aspiring workers should simply try harder, and campaigning to cut benefits meant to help those aspiring workers survive while they continued their job searches. The years he had spent searching for his own job, the discrimination he had battled, the pain he had suffered—he had either forgotten them altogether, minimized their power, or attributed his success to superior mettle. Whatever the reason, I drew away from him in shock and disappointment, unable to believe someone could be so hypocritical and heartless.
The idealist in me is loath to admit it, but his response wasn’t just statistically normal. His response, extreme though it was, is one I see in most people I know, including my oh-so-empathetic self. I’m working to exercise compassion and empathy more consciously and intentionally, but I still catch myself dismissing or minimizing someone else’s experiences on the bogus basis that I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m on the other side of it or, at least, I’ve learned to shoulder it. Meanwhile, the nondisabled people I know are more likely to listen attentively and judge less readily, because they have not worn those shoes and do not feel qualified to do more than be supportive. You will find far too many people, disabled and nondisabled, who are quick to judge a situation even and especially when they have no knowledge of it, but most people know when they’re out of their depth, and won’t pretend otherwise.
Now that I’ve been a multiply-disabled person for decades, and worked in a disability-adjacent field for a few years, I am forced to confront the reality that lived experiences don’t automatically result in increased compassion and empathy. In fact, disabled people and those close to them tend to err on the side of harshness, reasoning that they or someone they know managed to “overcome,” which means they have little or no sympathy for anyone who is less successful. There’s a well-worn joke in the disability employment field about how case managers with disabilities are the toughest, and for the most part it checks out. Disabled case managers, and those with disabled family members or friends, may have more knowledge and may make fewer generalizations on average, but they are also likely to say something like “I was able to do this, so why can’t you?” When I wrote about my fear of blind people, this is the core of what I was describing: nondisabled people typically take me at face value after a while, but disabled people often seem to be sizing me up. In an ugly and ironic twist, I have caught myself sizing up my clients in precisely the same way.
As is my custom, I thought about calls to action before sitting down to write this post. I dislike bringing up an issue without pointing toward potential solutions, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much direct action to be taken against the empathy gap, besides acknowledging it exists and fighting the instinct to judge, give unsolicited advice, or condemn when we encounter someone who is wearing shoes very like our own.
When you feel empathy, ask yourself the hard questions: Is this a pure feeling? Am I using my past experiences to offer guidance and validation? Is the advice I’m giving, the story I’m telling, the wisdom I’m dispensing welcome? Solicited? Needed? Useful? Am I sharing understanding, or centreing myself? Do I have any right to speak to this situation at all, or am I talking when I ought to be listening?
I’ll close with insightful advice from the authors of the study I referenced earlier. According to Ruttan, McDonnel, and Nordgren, it’s best to get out of your own head, place less emphasis on your individual experiences, and focus on the situation in front of you. If it helps, think of all the many people in the world struggling with the same burdens, instead of zeroing in on your personal journey.
Armed with this knowledge and these strategies, I hope we can all put our empathy to good use, and grow into a more supportive, less judgmental community. Come join me!