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?

Advertisements

Writing For The Eye (When Yours Don’t Work)

As a university student, I am continually required to think about (or, more accurately, worry about) proper formatting. Beyond the simple process of following letter templates and adjusting fonts, I have to fiddle with things like tricky citations and nastily precise documentation requirements. My every piece of writing is micromanaged, right down to its one-inch margins, italicized journal titles, and perfectly-indented footnotes. This is a reality every student faces, especially if they do any academic writing. The various documentation styles required for scholarly writing are notorious for their complexity and constant (unnecessary) revisions. Time and time again, new editions of the style books are released, containing the latest “improvements” to the documentation style. Usually, they change one or two things and the rest remains exactly the same. While this does cut down on the learning and relearning a student has to do, it does make buying the new editions a wee bit frustrating, considering that they’re not exactly inexpensive. I have had some instructors who graciously gave me a pass when it came to specific aspects of document formatting I simply couldn’t do. For example, I was not always able to paginate properly, because my screen reader and Microsoft Word had a love hate relationship. I also have trouble spotting things like italics where they shouldn’t be, or improper indenting. Citations and bibliography writing literally take me hours, and I’m never sure I got it right. This can be a big deal when you consider that a few of my instructors knocked off several marks for every formatting error we made. Writing the essay is the easy part: I have to worry about my margins!

 

At least this is just for essay writing, yeah? I won’t have to worry about any of this in the workplace? … Come on now! I’d never be that lucky. Even in business writing, formatting and document design are essential. It seems that in every class I attend, I’m reminded once again that visual elements are as important, if not more so, as the words I write. My websites have to be visually appealing and skimmable. My documents must be consistently and precisely formatted, lest I distract the reader (and boy are they easy to distract). My power point presentations have to include multimedia, pretty pictures, and lots of lovely charts to make everybody care about them. Without these, I’m just going to be boring, unpersuasive, and ineffectual. And, as with fashion, there’s no handbook to guide me; it’s all about knowing what will please the eyes—the eyes I don’t use and don’t really understand.

 

This creates even bigger problems when you consider the types of positions opening up in my field. These days, employers don’t just want a writer or editor. They want a writer who can edit, take pictures, design web content, and make pretty posters to hang on the walls. They essentially want to combine three different roles into one efficient package, and of course I’ll never be able to do that for them. I can’t take pictures—at least, not well—and I can’t do much with images beyond simply placing them where I’m told to. I have wondered seriously about my career prospects if this disturbing trend continues. It’s a sobering thought, indeed.

 

I’ve never tried to deny that we live in a highly visual world. I know and respect this, which means I respect the fact that visual elements will always have the utmost importance in almost any field, communications included. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to adjust to. You see, screen readers (the software I use to navigate on my laptop) can only do so much. I have very little trouble checking that my font is the right colour, size, and style, because the software can describe this to me. I know how to make headings and tables. I can fiddle with paragraph style, and make lists, and even create power point presentations, though it’s a struggle. If you tell me exactly what to do, I can probably figure it out. Herein lies the problem, though: in the “real world”, people probably won’t be telling me what to do. They’ll be expecting me to design my own documents, using all those wonderful skills I picked up in university. Don’t get me wrong, I have as much intuition and creativity as the next person, but how am I supposed to understand on an intrinsic level what is visually appealing and what isn’t? I have never read print, so I have no idea what is “distracting”. I don’t have an innate understanding of why certain things look clean and appealing and why other things look cluttered and inelegant. Give me a braille document and I can critique it all day long. I also have my own opinions about web interfaces and document formatting, but they are only relevant to people using screen readers. I can create excellent content, but to hear some of my instructors talk, I could be writing Shakespearian quotes for all it matters. The visual elements have to be present, and they have to be superb.

 

I’ve definitely had my share of formatting mishaps, most of which I can laugh about because they’re years behind me. In high school, I once sent my teacher an essay that had somehow been written in several different colours. He thanked me for the “rainbow”. I tried to claim I meant to do that, but I don’t think he believed me. On the plus side, the colourful fonts probably helped to offset my research on charming gentlemen like Hitler and Stalin. If you’re going to read about vicious dictators, at least read about them in rainbow colours, right?

 

Another memorable assignment I’d done had been meticulously formatted, right down to the beautiful footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography. It was my first attempt at Chicago style, in my first year of university, and oh my, was I ever proud of it. When I got it back, it had been given an A. One little problem, though: the professor asked whether I’d meant to centre the entire essay, by any chance? Apparently, it was just a tad hard to read that way. Some people really are hard to please, eh?

 

Luckily for blind writers everywhere, times are changing. More and more applications are becoming accessible with screen readers, and the readers themselves have features that help us edit our own work. Still, automated editing features will never replace the human eye and the fundamental intuition that comes with it. I’ll just have to hope that my content is enough to rise above the glaring lack of pretty pictures. I do hope you will all continue to read my ramblings, even in the absence of eye-catching graphics. My heart might just break otherwise…