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?


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!