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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Little Dose of Ableism Courtesy of an RTD Train Driver

Since moving to the Denver area, I have relied entirely on mass transit. Mass transit is always interesting and the people watching is amazing. On any given day I can be exposed to exceptionally well dressed people, the poorest of the poor, homeless parents with wide eyed children, the elderly, mentally ill and the crippled like me. I have found the light rail system (RTD) easy to navigate and the vast majority of train drivers to be excellent. The RTD bus drivers in contrast are a mixed bag. Most are unpleasant or unhappy to all. I get it. Being a bus driver is not an easy job. RTD buses are grimy and based one my experience homeless people use the bus on cold days (I presume to stay warm). Bus drivers also hate to tie down wheelchairs and are clear when I get on: "You don't need to be tied down, right?" Let me translate this statement. I am not getting out of my seat to tie down your wheelchair. Fine, I am well aware should the bus be in an accident I will become a human projectile.

I find the bus versus drive train driver dichotomy interesting. Last night I had my first interaction with a  train driver that was unpleasant. Unpleasant here is misleading. My short exchange at the end of my ride was an example of ableism and ignorance. When you get on an RTD light rail train the RTD driver lowers a ramp and asks where are you getting off. Deploying the ramp is easy and takes seconds. Train drivers are invariably polite and easy going. I have never had an RTD train driver be rude to me or complain about deploying the ramp. Train drivers as a group are a pleasure to deal with. Disability is never a factor. I am just another guy getting on and off the train. Riding the train is about as ordinary as ordinary can be. For this reason alone, riding the train is an absolute pleasure.

Last night I had the following experience. I got on the train with a friend at Union Station. I told the driver my destination. As is the norm, the driver writes down my destination on a little board below the windshield. No driver has ever forgotten my stop. Last night was about as routine as humanly possible until I got off. At my stop the train driver got out of the front cab as the door opened and went to deploy the ramp. The driver looked at me and asked "Where is your care taker?" I replied as pleasantly as possible "My friend got off to pick up their car". Not impressed the driver replied "You should not be out by yourself. You need a caretaker". The driver proceeded to shake her head and glare at me in clear disapproval--like a nun who was putting the class clown in place with an icy stare.

As I walked home I wondered how do people learn about disability. Whenever I am alone people will ask about my caretaker. This happens at airports, bus terminals, and car rental hubs on a regular basis. Often airline personnel appear shocked I am traveling by myself. When I am questioned about the location of my care taker my heart sinks. I never get angry when confronted with such an ignorant comment.  I never reply with a cutting comment. Instead, this level of ignorance makes me sad and weary. Nearly 30 years after the ADA was enacted the level of ignorance associated with disability remains high. The ADA is rarely thought to be civil rights legislation. The ADA is routinely disparaged in the news and popular media.  When some asks me "where is your care taker" I am repeatedly reminded disability rights is in its infancy. We as a nation have a very long way to go before people with a disability are treated as sentient human beings. The train driver's comment was a buzz kill. I went to a fun event at Union Station last night and had not one but two Old Fashioned drinks. On the train, my guard was down and after I was asked about where my care taker was I felt like a boxer that just got hit with a wicked and unexpected upper cut. Then again maybe the train driver has been reading the user manuals for my Apex wheelchair.


Miz Kizzle said...

You response to her rudeness was admirably restrained. I would have asked her where her caretaker was.

JohnMoxon1 said...

I'm never asked that question in Australia - except at one particular doctor's surgery (I suppose because my wife was with me the first time I visited).

Asking "where's your caretaker" is like asking an African-American "where's your owner?"

What I've noticed in Oz is that when trains and buses first became accessible - in the late 90s and early 2000s, drivers and station attendants were reluctant to assist - I guess because they saw it as a new imposition on their time. But now I rarely get a poor response (and, yes, only from the occasional bus driver). I guess the newer employees have always seen assisting as part of their regular duties.

Unknown said...


There may also have been an element of alcohol shaming. We cripples are infantilized, and alcohol is only for the grown-ups!

Unknown said...

My local experiences with paratransit drivers vs fixed route drivers is like night and day.

Paratransit people are professional and polite. Very occasionally I get asked whether I need the lift; nothing negative is said when I say yes.

Fixed route drivers constantly drove right past, claimed the ramp or lift was broken, screamed at me, demanded to know how I went to the bathroom, did nothing about making sure I had a seat, drove right past my stop.

The difference between 50 cents with at least one transfer and $2.50 door to door ... Worth it!