Tuesday, February 11, 2020

An Operator Complaint ADA Style

Portland's innovative Tilikum Crossing,
the only transit/pedestrian/bicyclist bridge
in the United States of America. I drive over it
each day in service, as I did when this post took shape
in my writer's soul.

Deke's Note: We are all fearful of an ADA complaint. It's the type that often comes with a strict disciplinary action, unless we can prove our innocence. Even though the American justice system insists the prosecution prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt, just the complaint is enough to result in the threat of suspension.

Through nearly seven decades of life, I've watched the pendulum of reason swing madly from one end to the other with misplaced ferocity. Corporations are so lawsuit-frightful, they react swiftly to criticism from the disabled community. In many instances, it involves sacrificing their employees to questionable accusations or gross misunderstandings before investigating complaints from all angles. Often, transit workers are accused of a misconstrued comment which fails the smell test. Well, I'm tired of tiptoeing around the tulips, and it's about damn time someone addressed this. Here is my humble attempt to honestly express my feelings on a very sensitive subject.

Bus operators come into close contact with people who live with many different types of disabilities. Some are visually-, physically-, audibly-, emotionally- or otherwise challenged. Most are transit-savvy. They have a firm grasp on their own reality and how their specific disability affects their daily travel. They are prepared and respectful. Through years of enduring pain, they learn how to gracefully adapt to the realities of life. Their reality dictates a path past constant challenges, and they rise to each with graceful strength and conviction. 

My younger brother Daniel was born with Down Syndrome. From my earliest recollection, our family learned how to guide him through the "Normal Alley" we more easily traverse. Fiercely protective of Dan, my brothers took cues from our parents. Mom and Dad were brave pioneers who advocated for Dan and others who lived with challenges to provide them with an tools to aid their paths forward. My parents began the first special education school in Mesa, Arizona when we moved there and found little or no educational facilities for the mentally- and physically-disabled.

Like millions of other devoted parents who demanded more for those like their youngest son, Mom and Dad constantly fought for the rights of the disabled. Following in their footsteps, my oldest brother John majored in Special Education. He became Director of Arizona Special Olympics and later, held the same position for the MS Society of Arizona. As a 17-year-old high school senior, I coordinated the Pinal County Special Olympics Spring Games at Florence High School. One of my earliest honors was that of meeting the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of late President John F. Kennedy. My mother was then, Pinal County Special Olympics Coordinator. She was named as one of the first members of Arizona's Governor's Council on Disabilities by Gov. Wesley Bolin. 

Dan has been a Special Olympian since the second year of its inception; he was a year too-young to participate in the very first Games at McClintock High School in Tempe in May of 1968, and this caused him great frustration. Oh, how we wanted to run, jump and compete in those first games, just like his older brothers! I was only seven years old then, and my attempts to console Dan were negated by his frustration. The next year, and every one since 1969, he has competed in every Arizona Special Olympics event he desired. Over the decades, his medals and ribbons number in the hundreds. He has mingled with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jon Bon Jovi, and countless other celebrities who volunteer their time to this wonderful sporting organization.

All my life, I've been graced with the wonderful opportunity to work with people who overcome disabilities to constructively-contribute to society, where they were once scorned and limited in their scope of involvement. Because of initial efforts of my parents and other like-minded souls, the mentally- or physically-challenged members of society were recognized for what they can contribute, rather than limited by what others thought they could not do.

My father was employed by the State of Arizona as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, and quickly promoted to management because of his intelligence and ability to recognize talent where others failed. He hired a man to become a VR Counselor whose mother had been exposed to radiation during the infancy of the nuclear age. Lenny was born with extreme physical challenges. He had several surgeries as a child just so he could walk. His upper torso, shoulders are very narrow, his arms bent inward, but his hands remained fully-operational. When I was 14 and horribly-depressed due to the loss of a dear friend who died in an auto collision the year before, my parents invited Lenny to dinner.

He was so upbeat and funny, full of intelligence and compassion. I marveled at how he could maneuver eating utensils to his mouth without spilling a drop. He never complained about what I initially thought were a great number of physical "disabilities". To Lenny, that was just life. He enjoyed every moment and gave no emphasis to what others would have considered a disability. Lenny remains a lively 70-something superhero to me, funny and full of joy for life, one of my greatest friends. He has mastered each challenge and excelled in a world that once would have marginalized him... if he had allowed it. Inspiring me to do my best no matter what challenges I faced, Lenny taught me to appreciate the gift of mobility my mother ensured through her devotion and persistence. From him, I learned early there is no reason for me not to succeed. If Lenny could achieve anything he desired, I surmised it was possible anyone else could as well. Truly, I have not experienced even a fraction of the pain and frustration he has overcome in his life.

I'm also reminded of my dear late friend Liz, also known as "Madame Guttersnipe", who wrote a guest post on this blog early on. She was sight-, hearing-, and physically-impaired. Not once did she complain about what others described as "disability". Constantly in pain, Liz amazed me with her determination. Complaining was for the weak, she once told me when I doubted my abilities. "Just fucking do it," she told me. "I don't ever want to hear excuses, only confidence."

To Liz, it had been a way of being for so long she simply accepted it. If someone dared ask her about why she took so long to safely seat herself on a bus, she gave the offender a well-deserved lecture on respect. If passengers didn't make way for her to sit down, she loudly demanded they vacate their ill-gotten seats or risk bodily harm and extreme embarrassment for their selfishness. Liz also taught me the value of being cognizant of the needs of those who lack the wonders of mobility my mother blessed me with. Early in this career, she counseled me on how to be a bus operator who can be a positive influence on those I serve, and I value these lessons each day.

When someone boards my bus using a mobility device, I pay close attention to any clues I pick up from the instant I observe them. Deploying the ramp is the least of my concerns. Once the ramp is down, I jump out of my seat to make sure the Priority Seating area is clear enough for them to maneuver. Do they request securement? Which stop do they need? This info gives me a clue as to how to position my bus in a way that makes their impending exit as safe and smooth as possible.

Culloden Battlefield near Inverness, Scotland.
My Beloved and I spent over an hour here
last October, solemnly contemplating the
hundreds of Scots who died defending
their homeland, and the dream of self-rule.
May all who perished here enjoy
everlasting peace.

If someone boards with a visual challenge, especially if they use a white/red "cane", I'm especially aware of the services they might need. "I'm about six inches from the curb, just in front of you," I'll tell them, having maneuvered my bus just so as I saw them while approaching the stop. "There's a priority seat to your immediate left/right, or even a front-facing seat on your right/left." Until they have safely alighted into their seat of choice, I won't even shut the door, let alone allow my bus to roll.

In training, we had the great opportunity to experience what the visually- or physically-impaired population has to overcome when accessing transit. A blind lady came in and gave a lecture about the challenges she faces every day. Later, we donned special eyeglasses which strictly limited our sight. We mimicked the actions of someone boarding a bus, which enlightened us on the many challenges the sight-impaired face as transit passengers. This training was infinitely-valuable to me, already-versed in other forms of disabilities through my past experiences.

The other night, I was met with a man who used a walker as a mobility aid. He told me from the start that he was in great pain. This made me cognizant of the difficulties he faced and while sad for his plight, I remained patient as he boarded. It took him five minutes to enter the bus and ease himself into a seat. However, this guy was rude. Not only to me, but to the lady he traveled with and anyone else he encountered. His companion was evidently tired of his constant complaints and made no effort to aid him. As he inched up the ramp, I winced at his obvious pain. Then he berated me for not helping him. I'm sorry, but we're not trained to aid passengers boarding our vehicles. That's exactly why we have a para-transit division. Those operators are prepared to aid people with debilitating challenges. Bus operators are on strict schedules which do not allow for five-minute-long boardings and equally-long departures. I'm truly cognizant of anyone living with disabilities, but cannot help but become impatient when my schedule is challenged by someone who would be better-served by para-transit.

Our routes are strictly-governed by a "paddle", which is a list of time points along the route we serve. It doesn't change, so we're constantly under pressure to arrive in enough time to take care of ourselves at the end of the line. If we are stuck in traffic due to rush hour or any other of hundreds of other possible reasons, our breaks are cut short. We still have to depart on time.

We're not heartless. We do as trained. Most of ADA passengers are well-prepared, quick to board and fare-ready. They know the drill. Some are able and willing to put up the seats to allow them room for their mobility devices. They are respectful, kind and vested in their transit experience. Quick and efficient, they know others on the bus have connections to make. 

This man did everything wrong. He expected me to help him on the bus, which I cannot do. My job is to operate the bus, offer him securement and ensure he's secured before I roll the wheels. Other than that, ADA passengers are equal to their fellow passengers. 

This guy constantly argued with me as I rolled. Choosing to ignore most of his tirade in order to concentrate on my job became my main goal. Meanwhile, Whiny Wally insisted I stop where he wanted me to on the transit mall. Even though I drive this route daily during the week, he insisted he knew better than I regarding Standard Operating Procedures which prohibit me from making "courtesy stops" downtown. He even argued over where my bus route travels. After several minutes of being harassed as I navigated the heavily-treacherous domain known as "downtown", I had to stop engaging with  him. There is no victory gained in arguing with the obstinate.

He wanted Burnside, I surmised. So I rolled to that stop and deployed every required necessity to ensure his safe departure. It took him six minutes to exit. He complained every inch as he rolled outward. Truly frustrated, I have to say my responses were not complimentary in the least. Later, I felt guilty, but then my anger at his rudeness surfaced and my end-of-the-line response upon an empty bus was: "FUCK THAT GUY! WHAT A RUDE ASSHOLE! Sorry, Liz but he deserved a kick in the ass rather than a kind farewell."

My first interaction with Wally was intended to be as I usually work hard to achieve: a positive and peaceful ride for him. As it descended into a negative experience, I still attempted to do my best to serve him. When my attempts are disregarded, my Irish anger replaces compassion. It's a constant battle with me, given my history and compassion for those live in constant agony. My wife suffers chronic pain, and my only hope is to do whatever I can to ease her pain in any way possible. As I drive, sometimes tears cloud my vision when I recall my brave beloved conquering bone-on-bone knee pain as she conquered an uphill path to the Fairy Pools of Scotland's Isle of Skye last October. My compassion runs deep, yet my patience for complainers is constantly in need of improvement. Beloved endures her pain yet soldiers on; my respect for those who share agony pierces my heart with their every step.

If I'm assessed an ADA complaint because of this interaction, I'll fight it with every inch of my being.  I did my best to serve Wally, but he was disrespectful. He rejected every one of my overtures and seemed bent upon making my life miserable. Lenny and Liz would applaud my patience. And Mom? She would have given Wally an earful. He's lucky it was only me he had to deal with, and I was a bushelful more kind than Mom or Liz would have been.

If you live with mobility issues, please remember we're here to ensure your safe transport and do as our intense ADA training dictates. The rest is up to you. Communicate your needs, and we'll do what we can to ensure you safely arrive at your destination. Be kind and respectful, and expect the same from us. Stray from the bounds of human decency, and you will be met with an equal force of humanity. We are invested in doing what we can. Please show us respect when we work hard to ensure your safe and positive transit experience.

Finally, thank you to the vast numbers of mobility-challenged passengers we serve every day. Especially Oscar, who I transport at least three nights a week. He's so kind, and I have come to appreciate his smile and fun conversation. Oscar's personality is bright and upbeat, someone I wish could become a friend. His mind and wit are sharp, traits which have always attracted me. Yet I remain and always will be, simply his bus driver. And that respectful relationship is something I treasure. Hopefully, Oscar appreciates me as much as I do him.


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