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A Stroke of Luck –By Julie Reiskin

As a frequent traveler who uses a power wheelchair I have a different perspective of luck…

On Monday  I was in Grand Junction for work with our amazing Rocky Mountain Health Plans Member Advisory Group –Tuesday morning I met with a couple of our CCDC members and was ready for my bus ride home—destined to leave around 1:20 pm.  The plan was to get home at reasonable hour as I had to leave early today (Wednesday) to go to Charleston South Carolina for Legal Services Corporation meetings.

I was SO excited because Greyhound finally printed tickets that have a little wheelchair on them when one indicates that they will be traveling with a wheelchair.   It took years for busses to be accessible at all, then it was even more years for them allow us cripples to buy tickets on line like everyone else.   Until now the tickets would not print in a way that showed wheelchair access was needed.   Leaving Denver is never a problem but every time I was to leave Grand Junction I had the same problem—the guy at the station would always tell me I “did it wrong” in terms of buying the ticket, tell me that I may or may not be able to get on the bus—that I would have to see if they had room.   This was always a huge stress.  When he would “allow” me on the bus it was always the local which stops four times, never the express for which I had bought a ticket.

So—I was thrilled to have an express ticket with a little wheelchair picture –he could not deny me now!!!   As I was getting ready to head over I noticed a new feature on the Greyhound website called “track my bus”.   I decided to check it out—just for fun.   My excitement ended when I saw the bus was 4 hours late.

I remembered there was the local route, the one I am usually forced to ride.  I go to the station (after a stop at my favorite candy store—they have a great licorice selection) and ask if I can get on the local.   I acknowledge my ticket is for the express and show him the ticket with the wheelchair—to my surprise he is nicer (maybe the letter from our legal program had something to do with it).   He says “if the lift works” I can get on the bus that will be on time—that will get me back to Denver at 6:30 instead of 5:40 but well before 11 pm which is when my scheduled bus will arrive.

I bite my tongue and do not say that the lift better be working and that they are supposed to check them regularly whether or not they have a passenger reserved ..and soon he tells me yes, I can get on this bus.     I get on and am pleasantly surprised by a wonderful driver who actually tells me that there is a rest stop in Vail and asks me if I will want to get out!!!  WOW—that almost never happens.   Wheelchair users are not supposed to need to use a bathroom or eat while traveling.   I actually do not need to get out but really appreciate the offer.  Then to make it even better he takes control of the bus and requires people to be quiet so I can get work done and do not have to listen to other people’s music, children, or cell phone related drama.

Can it get any better????

We cruise along—pick up people in Glenwood, Vail, Frisco, watch a great sunset, mountain scenery, and life is good.   Then we get to Georgetown and the bus sputters out.   After a few futile tries to get it going again the driver announces that we are having mechanical problems.   Immediately some grumbling….”you are not getting my business again” says someone from the back.    Really—I think—how many of us who travel Greyhound have a ton of other options?   I keep my mouth shut.

The driver tries to tell us that it will take some time but people decide that a bus should arrive in one hour—I knew that was not going to happen and tried to say so.  People stay relatively calm—I wonder if they will be able to use the lift to get me out.  The driver has to argue with Greyhound management somewhere to send a rescue bus.   After several phone calls he succeeds or so we think.

Greyhound does not send a rescue bus –but instead sends a mechanic who is tasked with trying to fix a bus, in the dark, in the rain, on a highway.  Yeah—right.  As we get to two hours people begin freaking out.    It is not too cold but not warm either—one definitely needs a coat on inside the bus and it gets colder with people going in and out for smoke breaks.   Several people start complaining loudly—and a couple start talking about how horrible this is and that “there are two handicapped people on the bus” and it is “negligent” that we are left without heat.   I guess I am one of the two –another guy is an amputee who has a manual wheelchair stored below the bus (his choice—there is room for two chairs).    I am about to protest but think better of it.   I figured that they would not send a new bus but instead have the bus that was four hours later stop and get us—and I knew that bus would be full —so realized maybe a mood on the bus of concern for us would be in our best interest.    If they are so concerned that they have to scream about it then they could not possibly justify the replacement bus refusing to allow us on—right?

Keeping my mouth shut in these situations is not a strong point and I am mildly impressed with my restraint.    People were resigned to missing their connections—but there were busses leaving at midnight they could catch.  A couple poor souls had flights to catch that they were not going to make.  I felt badly for them.   As people got more worked up—the mechanic worked in futility outside.   Our driver was terrific, he remained calm.  We all realized it was not his fault.   However the complaining continued and people started getting each other escalated.  Eventually someone decided they were going to call the police.  They did –the cops asked what he wanted them to do—he said he wanted them to bring us a space heater for the bus….right then another bus pulled up.  I was correct and it was that other bus that was four hours late.    That driver was NOT in a good mood.

Everyone except my fellow cripple, a couple guys and I get on the other bus.  One person comes back to tell us the bus is really crowded.   I worry…and wonder out loud if I will get on the bus.  “They have to let you on—they can’t just leave you” says the able bodied guy who was waiting.   I did not respond but thought of a colleague who was left for almost 24 hours in a rural mountain town while several busses went by and claimed to not have room—despite his prepaid ticket.    The nice driver finally came to me and said quietly—lets get you off this bus and I will make it work.    We get me off—and I wait outside while he goes in and talks to the second driver—they are in there a long time—and finally he comes out with a smile—VICTORY.   I  get on the bus and we are in business—several hours later but in business.   While others are pleased to finally be on a moving bus I am ecstatic.

I guess this means we have not in fact arrived—as a disability rights advocate it should be that exciting that I was not left on a mountain road or on a broken bus.      However I am still pleased that the other passengers were at least concerned and not arguing for us to be left or forming a little angry anti cripple mob—something that has happened in the past and that feels awful.    So—maybe we have made some progress—others understood we had a right to be on the bus!

In fact, we have made a lot of progress.   It was not too long ago when not every bus had a lift and when it would have been impossible for both busses to have a lift at all.   In those days there was a strict 48 hour advance notice even for emergencies.   People, including me, were regularly stranded in all sorts of places.   The bottom line is that stuff happens when one travels.   For people with disabilities when all we have to deal with is the “stuff” that happens to everyone it is a wonderful day!  The two “handicapped” people on the bus were the two that had the easiest time managing the disruption because to us inclusion—even inclusion in disruption—was wonderful.   The ADA does not guarantee us that things will always work—it does not guarantee us jobs, happiness or anything other than a level playing field to have the same experiences as everyone else.    When that happen’s it still feels like a stroke of luck.

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