Story of a formal complaint process about riding the bus while disabled

A bad incident on the bus in June led me to file a formal complaint. I described the incident as it unfolded on Twitter, and then gathered the tweets about it here on Storify: Screaming wheelchair-hating SF MUNI bus driver. I routinely go through moments where bus drivers resist the idea of letting me on the bus, or just pass me up, or act a little rude or horrible. In those cases, I have sometimes filed a complaint, and sometimes not, and let it go at that. Life isn’t perfect, neither are people, and I don’t expect my encounters with everyone to be ideal. But this was over the top. Here is an example of how to file a complaint about San Francisco bus service. My goal in explaining this at length, and in filing a bus complaint in the first place, is to improve bus and public transit service for disabled people in the SF Bay Area.

Bus stop sign for 14 49

First of all, I twittered the incident as it happened. This gave me a written, public record of my memory of the incident, while it was fresh in my mind. It gives me the date and time stamps of when I got on and off the bus, as well. Afterwards I collected the tweets on Storify because I wanted to be able to refer to them later. For a person without a smart phone this could be done with pen and paper.

Bus interior photo june2

Second, I noted the time, bus number, and driver’s badge number. Noted on paper, as I carry a small notebook and a pen in my vest pocket from long habit.

Third, I quickly filed a complaint through the SFMTA feedback form on the web. You can also do this by calling 311. You have to choose a complaint category. The categories are a bit confusing. I believe I filed this as “Discourteous Driver”. I asked for an in-person hearing, and checked the box that said it is an ADA complaint. I got an email response within a few days from SFMTA, saying that they got my complaint and assigning it a reference number. (There may have also been a snail mail letter.) I then got a email asking me to call a local number to schedule the in-person hearing.

Fourth, I emailed the local Independent Living Center, the ILRCSF and asked to talk with their lawyer, thinking maybe they could explain what happens at, and after, these hearings. The center staff were very helpful and nice, and met with me to chat about the incident. It is possible to ask their lawyer to go with you to this kind of hearing.

Fifth, I called to schedule the hearing with SFMTA. As the hearing date approached, I had to reschedule it because of illness. You are only allowed to reschedule once. I have to mention the person I talked to on the phone was super nice and helpful. I got letters from her almost immediately, confirming the hearing time and date, with clear instructions how to get to the hearing location. That email’s contents were in a Word document so likely the staff has a template for responding.

Sixth, I looked at the Americans with Disabilities Act, wondering if I should file a complaint through ada.gov. My conclusion was: No. That is more for a group complaint about systemic and sustained discrimination, that a local government doesn’t respond to. What I’m describing here is one specific incident. If there were such a complaint it would be under Title II of the ADA. Anyway, I am a busy person and this is already taken up far too much of my time and energy.

Seventh, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the video and audio from the bus’s built in surveillance system, since the bus videos are public record. On the web, I found clear instructions on how to file a FOIA request to the SFMTA. I used this template example of a FOIA request in California for my letter. I was able to file this request by email, and regular mail was an option too. I got a response very quickly, I think the same day, by email. Just yesterday, I got two DVDs with video and audio clips. They played on a Windows machine, with the viewing software built into the DVD, showing 8 or 9 different camera angles in different parts of the bus, with one audio track.

I looked over the videos and made a full transcript of the interactions between me and the bus driver.

Here’s the video. It’s a little over 4 minutes long, and includes 3 segments edited together. When I switched to footage from a different bus camera, I backed up the video a little bit, so some segments repeat for a few seconds from the different angle, for continuity. (edited to add, I realized last night that the 3rd segment was missing, so I added it as a separate video below)

First the driver refuses to let me on. He then pulls the bus up to me, and we argue further. His arguments included, that he isn’t allowed to let people on except exactly at the stop; that he has inspectors watching him; then, that there isn’t room. He then lets the ramp down. I get on, he yells some more, then he gets up again to tell me I can’t sit in the bus seat but must sit in my scooter. I refuse. The bus then moves on and the video jumps to when I get off the bus, the last person to get off near the end of the line downtown. I ask the driver for his badge number, he gives it, then he yells at me some more.

The complaint hearing is this Tuesday.

Interesting information from the hearing confirmation:

Hearings last approximately 30 minutes and include a professional neutral hearing officer, the transit operator, and customer. After the hearing officer reads the complaint, the customer and the operator (or his/her union representative) are offered opportunities to comment and ask follow-up questions. Afterward, the hearing officer evaluates the evidence, and a written decision is forwarded to the customer within seven days.

Please note that your attendance at the hearing is required in order for the hearing officer to make a decision regarding your complaint. Please bring photo identification (such as a Driver’s License, State ID, or Passport) so we may confirm your identity.

I wonder how many policies or public transit operator the driver broke in this incident. From watching the video, here are some possibilities:

1. The driver does not pull up to let me board. I was clearly indicating I wanted to get on the bus. In the best practices I’m familiar with, bus drivers pull up just beyond a bus shelter, to let a wheelchair or walker user board, asking other people to board at the back of the bus. This is efficient and fast.

You can see in this photo still from the video, from 8:28:11am, that there was room for a person in a wheelchair to board and ride the bus. There are empty seats. No one is standing in the front section of the bus. It is very clear.

Bus interior with plenty of room room june2

2. The driver refuses to pull up to let me on.

3. I ask him again to let me on the bus. He refuses and tells me to catch the next bus, several times.

4. The bus driver then moves the bus up about 10 feet, stops, and gets out of the bus, to stand over me and yell at me. Surely this is not supposed to happen at all.

5. He tells me that there inspectors watching. It’s unclear whether that’s his excuse not to let me on, or whether he’s using them as a kind of threat. He tells me he’s going to get them to deal with me.

6. The driver then tells me the bus is too crowded. It isn’t. Also, as time went by during our argument, more people boarded.

7. The driver then tells me that I should not be demanding to get on the bus.
He continues yelling as I board.

8. After I was seated, the driver got up to stand over me and yell some more. He claims that I have to sit on my scooter and can’t sit in a bus seat. This is not true.

9. The driver then complains to another passenger that my wheelchair is blocking other people. It was not.

Here is a photo of my scooter on a bus in exactly the configuration I had it on the #14 on June 2.

Scooter on bus parked

10. As I exit the bus, the driver insults me by saying that disabled people complain all the time and “that’s how y’all live”. and calls my wheelchair a stroller.

11. The driver tells me “be there tomorrow” meaning, I think, be at the stop on his line and see what he will do. I assumed that meant he will not let me on the bus next time or will be hostile in some other way.

So much to unpack.

It is a little sad that no one else on the bus said or did anything to help me. I can understand that they may not have been paying attention until things went badly. By that time, who knew what was going on, and who was at fault. And getting involved might make things worse or mean more delay. Everyone wanted to just move on! However, I would have spoken up as a passenger to say that the driver should have let me on the bus and that it wasn’t right to yell in my face the way he did. I encourage anyone reading to think it over and do what is right.

Sometimes, it is other passengers who start to yell at me out of their perception that I am a parasite on society, that I shouldn’t be allowed on the bus, or out in public, and so on. This happens once in a while, and I will explain to any such person at length about the law, the 504 sit ins, how people blocked the buses in Denver, and any other piece of defense of myself and all of us that I can think of. It is certainly upsetting and enraging. I try to keep my cool.

Liz on travelscoot with sealions statue

During this incident, I did not outright lose my temper, swear, or anything like that. I stated my rights and told the driver there was room on the bus and room to put the lift down. Repeatedly. Frankly I was mad as a hornet that this driver was probably going to pass me up for no reason. And likely as not, so would the next one. My power is not in my body. It is in my mind and voice. You can see that from how I never shut up and kept telling the driver to let me on.

The time I found the most upsetting was when I was on the lift, and the driver got up to stand over me, yelling that I should stop talking. I stopped talking. I finally felt intimidated. I wanted to get to work. I wanted the confrontation to end. Fine. I was on the bus. I did not feel good about shutting up when told to. However, it seemed practical. So it was shocking that the driver then came again to yell at me and stand over me. It seemed best not to argue, but to passively resist. I decided I would not get off that bus till I was at my stop and if he called the police to throw me off, he would be very much in the wrong. Luckily, that did not happen. The driver finally realized he should leave me be, and move on and do his job.

My memory and the tweets mostly match up with the video. I don’t hear the part I remember where I said, it is the law you have to let me on. I think it’s in an inaudible part, but I know I said it. That’s what the driver responded to when he says “That’s a rule, too”. I did not remember that he got out of the bus to stand over me on the sidewalk and yell. Wild. I still don’t. But there it is in the video. Also, I described the driver as “screaming”. After seeing the video I would not say that. I’d call it “yelling” instead. We both had to yell to be heard. As I exited I thought that he had said something like, “Be here tomorrow and see what happens.” But in the video it’s clear he said “Be here tomorrow… ” twice, and then closed the bus door. So I was extrapolating the end of the sentence, but that’s not actually what he said. Otherwise my memory is pretty accurate.

So, I did eventually get on the bus, got off the bus at my stop, and got to work on time for my meeting with my boss. Great. But….

I believe that the driver was discriminating against me because of my disability.

I don’t look forward to confronting this man in a hearing at his workplace. I also don’t like the idea I will be riding a bus with him any time in the future, but that seems likely to happen. Hopefully if it does, we will not need to interact beyond the minimum of politeness.

Bus drivers work hard and have to put up with a lot of bad behavior from the public. Clearly the 14 (and 49!) are no picnic to drive. I can see that I was annoying to the driver with my persistence and my insisting that he let me on the bus. However, he should have let me on in the first place. I would have paid my fare and thanked him, asked for my stop, and we both would have had a fine day. For the middle of the ride, I observed the driver be friendly and polite, chatting with all the other riders as if trying to prove to himself that he was a nice person. Or, perhaps to show to the other riders that he was “the good one” and that my behavior was bad, in other words, to try and show me up. Maybe both at once. The point is, I could see he knows how to do his job well.

My expectations from this complaint are that SFMTA will take the complaint seriously. I hope they will appropriately train the driver to interact with wheelchair users and how to let them onto the bus in a normal and efficient way. I believe they should also look at their training process since it is not uncommon for me that drivers refuse to let me on the bus, or simply pass me up without stopping. Passing me and other wheelchair users up is particularly a problem on the MUNI train level boarding stops above ground. Drivers are also often hostile and rude.

The drivers who are nice, or simply businesslike, I very much appreciate.

I like to get around town, by myself or with my friends or my kids, without being yelled at and humiliated in public.

Feel free to tell stories about accessibility and bus drivers in the comments, if you like.

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Thoughts on UberAssist

Yesterday I found out that UberAssist was available in San Francisco. Since both my manual wheelchair (a Quickie Ti rigid frame) and my mobility scooter (a TravelScoot Jr.) can fold and fit easily into the trunk of any car, I have used Uber and other taxi-esque programes since they were first available to me. I understand UberAssist as follows:

* Drivers can opt in to take a training class (online) and a test in how to assist disabled and elderly passengers in a polite and helpful way.

* The training was developed by some outside consultant.

* The training is free for drivers.

* UberAssist rides cost the same for passengers as UberX rides, and the drivers get the same payment rate.

While I may use this service, I am dismayed and worried. This is simply the behavior which all Uber, Lyft, and taxi drivers should follow: being polite and helpful to their customers, and not discriminating or behaving in a rude or bigoted way.

Are “regular” Uber drivers going to now refuse to pick me and my wheelchair up, and tell me to instead call UberAssist? That seems a likely outcome. When that happens, I will complain to the fullest possible extent not just against the individual driver but against the company, which should, and obviously can, require all its drivers to pass anti-discrimination training.

To top this BS off, Uber is offering the inspiration porn-like option for riders to be charged a higher fee for their ride, out of which a dollar will be donated to the Special Olympics, a button labelled “INSPIRE”. Yes… Inspire. Soooo, which disabled taxi users did they ask what they thought of that name and that option? This is Uber’s response to facing a $7.3 Million fine in California? Or the ADA lawsuits gearing up?

liz with a wheelchair wheel in a taxi

So, meanwhile, I needed to get downtown to the Independent Living Resource Center and I was feeling too exhausted and in pain to take the bus for 40 minutes plus. I tried the UberAssist option. Enough drivers must have taken the training and signed up for the program in San Francisco to give a reasonable density of drivers. Response time to get to my house was 3 minutes for UberX, and 17 minutes for UberAssist. Not great but not unworkable for me. The driver who responded explained to me that I was his 2nd Assist rider, and he signed up for the program because he loves helping people. I told him that I also love helping people. (It did not seem to be part of his thinking that a disabled person might help people.) We conversed pleasantly. I think he was a bit disappointed he did not get to Help me a bit more. He also complimented me on my “positive approach towards life”. Fellow crips will know how “happy” that made me. However, I can fake it to be polite.

On my way back, I had a super helpful and nice driver who said we were her first Assist customers. I appreciated her helping me and my son load my folding scooter into her car trunk. It felt like a normal human interaction. It was not really any different from most other times I have taken cabs. Most drivers get out and offer help. If they don’t, I can usually lift the 30 lb scooter into a trunk on my own. If I can’t do it on my own I most likely have planned to have someone with me….

Also feel I should mention, I don’t always take extra time to get into a cab. Sometimes I’m a bit clumsy or unprepared or I ask for help. It is a matter of an extra minute or maybe two. Not any more than someone with a suitcase would need.

For an example of how some drivers think about disabled and elderly people (bigotedly), have a look at this discussion forum for drivers. It was so horrible that I could not get completely through the multi-page thread. These drivers seem convinced they can and should refuse wheelchair using and elderly passengers, and, that if they don’t, Uber should pay them more for driving them. This is just heinous.

And yet, over the years I have only had one driver behave badly (very badly) to me and one driver cancel after I mentioned my folding wheelchair in a text.

Will I really wait 10 or 15 extra minutes for a cab routinely, for the sake of possibly increasing my chance of being treated with normal consideration?

We’ll see if UberAssist backfires or not. Maybe it will become routine for more drivers to take the training.

And maybe, able bodied and non-elderly people will use it. That might have an interesting effect on the outcome and politics of this social experiment.

If you’re in New York City, here’s a protest happening tomorrow: Krips Occupy Wall Street (OWS Disability Caucus). Do come out and support the protest!

“As you may know, Uber now has 18,000 vehicles in New York City — but not one wheelchair-accessible vehicle. We’re throwing up a protest line — we call it a roll-in — at the Uber offices on 26th Street next week on THURSDAY, JULY 30 at NOON. If you’re around, it’d be great if you could be there. Can you come by? Can you bring anyone? Thanks.”

None of this takes away from the important fact that we should be fighting to make buses better for everyone, and for taxi drivers of all stripes to have better employment rights and protection.

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Informal register

I miss “real blogging” and was thinking that one reason I have been having blog-like posts and conversations on Facebook rather than here is that this blog feels more “formal”. I intended that from the beginning, but what if I were to be a bit more quick and casual in how I post here? It won’t feel like a conversation since comments are rare and our methods to find and consume people’s unmediated or unedited public writing have shifted to happen via tumblr/facebook/twitter/medium. I also use Dreamwidth for informal posting.

Here is a commitment to continue the pleasant ramble of my long posts on a platform which I sort of control (though not with the ideological purity of running my own server under my desk or whatever, since I use a hosting service).

Is this now an actual move of resistance?

I have a feeling the conversations will happen on FB and Twitter. The FB conversations especially will be lost in the mists of time and proprietary control and unsearchability and crap API. Alas. The Twitter stuff is at least reachable and searchable and I believe it has more chance to be archived for the future.

This, also, because I am increasingly annoyed at which people and posts Facebook shows me and doesn’t show me, even on the “See all” setting.

liz-flipping-off-with-funny-tshirt

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Stuck at home with shingles

I came down with shingles a week and a half ago. It’s in a stripe around the left side of my torso. It’s been a weird adventure. The skin where the rash is burns and has allodynia (sensitivity to touching anything, and even to air). The muscles ache and spasm and are weak. It is physically intense. I am dizzy and groggy from the nerve pain medication, and feel strange from the burst of prednisone. It is quite odd to have pain and dysfunction in a new spot on my body. I got antivirals very very quickly using a local doctor housecall service.

I am already disabled and deal with chronic pain; there are good and bad sides to that. The good side is that I have many coping strategies to deal with pain and impairment, practical skills and emotional skills. The bad side is I am often right on the edge of overloaded, and this pushed me over it. The other thing is that I have to remember firmly this is 95% likely to be temporary. It isn’t something I have to adapt to forever and learn how to live with. I just have to rest and get better! This book, The Pain Survival Guide, is very helpful and pragmatic.

I will lie here like a sort of cosily beached flannel coated manatee, gently hallucinating in and out of dreams. Clothes and blankets hurt. I have a large silk scarf toga, a light gauze sundress, and a flannel tank top that work ok as clothing. Any motion hurts, and any weight or something touching my left side hurts extra. It is hard to use the computer, or to sit upright for long. I can balance the laptop on blankets and pillows across my hips while lying down. But the phone is easier. I have laid here swiping through twitter and now Facebook (which I’ve never had on my phone before this), and idly reading news and the few blogs still active in my RSS feeds. I very much miss the feeling of blogging being outside of particular platforms! It is so good to see friends and chat with them and be distracted by the Internet and by books.

Books: the Bloody Jacky series (trashy fun, with Napoleonic era naval adventures and girls’ boarding school, combined!), and lined up for when I feel a bit better, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, and Marguerite Reed’s Archangel.

One thing that comforts me a lot in this state is to have a nicely arranged bedside table. It gives me a feeling of control over my environment. It is pretty to look at, satisfying somehow, and I can get many things I need without asking for help or getting up. I have flowers on it, my touch lamp torchiere (pointing up) which i really love being able to adjust to 3 levels of light, shea butter, coffee/tea mug, a giant chunk of green glass, my crystal cube holographic print of the entire universe, and my wooden letter rack that holdes all my devices sideways for recharging. It holds my 11 inch Macbook Air, a kindle, an external hard drive, my phone, and an external battery and sometimes also Danny’s mini iPad. That’s a lot of devices in a very neat, compact space!

Nightstand

Two big power strips are hung on the side of the nightstand. Over the power strips in the space between the bed and the nightstand, I now have a thing I bought off Amazon, called an “Urban Shelf”, an idea for a thing covering this space which I have tried to construct from junk several times and failed to implement. the Urban Shelf works very decently. Its slots for power cords have been helpful and now my million tangly cords are less in the way. Right now the urban shelf holds a kleenex box but it has also been good for my entire laptop, plates, etc.

I like being able to look over at the nicely arranged nightstand at the flowers and polished wooden surface. I polish it with lotion or oil. I like to turn on the lamp which glows gently through its own glass, the red glass of my bud vase and the green and universe glass. Past the flowers on the side of the narrow bookshelf I can see my little trading card that has Oracle on it at her computer. Secretly corny shrine to Oracle….. Maybe I will get an Instapainting oil on canvas version of Oracle surrounded by screens in her wheelchair. I find it so heartening – I can’t experess how it chirks me up to connect anything about my situation with a badass superhero mastermind.

Oracle screens

Here is my amazing instapainting of a scene from Journey to Babel that Danny got me for my birthday last month! I like to think it stands for my love of translation (and science fiction). Maybe I’ll move it from the living room to the bedroom, so I can gaze upon it from bed and laugh.

Journeytobabel

Inside the nightstand drawer I have many conveniences like earplugs, nail clippers, lidocaine cream and other lotions, usb sticks, clips, headphones, lip balm, bookmarks, hair ties, toothpicks, some medicine, pens, scissors, asthma inhaler. I would be so lost without this magic drawer full of junk! The cubby below the drawer in theory should have a selection of good books but right now it needs to be cleaned out since it’s so stuffed full of books you can’t really get use out of it.

Maybe if I have a limber and non dizzy moment I’ll clean out that cubby and stock it with only a few books good for bedside comfort, a drawing pad, crossword puzzle book, and maybe a couple of “to read” books lined up (instead of an enormous jumble).

Of other things to appreciate about my situation, once again the steroid burst means that I have almost ZERO allergies. This never happens except while traveling to new places or when I’m on steroids and for a few weeks after the steroid burst. It’s a small luxury to have my sinuses feel so light and not swollen and to not have to blow my nose all the time. Yesterday I sat on the front porch and pinched leaves off several potted plants (could only use my right hand, ugh) and did not get a giant sneeze attack or have to take actifed or benadryl.

It it comforting that I can get anything or help with nearly anything at whim from Instacart, Amazon, or Taskrabbit. (And I have been doing that.) Money and these sorts of services replace what otherwise would be me asking for a lot of help from family and friends and community and really, public services. (Which I am also getting at least the family/friends, but it’s lovely to have the money to just hire people, somehow). If I want flowers, or chocolate, or food, or someone to fix the dripping sink or whatever, I have only to fill out some forms and stick in my credit card. It is a great luxury. (That most disabled people do not have.)

It’s sketchy to react by always playing the “glad game” like Pollyanna or being a patient cheerful invalid like Katy in What Katy Did, but it also helps. Like, every time I get up to get myself some tea, I think how much I appreciate being able to do that and I take pleasure (and pride to some extent) in all of it, in the entire process of simply getting myself some tea. Walking across the house, maybe I can look outside on the front porch for a moment and have a look at the world. Whatever level of ability or function I’m at there is something to appreciate. This sounds a bit nauseating I know. But it is sincere.

I miss work a lot. For a few days earlier in the week I was reading and responding to urgent work email. Right now I feel too drugged, stunned and distracted by pain, and messed up in general. I am exhausted. If I can adapt to the drugs over the next few days maybe I can start working. But it seems more likely (depressingly) that I need more time out.

Some other coping strategies: Doing very short sets of easy physical therapy exercises, then setting a 5 minute alarm on my phone for a “power nap” where I close my eyes and breathe deeply. If that leads to a real nap, great. If not, I have rested and put down my books and phone or computer.

I have not found a good video game for distraction. I need something turn based or not-twitchy, and not stupid or full of ads. May play through Monument Valley for the 3rd time. I was going to try the new Master of Orion (since I remember loving the original one), and it looks nifty, but it was so much like actual work and has so much “executive function” that I lack right now, that I am not doing it. I still play Threes. (top score in the low 30K range) Nethack is nice but it’s too hard to hold up the computer. I play clash of clans (with my family in a clan) and dominations but am a little bored with both. I can recharge things for Ingress from bed, but am running out of power cubes. Not so fun when I can’t get out.

One bad thing which I will complain about, besides the skin pain and “shocks” and burning and allodynia, is that my left side feels wrong and strange. The muscles don’t work right along with the deep ache, and they spasm. I think that is maybe straining my other back muscles on that side. Sitting upright and walking and bending over feels hard and wrong. What if it stays that way…. If it does I will adapt. My ribs hurt and my guts in that stripe on the left around front and back, feel all wrong. It feels hard to use my left arm to reach or do anything since it uses some of those side muscles, I guess. Especially reaching upward or outward. The muscles in my low back just underneath the “stripe” are very sore and messed up. It is probably temporary as part of the shingles inflammation or infection of the nerve.

From looking at charts I think it may be T8 or T9. Hard to tell… Just below or at the edge of my ribs. To me, it seems wider than just one stripe, because it goes from my lower rib to my navel. Maybe it’s T9. Interesting to look at the nerve/dermatome charts, anyway!

I hope to be able to leave the house and go to my sister’s house this Sunday. If I can make it into a cab and up her stairs, I can lie on a splendid couch and Danny and I can see my son, my sister and my mom and nephew and brother in law and 3 cats and 9 chickens and Laura’s beautiful chaotic experimental garden. It’s Danny’s birthday today and my sister’s birthday tomorrow so I expect someone will be making cake and probably knowing my sister and brother in law, some sort of special fancy amazing hipster cake.

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