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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Photoessay of the 805 Veterans disabled parking problem

Here is a visual explanation of part of the problem with disabled parking at this building.

1:48 pm Tuesday March 31st. I drove into the front parking lot. I could see the front 2 spots were full. I drove to the back. (I didn’t take a photo.)

1:50 pm Tuesday March 31st. All three spots in the back are full.

All 3 spots in back full, 1:50pm Tuesday

As I paused to take this photo, a grey haired man in a suit and a dark SUV pulled into the reserved red zone, the spot next to the curb cut, where I was intending to park. I drove around to the front lot again to check the spaces there and to avoid having to interact with the man who was surely someone who works with the property manager.

A reserved spot

A couple of minutes later in the front lot, the two spaces there were still full. They are both inadequately marked as disabled spots. Frequently, people without placards park in the badly marked spot on the right-hand side.

the front 2 spots full, 1:50pm Tuesday

As I paused to take the picture above, the man in the suit who had been driving the SUV came out of the front doors and yelled something at me. I drove away, because I did not want to have any kind of confrontation with him.

1:55pm Tuesday. I drove to the back of the building again. The three spots were full, this time with the van gone and a different car in the space closest to the curb.

The back three spots are full, with a different car in the van spot. 1:55pm Tuesday

In retrospect, I think the man in the suit might have been yelling at me that there was a disabled spot open. I am led to think that he noticed me in the back lot, and knew specifically who I was.

It is a sign of the high demand for disabled parking spots at this building that by the time I drove to the back from the front, an open blue-placard spot had filled up. As I parked in the red zone in a “reserved” spot next to the man in the suit’s SUV, I noted another person with a blue placard driving past me and the full spots that were marked for disabled parking. I did not get their photo however. My camera was in my pocket and I was pulling my wheelchair parts out of the front passenger seat over the steering wheel and assembling the chair on the ground next to my car.

I parked in a red "reserved" spot.

As I came into work from the parking lot I snapped this photo to illustrate that the “van accessible” spot is not properly marked or configured. The landscaping and the concrete bollard both potentially interfere with a van lift or ramp. The space is not wide enough and not properly striped.

The "van accessible" spot, which isn't.

The elevator doors in the building opened for me and I backed up to let out an elderly lady in a chair and her companion who was pushing her chair. We smiled at each other and I wished we could stop and have a good conversation. I admired the brilliant whiteness of her hair and she looked at my sparkly wheels; I wondered what she thought of them. Frankly, I enjoy getting to see the high number of other wheelchair users who come to this building to go to the PAMF clinic. We always have a friendly smile of acknowledgement or a nice word for each other.

That entire sequence (minus the guy in the van) happens nearly every day at this building no matter what time I arrive at work. By the time I leave late in the day, most of the spots are empty.

I hope that explains things a little bit better for the “able-bodied”. The good thing about this experience today is that it wasn’t raining.

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Deconstructing Cheney’s De-Inaugural Wheelchair

When I heard that Dick Cheney had pulled a muscle and was going to be attending the inauguration in a wheelchair, I was filled with deadly fascination. How would that play out?

Would the inaugural ceremonies be even remotely accessible? Not bloody likely!

Would he self-propel, or would someone push him? Would the person pushing him be secret service, a family member, military, or a medical worker?

Would Cheney have a steel framed 70-pound hospital clunker of a wheelchair, or would it be halfway decent? My vote was for an x-frame Breezy, still cheap and easy to lay hands on, but under 40 pounds, maybe in red for its political symbolism value. Other wheelies I know were saying “No way, he’ll be in a clunker.” Even though I think that Cheney should (and WILL) go to jail for being a war criminal, I would have liked him to have a halfway decent wheelchair. Hell, I would personally have decorated it with the stars and stripes.

I imagined, and then later saw, Cheney being shovelled about from place to place behind the scenes, through freight elevators and dank back-hallways, maybe even a steam tunnel or two, carried ignominiously or bumped up backwards over some surprise steps no one thought about, and I felt a bit of schadenfreude there though I’m not proud of it. But I wondered, would anyone in power notice, a little bit more than they did before, what inaccessibility means, how excluding and alienating and humiliating it can be? Would anyone process, or whatever they were doing, with Cheney in his wheelchair, rather than leaving him to be tunnelled and elevatored and ramped while they triumphally process up and down majestic red carpeted staircases?

If you were enjoying their own moment of schadenfreude at the powerful man brought low, did you think about why wheelchair use was being brought low, was disempowering? Because it shouldn’t be.

Yes, I kind of giggled at the Dr. Evil jokes, but I also thought about them. Did you? Did you think on why they are a stereotype – how our stories have to give its villains a scar or “deformity” or a wheelchair (and a cat), using disability as a metaphor for being evil? I’m not saying don’t make the joke. I’m right in there posting the LOLcats of Blofeld-Cheney. But think next time you use the stereotype of the Evil Cripple.

I also certainly saw friends and strangers wishing permanent disability onto Cheney like it was a horrible fate, one that he deserved. I understand that is mostly just some anger talking. But this too exposes a bit of thinking in our society that people with illnesses or disabilities deserved them as a sort of punishment for wrongs or sins committed. I would like to invite people to think on that idea for a while. And think on this: why you think it might be such an awful fate for Cheney to use a wheelchair? Why is that? Do you think I have an awful fate? Do you pity me, to the extent that you would damn Cheney?

It was amazing to me, while I watched the inauguration, to see people I know from disability activism online, also Twittering and Facebook-chatting their reactions to Cheney’s de-inaugural wheelchair. Were you watching? Did you feel that strange agitation and excitement and curiosity?

What I felt was this:

How bitter, but how very expected, that the top levels of our own government, the most powerful men around, can’t pull it together to obtain a halfway decent wheelchair and decent access, for one of their own. That exposes the deep, deep ignorance in our country about access for people with disabilities, and how far we have yet to go.

(Have to add: I thought the Daily Show’s coverage of Cheney’s wheelchair was **hilarious**!! It starts at 2:32 in this video clip. He totally could have pushed it further!)

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Caltrans evades legal responsibility for sidewalk ramps

Ah, California. Sometimes you come through with your sidewalk accessibility, your ramps and ADA compliance, and sometimes you just don’t. I opened up my issue of New Mobility magazine this morning over coffee to find a brief and horrifying news snippet. Caltrans is fighting the ADA. “CDR and other disability groups filed suit in 2006 demanding Caltrans meet obligations to provide accessible walkways and curb cuts.” Read more about it here: CDR vs. Caltrans. Here’s part of the horrifying bit, a quote from CDR president Laura Williams: “We are very concerned that they are going to use this as a challenge to the ADA itself, which then affects everyone nationwide, if they should prevail.”

Your tax dollars at work, as Caltrans wastes your money you paid to create great public transit, on legal battles to screw us disabled people who are ALSO TAXPAYERS.

In my own small town here on the SF Peninsula, it took me months just to get an answer about who was responsible for a stretch of sidewalk. And in part, that delay was because people tried to tell me that the county, city, or Caltrans might be responsible for my sidewalk corner. No one knew and there was no way to find out.

Here is at least one thing that cries out for a quick technological fix. Someone make a Google maps mashup that demarcates who is responsible for which bit of sidewalk and crosswalk. How hard could it be? Does Caltrans have the information available digitally? If so, they should make it available online. Here is the Caltrans site map. Can you find coherent information about ADA compliance, sidewalks, curb cuts, and crosswalks? Can you figure out how to find which sidewalks Caltrans “owns”? Can you figure out how to complain? I couldn’t.

Caltrans controls around 2,500 miles of sidewalk. They can’t fix them all at once, there isn’t the money or time. They haven’t surveyed their walks for ADA compliance, and they’ve had many years to do that work. But, worst of all, considering the practical realities, they don’t even provide a way for their users to report ADA problems, and they won’t take responsibility for their sidewalks.

It burns me up.

I am a happy and proud member of the super-awesome Flickr group !Rock That Disability! This morning’s realization that my own state, California, center of much disability rights activist history, is with my tax money funding a fight against the Americans with Disabilities Act. The very ADA that Barack Obama would like to support and extend; a politician who cares about the human rights of people with disabilities. I will be writing some emails to politicians this morning, notably my representative and Governor Schwarzenegger. But, I also created the Flickr group Inaccessible!. Here is its description:

A blog for photos of inaccessible places and spaces. Ever been frustrated at lack of wheelchair access, insane potholes in the sidewalk, stairs, badly configured bathrooms too small for wheelchairs, badly placed handrails, elevator buttons too high for you to reach? Snap a photo, label the place as clearly as possible, and explain why it is a barrier.

My hope is that this group will be useful to building owners and people who want to make their environment more accessible. It also helps those of us with disabilities to express our frustration and to record daily encounters with barriers to access. Documenting the problems may also help us to follow through and try to get those problems fixed by the people responsible for them.

I populated the group with a few photos I happened to have tagged already in my photo archive. Because sometimes when I’m facing a giant flight of stairs, a huge hill, a bathroom I can’t get into, or a museum where I can’t go with my kid to the exhibits, I snap a photo. Maybe 1 time out of 100 I bother to do this. But what if we all did it, every time, and built up evidence? If I document and label all the worst intersections, broken sidewalks, and so on?

I would love to see something good come of this outrage, something like Fixmystreet.com. I consider my own time and energy and expertise. I have done a gazillion BarCamps. What about an AccessCamp, for some web 2.0 love for disability rights activism?

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Talking with the city about ramps

After I sent a bit of an email blast to everyone in the city government I could think of who might be able to help, I got a super nice response. A city technician, Charlie, called me and left voicemail; I called him back and we met half an hour later outside my house. There could not be a nicer, more competent-seeming person. It was very reassuring.

We walked around and looked at the main obstacles to places I go often: the grocery store, the school, and my path to the train station. With 6-7 curb cuts, it would be workable. There was a large locust tree in the way of one ramp location. Charlie, who is also something of an arborist, said that the tree was around 5 years from dying anyway; it is split in a way that means a main branch should come off, and its core is dead. So it might should be cut down anyway. Still, losing a tree makes me sad.

I learned many other interesting things from Charlie as we walked (and rolled) the route and discussed tangential things like the city’s history, street names, clues to former land use and the evolution of streetscapes.

The curb cuts cost the city about $5000 each.

As of last year, the standard curb ramp is a wide diagonal, heading both directions. It has texture to warn visually impaired people that a slope is about to happen. It has those yellow bumps at the edge to warn that you’re about to be in the street. The texture also directs where the diagonal is, so you know not to go out into the exact middle of both intersections, but to choose one or the other. Behind the ramp, across the sidewalk, there will also be a sort of raised back curb, which signals the sidewalk’s edge.

I found some excellent guidelines here on the Department of Transportation federal government site. It’s especially good at explaining the different needs of different people; how power vs. manual wheelchairs have conflicting requirements that also conflict with cane/walker/crutch users and visually impaired people. It has a very cool table of best practices for access. Also, the illustrations of dismayed wheelchair users in section 7.3.7, Change of grade, are quite funny.

The streets Charlie and I looked at are fairly old. It is not a “Centennial” neighborhood quite, but I think more like the teens… My own house I believe was started in 1910. The many resurfacings since then mean that the street is raised in the middle from the curb and gutter, so the ramp construction will take the crown and gutter slope into account.

Charlie mentioned my other request for a stop sign, and said that Traffic and Engineering might take a while with that, so he would have his crew construct a base for it in the ramp, and put a cone over the base. If the stop sign doesn’t happen, they grind down the base and fill it in. If they don’t do that prep work, then someone will “drill a hole in my ramp” and possibly weaken it structurally.

Not to mention Charlie’s other mission of training rednecks not to do u-turns on the curb ramps and not to use them as driveways. The weight and the sheering force does major structural damage! Now you know. It would never occur to me to do a U-turn onto a sidewalk. I did not ask about skateboarders…

The city contracts its sidewalk construction and repair out to a company called J & J. They have to have a certain amount of work to be done before the contractors will come and do it all in a batch. This had a particular name, but I have forgotten it. The contractors are in the neighborhood now, working, so might be able to do this; but might need to schedule it in October instead and to do that Charlie will likely have to find another batch of work to go with it. I am sure there’s no shortage of things to be done.

The money for this comes from a pool of money for ADA improvements that the federal government gives to the city each year. I don’t know how much there is total. Charlie described a project he was on that provided sidewalk access from Edgewood Road all the way to the Senior Center on Roosevelt. Not bad!

The alleys on my block also limit access to the main road behind our block, Jefferson. It is actually quite funny because there are very nice ramps and crosswalks all on Jefferson, but they lead you up onto a section of sidewalk that ends in a giant curb at the alleyway. I am not going to worry too much about the alleys. If I want to use the mailbox at that corner, I will drive to it or go across the street and down the block and across the street again.

Charlie and I also discussed the driveway slope. That is something I could pay half of and the city would pay half, to fix. For now I am thinking to just put a big heavy board there as a temporary fix so that my car will stop bottoming out and so that I can get down the driveway in my wheelchair.

Then we went into discussion of trees and City Trees. The city used to recommend crepe myrtles, and then banned them, and now doesn’t mind them again, but since they push up the sidewalks the same as a big shade tree, they recommend you just go with the big shade tree. It helps houses be more energy efficient and it makes the city nicer for everyone. Big trees need 6 feet of planting space between the curb and sidewalk, and medium ones need 5. Our planting strip is narrow; about 2.5 feet. So, on streets like ours, the city does the 50/50 cost split, creates a sort of bump or bend in the sidewalk, moving the sidewalk closer up towards the house. The right of way is actually much greater than most people think, so, about 5 feet into our front yard is actually public land or right-of-way.

That was about 1 hour of my morning, and I took another hour to write it up. Time well spent.

I am very relieved that I don’t have to fight harder for this. Also, I was grateful not to have to explain myself, the ADA, my medical status, or anything else, to Charlie, who took my right to use the public sidewalks as a given. What a great public employee and great person to work with.

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Apple store sued over ADA issues

Wow, I wonder why sue Apple in particular? Because most of these same things have happened to me in … well… pretty much every single store or public place I’ve been in.

ON the other hand I was unusually ticked off at the Apple Store in Palo Alto a few weeks ago. A “genius” was trying to fix my computer and I was insisting on trying to watch (as, if not using a wheelchair, I would normally do.) Another employee came by and told him he could pull out a little stand from the side of the counter. He complained.. .and they argued about it in front of me without talking to me. She showed him how to pull out the counter, and I started helping her do it and set it up. The dude acted put out. Then, at some point, he needed to plug into an ethernet cable because part of the problem was that my wireless software wasn’t working. And he couldn’t manage to find a cable long enough to reach to the little pull-out desk extension that I could see from my wheelchair. So we fought about that for a while, I went behind the counter and craned my neck and was rudely kicked out by a manager who said it was against store policy. When I tried during the *next* problem to come up that day to get him to pull the wheelchair accessible desk out again, he refused because it was inconvenient for him and blocked the way.

I am routinely in elevators with inaccessible buttons, or have to put up with someone else’s humiliating fussing over their wires or chairs or boxes stacked in a hallway to the bathroom… and so is every other disabled person I’ve ever talked with.

This bit made me laugh, “they were unable to reach products or service desks at the retail shop”. This is also true nearly everywhere. I accept that part and will just ask for help if I need it.

This part made me happy:

“The women said they are more interested in changing the store to better accommodate their disabilities than punishing the Cupertino-based company”

Well, yeah. And sometimes you have to push it, and sue, or bring down the law in any way possible, or change doesn’t happen. That’s how we got the ADA and equal-access laws in the first place.

Politely talking to a manager doesn’t always work. Picketing doesn’t either. Using the law might. It is legitimate activism.

So I respect their lawsuit and wish them luck.

But wait. Read the comments on the article. Check this one out:

“First, it seems unlikely that a company as astute as Apple typically is would miss something this important. They do have blinders, but not usually like that. ” That’s so annoying. Oh, well, it’s impossible to imagine that some poor yobs in a retail store, even a nice new fancy one downtown for a slick computer company, might be rude and discriminatory. Or that there are flaws in the ADA compliance in the building or the store setup, such as the wheelchair buttons or inevitable boxes in the hallway to the bathroom.

Bah. Screw them… no, sue them. Until they shape up. The disabled protesters who occupied the SF Federal Building 20 years ago didn’t do it just for fun… they did it so we can use the law to change things.

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Hacking City Hall

My experiences with activism, and also my peripheral awareness of politically savvy friends, taught me some things that aren’t automatic knowledge. In this case, I would like a 4-way stop sign at an intersection near my house. I would also like curb cuts — sloping ramps from the sidewalks to the street — at the busy intersections along my street, between the grocery store and the many apartment buildings and the two schools. And incidentally… to my house.

If you saw me in the street with my 7 year old at 8:15 am this morning you would understand a little bit better. It is hard for me to find a place to cross the street. The curbs and driveways are steep. Some driveways I can go up and down, and some I can’t, especially if I’m tired and hurting. Meanwhile, my kid wants to walk next to me, but I won’t let him, so I’m trying to herd him by shouting, and keep us both caught up, and teach him traffic awareness and how to cross the street, but while I’m in the street and we are separated by parked cars. Giant Hummers and SUVs driven by people talking on cell phones fail to stop when they see me, even when they’re at stop signs, and they blow past me at 40 miles an hour while I’m out in the middle of the road going past parked cars with people getting in and out, parallel parking with vans full of kids. It’s a nightmare because the drivers are careless and distracted and ill-tempered and inconsiderate. Because we don’t have school buses in this district, everyone has to walk or has to drop off their kids on the way to work. The police circle the block, giving tickets to the worst offenders.

So, what to do? I need to be able to cross the street in my wheelchair! At an intersection! With my kid!

I looked up some addresses on the city web site and wrote a couple of emails months ago. When I realized that didn’t have any result, I figured I’d go in person to City Hall and ask questions. Procrastination ensued. I continued wheeling my wheelchair in the street whenever I needed to get groceries.

After three days of walking my son to and from school during periods of very heavy traffic, I lost patience with the situation. A few years ago, I watched my friend Elaine work the machinery of the city, and her position as president of the Moms’ Club, to get a stop sign at a busy intersection that was between her house and the local playground. It benefited everyone in the neighborhood. I saw her do very similar things to get shade structures and bathrooms in some of the local playgrounds! But if it were not for seeing her go through that political process, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do what I’m doing now.

city hall

So! I went to City Hall. I asked at an information desk who I should talk to about sidewalks, ramps, and stop signs.

Step one. I explained briefly what I was looking for at the information desk. The information desk person told me to go to Planning.

Step two: The guy at the Planning desk told me to go to the Public Works building. I asked him more pressing questions, and he responded that maybe I could talk to someone in Engineering, but that would not help and the people responsible were in Public Works (across town.) Since those were the people I wrote to in the first place who didn’t respond and I didn’t trust his information and I didn’t want to pack up my wheelchair and drive across town and unpack myself into the wheelchair again, I told him I was going to go upstairs to the big sign I could see that said “City Manager” and “City Attorney” since I suspected there was some more direct path to action. He seemed mildly perturbed. I smiled with sharky politeness.

Step 3: On the way to the elevator, I told the information desk person #1 (nicely) that the person she had sent me to didn’t know what I should do next.

Step 4: Upstairs, an information desk or reception person for the City Manager seemed to know what I was talking about and what to do. She looked up some information online, and wrote down a name and phone number and email of Rich, the Traffic Engineer, and his assistant Peter, who were just downstairs next to the Planning desk I had gone to in Step 2.

Step 5: Someone came to talk with me at the Maps and something-or-other desk after I waited a few minutes. I gave my two-sentence summary of what I would like. She asked if I had an appointment to speak with Saber. I said I did not, but I would like to wait and speak with anyone who could explain the next steps in the process to me. She said things that indicated everyone was very busy and went away. I waited.

Step 6: An engineer, Brendan, came out to talk with me. We went over to a low desk that was pleasantly wheelchair accessible, with a large, lightweight computer monitor that swivelled around. I explained to Brendan, and showed him my map of the 3 blocks between the grocery store, my house, and the school. On it I circled the places I wished for curb cuts, and the intersection that I think needs a 4-way stop instead of a 2-way stop. I asked Brendan what I should do next to request these things from the city, through official channels.

(Here is where I would not have known there *was* a way to do this sort of thing, if not for the local Redwood City Moms’ Club and its email list, and my friend Elaine.)

(I would like to point out the many steps before this actually productive step; Expect delays, and uncertainty, and people who don’t know what to do next or who to refer you to; Don’t get mad at them, but keep patiently asking different people until you hit the good one who will say, “I don’t know, but let’s go find out.”)

Step 6, continued: Brendan listened intently to my explanation. He said that I should do separate requests for the stop sign — for which there was a known procedure — and for the curb cuts, which no one understands, which take longer, and which will cost a lot more.

Then, Brendan he explained what I should do and what would happen next. I should write a letter to the Senior Engineer, Saber. I gave a feral grin and whipped out my computer. There was wireless. I wrote the letter and showed it to Brendan across the desk. He said it looked okay. I cc-ed the letter to one of the school principals and to my housemates, the only people on my block whose email addresses I know offhand.

Then I took notes on paper for what he said next. Here is what will happen and what I should do:

– Write a letter proposing the stop sign (done!)
– Write a letter proposing the curb cuts.
– The city will respond within a couple of weeks (someone is on vacation)
– Engineering will order a traffic analysis, just from the fact of my request letter for the stop sign. They will put those tube things across the street and do traffic counts, and I think they’ll do a pedestrian count as well.
– Meanwhile, I must get signatures from the people living at the four corners of the intersection. Brendan called up an application that uses Google Maps, and we talked about how some of the buildings at the corners were single family and some were apartments and some were duplexes. The more signatures from those addresses I can get, the better.
– Also meanwhile, I must get signatures from people within a 1-block radius of the intersections.
– Brendan was aware that the neighborhood has many Spanish-speaking and Guatemalan/Salvadorean/Southern Mexico-native-language-speaking immigrants, so he advised me to make my petition bilingual and also warned me that people might be wary of signing things for various reasons.
– Meanwhile, a letter will go out from the City to everyone on the blocks near the intersection to explain the traffic analysis studies.
– Then, the engineer makes a recommendation to the City Council in a staff report.
– A public hearing will then be scheduled for the City Council to discuss the stop sign.
– It is important for people who want the stop sign (or curb cuts) to come to the meeting, because if only people who are opposed come, it might sway the council.

Brendan explained other issues in excellent detail. He called up fles on his computer, and swivelled the monitor around to show me the screen. The main thing we looked at was the list of criteria that the city considers in its recommendation: how many cars must flow through the intersection in an 8 hour period, but the ways around that as well; pedestrian count in smaller time units is considered along with average speed of cars going through the intersection. That was interesting! And useful! Brendan said he would find out if he could email me that document, and gave me his card.

We discussed strategy for the curb cuts a little bit. He mentioned again that they were quite expensive and he had never seen anyone request them, and so there might be a bit of confusion as well as reluctance from the city. But that there was probably money for it somewhere. “Well, I think there has to be, because of the ADA,” I said in a friendly way. I hoped that would indicate my total willingness to work through their process, but would show that I am aware there are legal rights involved here, and laws that specify things like sidewalk accessibility. While I don’t think we have to go there, it seems good to at least mention the law.

I have some good ideas. IN addition to pounding the pavement for signatures, I could go speak to a middle school class at both schools, and perhaps enlist help from a social studies or civics class. I could explain the process I went through, and get some older kids to knock on doors and get signatures. Then I will not have to do some much physical labor, and a bunch of kids will learn something about local political processes and how to effect small changes.

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In which I am cranky and grateful about access in Chicago!

(I wrote part of this before BlogHer but forgot to post it!)

Anyone other people with disabilities going to BlogHer, by the way? I have not tried to mobilize to find out, but I’m wondering.

I am going to be able to get around town pretty well with regular taxis. My wheelchair folds up and fits in a car trunk and I think my hotel is close (though I have not actually checked! ) My main concern is that sometimes I just need to lie down somewhere. And I am fine with getting out of the chair and getting on the floor for a nap, which tends to freak people out. “OMG are you okay! Do you need help getting up! Did you fall?”

***

So, at BlogHer, the access was more or less okay.

The conference center at Navy Pier was very spread out, which means it’s exhausting and sometimes time consuming to get around. For example, there was no bathroom on the same floor as most of the panel rooms. The first time I needed the bathroom, it was hard to find one and I went way off in the wrong direction, and then had to take an elevator to it. Plus, you’d have an event on one side of the conference center, and then another event on the other side, separated by a giant crowded hall and two elevators.

I loathe Moscone Center for this reason as well. It is just Too Big and spread out. WisCon, in contrast, is in a hotel that perfectly fits 800-1000 people. The elevator problem is still there, but the exhaustion of moving around a huge space is eliminated!

Buildings in downtown Chicago had worse access, on the whole, than ones in downtown San Francisco. There were more tiny custom-installed lifts, and less ramps.

Lifts suck because they are almost always locked or not working or both. They’re loud, conspicuous, fussy, isolating, and clunky, and often they’re installed in the backass end of nowhere of the building while your friends are all going somewhere else, either because it doesn’t occur to anyone to keep you company or because they’re not allowed in the tiny awful lift.

The main problem, though, is that they’re kept locked and turned off. I flounced around Chicago telling building managers and security guards that it was illegal to keep the lifts turned off and locked. I don’t know if that’s true! But I can’t imagine that it’s not. It sucks, whether it’s illegal or not. I’ll go look it up and edit this entry later.

I ran into the “just two blocks” issue a few times. Someone would tell me somewhere else was just a couple of blocks away. It is always a mistake to believe this! It ***never*** is. Instead I found myself braving traffic and curbs and wheeling uphill 12 blocks over cobblestones, chain link fences, bricks, shark teeth, hot lava, and paths made of swords and darkness. Next time I will have prepared much better, with maps, and more phone numbers of taxis.

The big hotels were halfway okay. I became totally furious in the W Hotel when there was a ramp down from the lobby to the bar, but the ramp ENDED IN STAIRS. What the hell, people! I bitched. And rather than listen to anyone I told the hotel people to go away while I hobbled down the steps. I can totally do steps but it’s somewhat painful and after all day sitting up in the chair, I was not in the mood. It is awkward, and people stare, and I’d rather they stare at me and think “Oh Cool” while seeing me in a confident moment rather than seeing me limp and lean. Not that limping is bad mind you. Just that I was NOT WEARING MY PITY SHIELD that evening.

So then at a super fun fancy-ass dinner with a gazillion bloggers I had to swear my way into a dark pantry closet with some manager with a key while all the other employees and various random people stared and thought “Oh look the crippled chick is going to go and pee…” And was vastly annoyed and told them to leave the damned lift ON… with a light on… and with signs that say lift this way and bathrooms upstairs with a nice blue and white disability access logo.

Screw them!

I won’t even go into the Tale of the Sushi Restaurant and the Security Guards and the Building Lift and Chris Carfi helping me up the stairs! GAH. But I was grateful to the nice busboy who shook his fist at the non-working lift and who repeated my “fuck you!” that I yelled up the stairwell at the totally not-there security guard with the mythical lift key.

At City Centre hotel in contrast, I spoke to a polite manager once… and she was sympathetic. And the next time I came back to the hotel, I found this:

BlogHer

THE KEY in the lift!

That was so exciting, and it has never happened to me that a polite complaint has resulted in a policy change of this kind!

It was heartening beyond the happy convenience of being able to pee, get food and drinks, and talk with people upstairs when I wanted to… at my convenience… without fuss or frustration or delay.

Thanks, nice hotel manager!

BlogHer - nice hotel manager

About a week before the conference I think Elisa asked me if I knew any other bloggers with disabilities who would be there and what the issues might be. She was worried that I would not be able to ride the shuttle buses! I appreciated that concern. But the issues are sort of more complex than that!

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