Guest Blogger: The Realities of Having a Disability on Muni

This post also appears at Muni Diaries, but I thought it was important, and well-written enough that it deserved as wide a forum as possible. It’s too easy when thinking about these issues to make them an abstract discussion of laws, acronyms and turf wars between political factions, when in reality we’re talking about people and the common courtesy they deserve. Read on:
Having a mobility impairment is hard anywhere. The hills and public transit system unique to San Francisco add further complication for those of us with broken bodies. I’m missing half of my right foot because of a motorcycle wreck. I have a skin graft, nerve damage, and phantom pains in tissue that don’t exist anymore.
I ride the muni every day. It’s important I get a seat–if I stand all the way from Taraval at Sunset to Van Ness, the rest of my day is ruined. 20 minutes of balancing on a mangled foot causes anywhere from
12 to 72 hours of pain.
I use my cane every morning. When I can grab a seat, sitting in the handicapped seating is stressful. I get on the train in the Sunset/Parkside district and ride it all the way in. My disability is largely invisible unless I’m barefoot or wearing a skirt that exposes my scar-covered right leg. I get dirty looks from older riders when I
don’t get up to allow them a seat; I look like a perfectly healthy 22-year old woman. I sit in the seat, repeat to myself “you’re handicapped and have a right to sit here” and stare at my foot-and-a-half while clutching my cane with white knuckles. If someone asks, I explain that I am handicapped; that usually kills any discussion. Only once has someone decided to inflict themselves on me and made me “prove” my disability. After taking off my shoe and asking that my medical privacy be respected, the rider in question turned
beet red and got off at the next stop.
This morning, I wasn’t able to get a seat. I spent the entire train ride being flung around by inertia. I fell into the person to my left three times. She yelled “Bitch” at me, then turned to look at me and saw my cane. She then muttered “oh, sorry” and moved 2 inches to the right. I tipped into the able-bodied young man that was in the handicapped seating. He looked up at me, saw the cane in my hand, made eye contact with me and shrugged, then turned up his headphones and pulled his hood over his eyes.

It’s been 6 hours since my train ride this morning and my entire body is still in searing pain. I had to hold on with my right arm only, as my left arm has tendinitis in the wrist and elbow in addition to being the hand I hold my cane in. My right ankle, calf, knee, hip, shoulder, upper back, and neck are all in various levels of pain and swelling due to not being able to sit this morning. Any pain medications strong enough to combat the pain and swelling caused by the morning’s ride are so strong that I’m too strung out to work.
Handicapped accessibility options can be seen as “convenience” for those that do not know what a mobility disability does to your life. When one has all ten toes, no nerve damage, and good balance, a seat in the morning IS a convenience. You get to read an extra 20 pages in your book in the morning and finish your coffee before it’s cold.
When you have eight toes, nerve damage, chronic pain and the balance of a two-minute old foal, being able to sit on the train in the morning means being able to walk from the bus stop to my building in less than 15 minutes; not destroying my liver with high doses of pain killers that make me vomit until I’m dry heaving; being able to get dinner with my boyfriend later in the evening; being able to go home and do laundry; not being in pain from the day until noon. It lets me live for a few hours, rather than be trapped in a body endered useless by constant pain.
I’ve been asked about why I don’t just ask people to get up. It’s embarrassing. I hate my body. I hate my foot. I hate my leg. I hate the pain I’m in every day. I hate admitting that going up the hill at Diviz and Haight is hard. I hate that it takes me extra time to go up all three flights of stairs in my friends’ apartment building. I hate that it takes me 6 months to find a single pair of shoes I can wear both of at the same time. I hate having to ask my landlord to install handicapped shower bars.
I’m at war with the vessel my mind occupies. I don’t like my friends thinking of me as handicapped, telling a stranger on the train that I’m handicapped is humiliating. Having to do it every morning is just
demoralizing. I’m 22; my body should be young, supple, lean, and functional. I’ve been made to feel like a disfigured freak in my own home because of a guest my roommate had over.
Not to say good people don’t ride Muni. Unfortunately, the negative always seems louder than the positive. I’ve had a few experiences in which a fellow muni rider will offer me a seat without making me feel
like a disability instead of a human. I always thank the rider earnestly when it happens. I appreciate it so much. Being disabled and riding public transit is really hard. As bitter as I get from the chronic pain, it’s something I’d never wish on anyone else, even the mean people that inflict pain on me by not allowing me the seat set aside for me under federal law. (There’s even a little drawing of a person with a cane on the sign! And by the way, your headphones aren’t an invisibility cloak.)
Riding muni on some days leaves me feeling more defeated than I did when I was bleeding in the street with my foot ripped apart.
Katie is a 22 year old woman currently residing in San Francisco. She moved here from Houston, Texas six months ago and says she can best be described by imagining the combination of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg. She likes to bake and cook and figure out how to put booze in everything. Candy making is fun too, especially when you work bacon into it. Her Twitter name is @cripsahoy. She also like puns and having a slightly dark sense of humor about her injury helps keep her positive. She says she really, really like San Francisco, almost to a fault.

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5 Responses to Guest Blogger: The Realities of Having a Disability on Muni

  1. @makfan says:

    I am sorry for your pain. I would never hesitate to offer you my seat if I saw you with your cane. I hope you can eventually be comfortable advocating for yourself by requesting a seat when you need it. Unfortunately, not everyone will do the right thing without being asked.
    Also, what is a good way to offer the seat that doesn’t make you feel bad? My instinct is to say something like “please take this seat.”

  2. Not everyone who is handicapped uses a cane. So maybe some of the “able-bodied” folks sitting in those seats need the seats. Better not to assume they don’t.
    I’ve lived in SF without a car for 23 years. Lots of experience on MUNI. Some of it when I was healthy, some when I wasn’t. After acquiring Meniere’s disease (a balance disorder) I had to use a cane for about a year. Since then, I can walk well without one, but it still flares up now & then. Feels physically like being really, really drunk, but still with a clear mind. I need a seat. I look fine when seated. It might bother some people. Not my problem.
    My experience in public has been that most people are not intentionally cruel, just self-absorbed, clueless. They usually accomodate when asked. Since I’m the one with the issue, it makes sense that I should take care of myself by looking out for myself and making sure I get a seat when I need one. I do not expect everyone else in public to be on the lookout for me and my needs. Sure, you run into jerks now and then – it’s a city. I’ve never seen a whole bus full, though. And I’ve never failed to get a seat when I really needed one.

  3. Karen says:

    I fell into a row of seats on the N once and, when a very nice lady giggled nervously, I started crying and said that normally I would laugh too, but I’m pregnant and falling down could kill my baby. Not a single person offered a seat. If there is a God, they are going to hell. Even the current me would give my seat to a pregnant lady who had already fallen once, and I have an invisible handicap (fibromyalgia) that makes it nearly impossible and quite painful for me to ride standing. (Note, too, that half the people there were commuting to UCSF Parnassus, a frickin’ children’s hospital. You would think at least one of them would mind letting a baby die.)
    Anna does have a good point about not everyone who looks fine being fine — sometimes I make the same assumption and then remind myself that I look pretty hale and hearty too. But, as my above example shows, I have indeed run into a carful of jerks. (Happy ending: my baby is now 3.)

  4. Katie says:

    OP here–
    Anna, I try really hard to remember that others may have invisible disabilities. I’m still very new to having a mobility impairment–it’s been a little rough transitioning.
    Having the courage to stand up for myself and request a seat has been one of the more difficult parts of it. For me, at least, having to admit I need help sometimes and being able to verbalize it to total strangers is hard.
    As I grow in this new body, I’ll hopefully get more comfortable with it and be able to speak up for myself. 🙂 Reading experiences from other people living with disabilities helps a lot. Thanks.

  5. Cellbot says:

    god i am SO sorry.
    i always make sure to sit or stand if there are no seats available and only front seats open. it tears me apart to see disabled and elderly people having to stand while dumb college kids sit there like its no thing. perhaps having grown up with a disabled father taught me the proper respect for someone who has a disability like yours, and i usually tell my fellow youngsters to gtfup and let the people sit down!
    dont be embarrassed by your body. just because its not as functional as the rest of ours does not make you some sort of freak. you’re entitled to the good life just like the rest of us.
    thank you for writing this.

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