There are the mortifying and humbling moments where I can laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously, but then there are the mortifying and humiliating moments where laughter vanishes. During exam week, a post was making the rounds on Facebook from a woman in Nunawading (Victoria, Australia) who had parked quite rightfully in a disabled parking spot and walked into Mitcham shopping centre with her daughter. Returning, she found a note on her door asking, ‘Forget your wheelchair?’ The lady has MS. Reading the post, I was ashamed. The shopping centre in question was in my former parish where I was an Assistant Minister. The church is only 200 metres away. I was so caught up by the fact that I recognised the hand writing on the note that I never considered a similar event was just about to happen to me.
Students finally finished their exams on the Thursday and the next day I flew to Sydney for an Academic Board meeting. I got up at 3:45am on the Friday morning. We were driving to the airport by 5:15am. My housemate picked me up from the airport at about 8pm that evening. I fell into bed beyond exhausted and I gave half a thought to cancelling my Saturday morning rehab appointments before I attend an end of semester BBQ celebration with our students back at college. But I knew that the best thing I could do for myself is to continue with my routine. This meant catching the first express bus out of Mt Barker the next morning to get to my Pilates appointment on time. I woke up that Saturday morning drained and slow. My housemate gave me a lift to the bus station because when I called the taxi company the night before, all taxis were booked. When I was walking up to the bus stop, all I wanted was to sit down, my balance was off and I just felt weak. I reached the bench when a boy of about four ran and jumped onto the bench. I saw an older lady walk towards the bench and I guessed that she was his grandmother. I stepped back away from the bench and stood waiting for the bus to arrive.
When the bus finally pulled up, the boy and his grandmother were first to get on. I waited for the grandmother to pay. I then swiped my pass and sat in the seating reserved for people with disabilities, for the elderly, or for mums with prams. I got out my book and escaped into the world of Divergent. The bus filled quickly. Seeing families get on the bus this early, I guessed the Adelaide Christmas Pageant was that morning. We hadn’t reached the last bus stop in Mt Barker before all the seats were taken. We still had the Hahndorf bus stops to go. At the last stop in Mt Barker, a mum with a pram got onto the bus. There were no more seats, only an empty standing space beside me. I suddenly heard the mum apologise to me, ‘I’m sorry, but the pram is on your foot’. I looked down and saw that the pram was indeed on my foot. I smiled and said, ‘no worries, I can’t feel it anyway’. The mum returned my smile and she readied herself for a bus ride standing. I wished that I could stand and give her my seat, but then again, if I could do that, I wouldn’t be on the bus in the first place. I would be driving my car. The bus continued on its way to Hahndorf. As the bus was pulling into the first stop, I suddenly felt the grandmother from earlier tapping me on my shoulder. I didn’t see her approach me, again I was engrossed in my book, not paying too much attention to what was going on around me. The grandmother then said to me, in a voice that the majority of the bus could hear, ‘This seat is for the elderly or for mums with prams, not for young people. How about you get up and give this mum your seat.’
I was speechless. I didn’t quite realise at first what this lady had said to me. And I didn’t know what to do. It felt like everyone was starring at me. I stumbled my next words, ‘Yes, sure I will try to get up’, thinking that the next stop, if I don’t fall over first, I will have to get off the bus. While the bus started moving again, I tried to get my bag and my walking stick to then stand up. I couldn’t stand. I didn’t have the balance to be able to stand while the bus was moving. I tried again, putting all my weight through my walking stick, but with no hands free, I couldn’t stand, again. I looked at the mum standing beside me and I apologised that I couldn’t stand up and give her my seat. The mum said that it was okay, she had seen my ankle brace and gathered that I had an injury of some sort. But those around me were still starring. I was shamed. I was bright red. And I couldn’t stop the tears. I broke down crying and I wished that I could just get off the bus and escape the mortification and humiliation of those five minutes. I was equally stunned how someone could be so judgmental. I couldn’t pull myself back together. I got off the bus early and went into one of my regular cafes, hoping that ten minutes with a siphon coffee might calm me down before going to the Pilates studio. I didn’t know how I was going to face all the faculty, staff, and students, later that day. What people tend to forget is that young people with disabilities may already feel guilt that they cannot stand for the elderly and for those who equally need the priority seating. We don’t need the extra guilt.
Within the space of two weeks two other events happened that reminded me of that day. The first was a week later. I went into the same cafe as that humiliating Saturday. I asked for one seat, pointing to empty seats on a communal table. The young server said that they were reserving the communal tables in case bigger parties came in and would I mind sitting in the next room. I willingly said ‘yes’ and went into the next room with the young server. I quickly saw though that I needed to go up a big step and there were no handrails and I wouldn’t actually be able to get up onto the high seating anyway. I apologised to the young server and explained that I couldn’t sit where he was pointing me to. He then said that he had no seating free and he couldn’t help me. I looked around the first room, there were empty spaces. For the first time in the four years that I have been enjoying coffee at this cafe, I turned around and left the cafe having been refused a seat. The second event was the Monday evening. I had just completed my Pilates session for that day and I caught a taxi into the centre of the city to catch an express bus back into Mt Barker. This was the last express bus for the day. When I got on, I saw that there were no spare seating, not even the priority seating was free. People were standing. The bus started moving and I wasn’t safe standing. I asked if someone from the priority seating would please give me their seat. No one responded. I nearly fell as the bus moved and soon stopped. I turned to get off the bus, knowing that I could not stand for the next fifty minutes up the freeway. As I turned to leave, one older lady shouted after me, and I saw that she had stood up and was offering me her seat. I really didn’t want to take her seat, but I didn’t have much of a choice either. Everyone else in the priority seating were looking down. The floor must have been terribly interesting.
Situations like these happen often, sadly. These are the situations that are mortifying and humiliating where laughter vanishes, where it is very hard to pick yourself up and keep going. Life is already hard with a disability; things like priority seating make life that little bit easier. I am ashamed that I live in a community that is not very compassionate towards those who live with disabilities. I know that I cannot judge an entire community by the actions of one or a bus full of people. But neither can I afford to put myself at risk physically. A fall on a bus could be catastrophic. I now have to think about whether I can continue living in Mt Barker. I just don’t think people are aware of the impact their actions and words can have.
Please, if you see a young person, or any age person for that matter, who is using a disability permit, or priority seating, or something similar, please give them the benefit of the doubt. Your actions and words might be the difference between ruining a day, or even weeks, or letting someone get on with their life a little more easily.