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A historic ride -- on Greyhound

  Off the Bus

by Rus Cooper-Dowda

Rus Cooper-Dowda is a minister and freelance writer in St. Petersburg.

photo of Ken Kesey's Magic Bus

You're either on the bus or off the bus.

-- Ken Kesey

Just recently, the Montgomery, Alabama bus on which Rosa Parks is believed to have refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955 arrived at the Henry Ford Musuem in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum's curator of political history, Bill Pretzer, calls it "one of the most important artifacts of 20th century America."

At the time, Rosa Parks was fined $10.00 for violating a city ordinance enforcing transportation segregation. Her arrest set off a boycott of the city bus system, helped forge the face of the civil rights movement at the time, and lauched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the public eye.

The musuem paid $492,000.00 for the bus at an internet auction.

To Ride the Public's Buses'
To Ride the Public's Buses: The Fight that Built a Movement
The bus battles across the nation
As told in the pages of
The Disability Rag

Lest you think, almost a half century later, that public transportation is now equally available to all, I am here to tell you that millions of Americans with disabilities are still waiting to be fully included.

I was born the same Fall in the same state as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and I am still waiting to use the same public transportation my non-disabled peers have open to them now without question.

Wait! For years I have heard the word 'wait!' We have waited...for our rights.

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bus drivers can still refuse to allow people with disabilities on their buses. They can still refuse to use equipment in good repair that is specifically there to help your grandmother. Bus company mangers can still let drivers get by without announcing bus stops to people with visual impairments. People with disabilities can still be publically blamed by bus company employees for their own poor training and badly maintained equipment.

I am not making up this nation-wide scandal that is happening everyday at a bus stop near where you live or work or pray. Here is one day's example of what it takes to try to use a public bus when you have a disability:

"When we got off the bus this afternoon, my son was in tears. The driver had made jokes about how maybe the wheelchair lift was not going to work today, either. I have no idea what it will take to get across that not being able to get on or off a bus is not funny.

"Back when we were calling in to find out if the buses on our route had working wheelchair lifts, we would get responses like: 'You must not really be disabled if you can plan ahead.' 'You must be stupid to think you need to call ahead.' 'You must be dumb not to know bus drivers don't have to pick you up if they don't want to.'

"We had to stop calling for lift information because the drivers would retaliate by not letting us use them.

"In the presence of my kid, bus drivers have called me a 'bad passenger,' a bad mother and a faker all for simply wanting to use the wheelchair lift."

Another Day:
"This morning the driver couldn't find the right switches to make the wheelchair lift work. When she did finally locate them, the lift did not work.

"Then, laughing out loud about this failure, she said, 'Is it okay with you, honey, if the lift doesn't work today? You didn't really want to go to work anyway, did you?'

"I told her that yes, I did want to go to work today. She then refused to call in the wheelchair lift failure. Next, still laughing, she closed the doors and drove away without me. She treated the wheelchair lift and the reporting failure as a pleasant joke between us."

Another Day:
"The bus came. The wheelchair lift did not work. The driver joked about it.

"I asked the driver to move a few feet down to a more level area and to try the wheelchair lift again. He refused.

The skies did not fall when integrated buses finally traveled the streets of Montgomery.

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I asked him to radio in and ask when the next bus with a working lift would come by. He refused to do this. He laughed and said he was not allowed to ask that question on the radio. He said the sky would not fall if I didn't have a ride to work.

"I then asked him to report that his wheelchair lift didn't work. He refused and drove away. As he was closing the doors, I heard him muttering about handicapped people going and thinking they could ride the bus like everyone else."

Being able to get on a bus may seem like a small thing to many people without disabilities. But, consider, people with disabilities are still struggling to get TO the back of the bus. Eleven years after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in Congress, we are still just trying to get on the bus.

Without the civil rights of fair treatment on and basic access to public transportation -- the right to almost everything else stays theory only. And, just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 led to the claiming of more basic civil rights, so has the right to get on the bus birthed other work for more complete civil rights for people with disabilities.

If this hunger to get the same consideration as others seems too whiney in this day and age, consider the statistics:1 out of 3 Americans has daily contact with a person they care about who has a disability. We save money by keeping people in their communities. People with disabilities are actually being placed in nursing homes now because they can't get on a bus to do their own food shopping. It would be far cheaper to force public bus companies to treat shoppers with disabilities more fairly.

If you live long enough, you will age into disability. Access to public transportation then will allow you to stay active in your community longer.

What's not to like here about letting people with disabilities use public buses like everyone else? Why aren't religious/liberal groups, who hated segregation based on race back then, agitating over morally wrong public transportation segregation based on disability now? After all, with a 50/50 chance of being disabled enough to need adaptive equipment by the end of their lives, isn't joining forces to fight for fully inclusive public transportation in their own best interests?

Two generations ago, marches and demonstrations in the South (against things like transportation discrimination) were the places to be. Where are these liberal and religious people and their descendants now? Don't they know that by birth defect, illness or accident, the next disabled person in need of transportation access could be them or someone they care about?

Rosa Parks' bus is a celebrated new item in a transportation musuem. Ken Kesey's bus, once rumored to be at the Smithsonian, is fading into its day-glo colors at the family's ranch.

The historic bus symbolizing the first day it was actually no big deal for any American with a disability in any American city to catch the bus for any purpose at any time doesn't exist yet. Why is that?

How long will the current wheels of injustice keep going 'round and 'round all over town? How long?

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