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"I would have never resorted to crawling," writes Vince Bonura. Read Bonura's and others' letters.


  The Smithsonian Shuttle Incident

By William J. Peace

AFTER LOADING EVERY PASSENGER BUT US, the driver of the Smithsonian shuttle bus moved the vehicle so the lift could be deployed. He opened the doors in the back, and, with a puzzled look, tried to figure out how to operate the mechanism.

After five minutes he became frustrated and looked to me for help -- as though I'd know what to do by osmosis. My son, never shy, suggested he read the directions.

photo of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

"Face it, Dad," said my son, "no one except for us cares whether you can get on the bus."

While we read the directions, he called his supervisor as we all tried to figure out how to get the lift to operate.

My son and I are aviation enthusiasts. We have visited the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum on the Mall many times and never cease to be amazed by the myriad aircraft displayed. I have a sharp preference for civil aviation and performance aircraft; my son Tom is drawn to military aircraft -- especially the SR-71 Blackbird.

When I learned that the Smithsonian had opened a new museum to display and preserve its collection of historic aircraft and space artifacts near Dulles International Airport, I was thrilled. At long last the museum would have the space to adequately display its breathtaking collection (The new museum is huge -- 40 million cubic feet of space, 10 stories high and 300 yards long.). When I learned that one of the center pieces of the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was the SR-71 Blackbird, I knew I had to bring my son.

We eagerly planned a trip for his spring vacation.

Visitors to the Udvar-Hazy Center can drive directly to the museum and pay $12 to park, or take a shuttle bus from the Air and Space Museum on the Mall for $7.

At $7 the bus is a great deal. The trip out to Dulles is about 45 minutes long and traffic in Washington is not only confusing for a visitor but often gridlocked. The weekend we visited, the shuttle buses left the Mall on the hour and returned on the half hour. .Advance tickets were required.

Prior to our visit I had contacted the Smithsonian via email and asked if the shuttle bus was accessible. The first reply came back negative, quickly followed by a second email stating that some buses were accessible. These replies were followed by yet a third email stating all shuttle buses were accessible.

We left our home early Friday morning for a three-day weekend. After a 5-hour drive to our hotel in downtown Washington, we went to the Air and Space Museum on the Mall and spent an enjoyable afternoon. We also reconfirmed that all the shuttle buses were indeed accessible -- and looked forward to our ride to the new museum on Saturday.

I was relieved the next day when we arrived at the bus stop to find that the driver did not look at us as though he were scared. (Those of you in wheelchairs who use buses on a regular basis know the look: "Oh, no! what the hell am I supposed to do?!")

But perhaps he should have been scared. Because, as it turned out, he did not have a clue how to operate the lift.

Another 10 minutes passed without much progress.

At this point we were chilled to the bone and no closer to getting on when a passerby made a suggestion about which buttons to press. The lift began to work. Much relieved, we got on and headed to the museum.

The same mystifying process was repeated upon our arrival and after another delay were able to get on with our day.

On our return to Washington that afternoon, another bus driver struggled to figure out how to use the wheelchair lift. Once again, after 15 minutes,he got it to operate. We were so enthused and impressed with the museum -- despite the bus drivers' lack of knowledge about lift operation -- that we planned to return the next and final full day of our trip.

Sunday morning was even colder than Saturday -- bitterly cold, with temperatures in the low 40s, and 40 mph wind gusts.

We bundled up as best we could and lined up on the Mall to take the first shuttle bus of the day. Once again, all passengers -- except us -- boarded the bus. The bus was moved and the driver attempted to get the lift to operate.

This driver seemed even more mystified by the lift than the first driver.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. It was clear the lift was not going to work. There was no power to the lift. Numerous calls to the supervisor were made. Directions to the lift were read and re-read. Other passengers were consulted and passersby gawked at the unfolding scene.

Finally, I was asked, "Can you walk at all?" When I told the driver that I could not, I was informed there was no legal way to get me on the bus. There was nothing else that could be done -- and there were no other buses available. Another bus might come -- but if it did, it would not be until much later and might not have a lift.

I faced a dilemma: it was bitterly cold outside and the museum would not open for another hour. There was no supervisor, dispatcher or anyone else I could approach for additional information. I knew that once the museum opened the lines to enter would be long; the ones inside even longer; lines would form to get to the observation deck and flight simulators. And I had promised my son he could get on one of the simulators.

What was I to do? I had two choices: assert my equal rights and refuse to get on the bus, or crawl up the front steps.

Had I been without my son I would not have gotten on the bus. Depending upon my mood, I might have also gotten directly in front of the bus and made a concerted effort not to let the bus depart, trying to attract as much attention as humanly possible.

Here comes the proverbial "but": but I was with my son and it was our last chance to see the museum. He and I were freezing -- and it was clear, that, as he put it, "Dad, we're screwed."

Right or wrong, I decided to crawl onto the bus and up the steps to the first seat.

This decision has led to sleepless nights and much second-guessing. What did I teach my son by crawling up the steps of the bus? Did I do the wrong thing? Should I have waited until the museum opened and gone to see the director of transportation?

For better or worse, I got on the bus and our ride to the museum was made largely in silence, an unusual event as my son is a real chatterbox. When we did speak about what happened, we talked about whether I'd done the right thing.

I asked him what he thought. His view was there was no right answer. From his perspective, not getting on the bus would have ruined the day, if not the entire trip. Getting on the bus was equally wrong and blatantly violated of the law.

"Face it, Dad," he concluded, "no one except for us cares whether you can get on the bus." For him, the whole point of the trip was to see the museum -- and, lift or no lift, he wanted to get there.

After thinking about what took place I have concluded that my son's observation that "no one except us cares whether you can get on the bus" is accurate.

The Smithsonian's buses are accessible in name -- they have paid lip service to wheelchair access. The Smithsonian can proudly state that all their buses have lifts

But if the drivers cannot operate them, what use are they?

Our experience with the bus lift was repeated not once or twice but every time we tried to board a Smithsonian shuttle bus to the Steven F. Udar-Hazy Center. In two days we encountered four bus drivers -- and not one of them had a clue how the lift worked. Each driver confessed they had never operated the lift, even though they are supposed to test the lift before the start of their day. Given that the Smithsonian cannot ensure that the lifts work on the Air and Space Museum shuttle buses already in service, I shudder to think of the future. These shuttle buses are very popular and sell out on a regular basis. The Museum is planning on expanding their number -- but are they going to ensure that all the new buses have lifts that work and drivers that know how to use them?

Is the museum going to improve access inside as well? The flight simulators, one of their biggest draws and a source of revenue, are entirely inaccessible at both locations.

I remain torn about my decision to crawl up the steps of the bus. Does the end justify the means? Why does my son believe no one cares about wheelchair access? Has he become jaded at the age of 12, or is he simply correct that no one cares about wheelchair access?

Based upon my experiences traveling over the last few months, and this incident in particular, I have reluctantly concluded he is correct.

It is not just the Smithsonian . Many large institutions and corporations seem concerned only that they have lifts on buses, ramps to the entrance, elevators, accessible bathrooms in order to ensure their facilities meet the letter of the law. But they do not seem to care whether the lifts and elevators operate. I have come to the conclusion that there is a great gulf between the law (that is, what large institutions such as the Smithsonian are required to do) and the reality of wheelchair access.

Revering the totally inaccessible planes it displays, the Smithsonian seems untroubled by lack of access. It pats itself on on the back for having things such as lifts on buses. Yet when one actually tries to use them, one discovers they do not work and the drivers have no idea how to use them. Their flight simulators are not accessible, either -- though one person told me a wheelchair lift was going to be put in "some day."

At no time in my life am I more aware of my disability than when I travel. Time after time after time, I have access problems with air lines, bus and rent-a-car companies, and hotels. All are required by law to provide accessible services but virtually every time I travel I find the lift on the bus broken, the accessible room already occupied, the car with hand controls in another location. All this happens in spite of the fact I reconfirm my reservation 24 hours in advance. Why, after all the confirmations and re-confirmations, do people look stunned when they see me?

Until my encounter at the Smithsonian I was truly puzzled as to why this happens. Was it just me, I wondered. Did I screw things up somehow? Surely, airlines, hotels, museums, and the Smithsonian do not have it in for me!

For over a decade institutions, corporations, schools and museums have been required to comply with the ADA -- one would think making buses and buildings accessible would be the norm by now, rather than the exception. This is not the case, though -- because they have no interest whatsoever in making things truly accessible to disabled people. If they did, not only would money be spent on lifts, but methods would be put in place to ensure they actually work.

I am just one of many whose civil rights are violated on a regular basis.

My experience with the Smithsonian shuttle buses has reinforced my belief that what institutions say and what they do in terms of wheelchair access are two very different things. My son's observation that people "just don't care" is deadly accurate.

Am I the only individual who has lost sleep over the fact that he crawled onto a bus that had a wheelchair lift that was supposed to be fully operational?

I am sure a written report is buried somewhere in the Smithsonian transportation office about what happened. Does this mean that bus drivers will now really check the lifts before they begin their run? I doubt it. Like my son said, "no one cares".

Two questions continue to haunt me: What lesson did I teach my son? And, How can disabled people make others care about our civil rights?

As to the lesson my son learned, I will struggle with that for the foreseeable future . I deeply regret crawling onto the bus.

As to making people care ...

This one has been an ongoing problem in the fight for disability rights. Despite the best efforts of disability rights groups, they have failed to connect with the public at large and with other powerful civil rights groups -- especially African Americans.

Imagine if my experience in Washington had not involved a wheelchair lift but a policy that required black visitors to sit in the back of the bus. Would the other passengers have been silent and expressed no interest? I think not.

And here lies the larger problem: Disability rights groups must find a way to connect with the general public. Discrimination of the sort I encountered IS acceptable to people. The problem I faced is overlooked; it's considered an exception and does not readily fit socially accepted norms in terms of equality. Until such violations are perceived as a civil rights issue, the battle for equal rights will remain an uphill battle.

Posted April, 2004

William J. Peace is a freelance writer. Read his Wishing for Kryptonite

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond...

I would have never resorted to crawling. That would have been a serious blow to my dignity. As with the incident where the man in the wheelchair blocked the bus and would not let them proceed, I would have demanded something to be done.

When I visited Disney World in Florida, buses all had lifts and most of the drivers were familiar with them. One bus's lift wouldn't work and we were told we'd have to take two other buses to get to where we needed to go. We explained our problem to the next bus driver, though, and she called to her dispatcher and explained the situation; she finished her stops and diverted to take us and the rest of our party to our hotels. We had been very upset, but this quickly made us happy.

Customer service is a lost art nowadays, but this lady did what was right.

Vince Bonura, Peachtree City, GA

I couldn't have crawled up the steps, being a paraplegic, but I might have made them haul me onto the bus like a sack of potatoes!! I have done that before. What about his wheelchair? What if it had been a motorized one? I would have demanded to talk to the supervisor and insisted that they pay for a taxi to take me there! Plus I would have given them what for the first day when the lift worked so poorly. I would have talked to the top manager to make them fix the bus while I visited the second day!

Susan Barnhill, West Sacramento, CA

I hope that Mr. Peace has forwarded this article to Lawrence Small, the CEO of the Smithsonian Institution as well as some of the politicians who serve as directors. Many of them in both parties are concerned about accessibility issues.

Driver training in passenger assistance techniques is readily available in the D.C. metro area - the Smithsonian obviously didn't have the initiative to inquire.

Steve Yaffe, Falls Church, VA

I read William Peace's account of his trouble boarding and deboarding the Smithsonian buses. As I was reading all the way to the end, I kept wondering what he was going to do about it besides reflect. Was he going to make a written complaint to the Smithsonian? Did he complain to the DOJ? Did he connect with Washington activists and see if they would help him follow through with this, to occasionally check to see if the Smithsonian had made any changes in driver training and lift availibility and maintenance? Does the Smithsonian contract out with a private company to privide the shuttle service or are the drivers Smithsonian employees?

It's very frustrating to travel unless we can somehow keep our sense of fun and be grateful for what is available (I can't do that) and disconnect our sense of outrage and fairness. Why, when we're just trying to have a nice outing, do we have to put up with half-measures or no measures for accessibility? Why do we always have to write a letter, make calls, do advocacy and activism? Who wants to come back from a trip and write a letter?

Buses in NYC have lifts, but many of the drivers do not know how to use them. I'm a one-woman refresher course, and it seems like sometimes I'm the original course in lift use. I've had to learn how to use the various kinds of lifts and I have to carry the "cheat sheet" instructions in case there is something else I haven't learned by watching or figuring out. I also carry a lift key. But these are buses that I use regularly. I wouldn't know how to use a lift in a different city, and even in my own city, there are problems I have to go to the top about, like recently when I had to wait for four buses to come before I could get on the fifth one.

Peace is right. Access is like an afterthought, an expensive, time-consuming thing people have to provide in name only, and there often isn't enough follow-through by anyone except us.

Jean Ryan, Brooklyn, NY

I use an electric scooter, and I also recently took my twelve-year-old son to the new air and space museum via shuttle bus. When we arrived at our hotel, I asked the concierge at the Washington Hilton, where we were staying, about the new shuttlebus. The concierge told me that he knew nothing about accessibility issues in Washington, including the shuttle (he acted as if no one had ever asked about these things) but he would call the Smithsonian.

He called, and told me that only some of the buses were accessible, and that I had to appear in person at the museum on the Mall at least a day in advance to buy shuttle tickets, and let them know that they would be needing an accessible bus for that particular trip. I was told that people not needing wheelchair lifts could make their reservations and purchase their tickets on line, but I had to go across Washington, wait in long security lines, and then ticket purchase lines. I objected; he shrugged and said that was their policy.

So my son and I spent half a day traveling to the museum and waiting in lines. At every point we asked about access; no one seemed to know anything about it.

Finally, I got tickets. We arrived early for the bus, and waited apprehensively for the driver. I was told that they "rarely" use the lift. The driver was able to operate it after several tries, but there was not enough room for me to get my scooter onto the bus and into the spot left open for me. Finally, tilting as I tried to squeeze in, held the back of a seat, and we went on our way. On return, the seats were even more difficult to negotiate.

While I managed to get buses with lifts that worked, it was made clear to me and my son that all of this was irregular, and that while the machinery existed, it wasn't often used, and that not all buses even had it. They also made the ticketing process far more arduous if a lift was required. I, too, would have given up had it not been for my son.

As for crawling onto the inaccessible bus, as a parent you don't want to disappoint your child. The best course of action would have been to block the bus's departure, but that is a very difficult thing to do alone, or with a child. I think it would be hard to make such a decision on the spot.

We like vacationing in Washington because I can use the subways. After New York, Washington is quite liberating (although elevators are often out at various stops, and there are other mechanical problems in the subways). Also, the Smithsonian museums and government buildings are mostly accessible and free, but there are often problems with equipment that doesn't work, and staff who have not been trained to use it.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to do a demonstration about these issues at the Smithsonian.

Ynestra King, New York

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