Not so long ago, even during my first year as a wheelchair user, I was a proficient traveler. I could get from one part of the country to any other part of the country, quickly, comfortably, and economically. An ice storm has shut down O’Hare? No problem. I'll reroute through Atlanta. In fact, I accumulated so many frequent flyer miles that I was routinely upgraded to first class. “Complimentary beverage, Mr. Sturgeon?”
For some first-hand accounts of my solo wheelchair travel adventures, click here and here.
Contrast this with my current level of mobility and independence, where I can't so much as leave the neighborhood without asking someone for a favor. I am by no means homebound, yet I'd like to be able to move about of my own volition.
One option in greater Portland, Maine is the Regional Transportation Program, or RTP, which is a subsidized agency that provides low cost rides to folks with various types of disabilities. A couple of weeks ago I had a dentist appointment and made use of this service for the first time.
My appointment was for 11:00, and I let RTP know I would need a return ride at about noon. The driver showed up at my house promptly at 10:00. She was pleasant enough, but certainly not talkative. My wheelchair was carefully strapped down to the floor of the van, and I was secured to my wheelchair with a seatbelt. She dropped me off at my dentist at about 10:35. No problem though. I had my Kindle with me.
As expected, I was out of the appointment at about noon. I sat in the waiting room, with a watchful eye on the parking lot. Nobody showed up. I didn't know how long I should wait before checking in with the dispatcher, so I called him at 12:15 just to make sure that I had not been forgotten. He indicated that someone was on their way.
12:30 came and went. I waited graciously, but with some anxiety.
At 12:45, an RTP vehicle finally pulled into the parking lot. This driver was not pleasant, not apologetic, and not talkative- all business. As we began the drive toward my house there was no friendly chit chat. There was only silence. Perhaps when I become a more seasoned RTP rider, I'll enjoy and appreciate these moments of solitude. But I wanted to engage this guy in conversation, if for no other reason than to answer some of my basic questions about how this whole system worked. I am an engineer after all. I need to know how things work.
Then, out of nowhere, a car hurled itself in front of us from a side street. I was well strapped in, so even though my driver stepped on the brakes firmly, I didn't get tossed around at all. We sat there while the elderly lady in front of us tried to remember how to drive. Eventually she pulled away, nearly clipping another vehicle in the process.
I saw an opportunity, and I went for it. "I guess that lady shouldn’t be driving," I observed out loud.
That opened the conversational floodgates. For the remainder of the ride home the driver regaled me with all sorts of stories of idiot drivers and all the close calls he had endured. Since he was on a roll, he complained about two or three other injustices in his life too. I was able to squeeze in a couple of basic questions about how the RTP and public bus systems worked, and my driver gave me thorough, if overly cynical, responses.
Last week I made my second excursion with RTP. I had a 10:00 doctor’s appointment. My understanding was that they typically pick you up about an hour before an appointment, so I was gearing up for a 9:00 ish arrival of my driver. At 8:30 my phone rang and it was my "5 minute notice” that my driver would soon be arriving. I was surprised and taken aback. Not knowing what else to say I only countered with a feeble, "This is for a 10:00 appointment, right?"
The dispatcher shuffled some papers, and replied, "Yes," and that was the end of my halfhearted protest.
Sure enough, the driver arrived at about 8:35. He strapped my chair to the floor and me to my chair, and then headed out. He informed me that I was going to ride along with him while he did one other pickup and drop off. Okay. That explained the early arrival.
We traveled all the way across town and picked up a little boy from his mom and delivered him to some sort of daycare. I ended up arriving at my appointment 15 minutes early, which is just about what I like to do anyway. My appointment was a quick one, and I was out by 10:15. The driver was scheduled to pick me up at 10:30, and showed up at 10:25. I was home by 10:40.
So far, I must admit that I am less than enamored with my public transportation experience. But really, what should I have expected? The drivers of these handicapped accessible vehicles are not volunteers teeming with boundless compassion for the passengers. They are more like taxi drivers or bus drivers. This is how they make a living. The only difference is that they are servicing disabled passengers rather than the general public.
I guess I had this fantasy in my head that an agency which deals specifically with disabled people would be staffed by drivers who were more like, well, grandmothers. They would be friendly, empathetic, talkative, and always on time. They would bring cookies and milk, and gently remind me to sit up straight and wash behind my ears.
So the RTP is not shaping up quite like I had imagined, but I'm not complaining. I'm just saying.