Once upon a Friday, two weeks ago, I stood outside of the Center for Independent Living office, waiting for the paratransit company (known as The Ride in Boston) to come get me. I leaned against a mailbox, my backpack at my feet. I'd just finished instructing interns at one of our weekly job skills workshops and wore a skirt and nice top, unlike most of the people in the area who embraced casual Fridays.
An older lady came around the corner. Typical Bostonian woman with well-cropped white hair that did not try to reach for the heavens, in the way of the southern women I grew up around. She strolled down the street clutching her Macy's bag, but stopped when she saw me.
"Do you need help, dear?" she asked.
With what, existence? I thought, followed up by bewilderment about why she'd asked me this question. The area definitely had (has) its share of homeless people, many of them with disabilities. Last time I checked, they do not have frappucinos in one hand and an iPhone in the other.
The Ride car came around the corner. I pointed.
"Oh, you're waiting for a ride? Okay."
This is only the beginning of the story. It had been a twenty-four hour period of absurdity, starting with the conversation my morning Ride driver had with the (also older) lady in the front seat. Both of them were respectable, and yet the discussion culminated in his outlining where the strip clubs in Boston were now, as opposed to where they were twenty years ago.
The afternoon's ride driver reminded me of the morning's--glasses, gray hair--and was similarly chatty. He fired questions at me as we merged into downtown traffic. "Is that a Jewish place? It's on Temple Place."
"Um. No. No temple. Kind of like how School Street has no school." I took out my headphones, hoping he'd realized I wasn't in the mood to chat. Sometimes I have really good conversations with drivers. Sometimes I just want to go home.
"Oh. Yeah. Did you watch the Olympics?"
I slid my headphones onto my neck. No message gotten. "Some. Gymnastics."
"Follow the Red Sox?"
"If you don't mind me asking, what's your condition?"
I fell silent. It was not an unfamiliar question, but I assumed he'd had disability etiquette training and rule one is that you DO NOT ASK THIS QUESTION.
"Um....It's a genetic skin disorder." (NB. I don't actually know if it's genetic. But I had no idea what to say.)
"Oh. Okay. So it's not elephantiasis then?"
"Oh. Do you follow the Red Sox?"
I'm not sure what went on in this guy's head. I got the impression that he might be somewhere on the autism spectrum, because I associate this kind of rapid-fire personal questioning with a few people I know who are. And it's not really the question that bothered me, it's the context.
Ride drivers provide transportation for people with disabilities who cannot always ride the T. Our expectations for the experience, therefore, should not be significantly different than on a train or a bus. Get in, maybe pick up some other people, maybe take them home first, go home. I don't expect to have to field personal questions anymore than I expect a woman on the street to assume I need help when I'm not showing any signs of distress.
I went through the motions of calling The Ride to report the incident and discussed it with my supervisor at work who helped me get The Ride in the first place. She was very apologetic, and at first I asserted that I wasn't bothered by the event, but I worried that someone else would be if he repeated it.
Really, though, it does bother me. My disability affects my life every day, in ways I can't enumerate. However, I forget that it also affects people's perceptions of me. I like to think that in accepting paratransit, I haven't forfeited my right to not be reminded of that.
Maybe I'm wrong. Either way, the whole event was the most absurd thing that happened to me that weekend, which is saying something because the next day my roommate and I went to see Harry and the Potters...