Une vie de chien, partie III: Uber-friggin-tastic

For the record, that subtitle would be in the “sarcastic” typographical emphasis, if ever there were one.  You know, the one right next the bold, underlineitalics, and strikethrough.  If someone could get on that, I’d appreciate it.

The sarcasm is not directed at my lovely Max; no, it is directed at the ride-share service and the horrible experiences I had with them in the fair city of Providence, RI, back in July.

Let me get the liberal stuff out of the way first: yes, I know about the implications of using Uber when it comes to its treatment of its drivers (this is a great undercover report) and taxi union complaints.  BUT, – and here comes the disability stuff – these are the kinds of decisions people with disabilities have to make when access isn’t a dream.  The Providence bus system isn’t bad, and the busses are fine in terms of me being able to get on and off, but for me, walking more than two blocks to get somewhere can take a while and takes a toll on my horrid ankle, especially in the rain.  I was going to be going back and forth a couple times a day over 3 or 4 days, so Uber was more economical than a taxi.  I thought Uber was a necessary evil

I’ve taken Uber a few times but try not to make a habit of it, for the reasons stated above.  I’ve never had a problem in Indianapolis, and the time or two I’ve taken it in Boston was fine as well.  Alas, Providence was a different story.  Maybe it’s the drivers, maybe it’s the city, maybe it’s the fact that I was riding alone for the first time, but it was less than desirable either way you slice it.

My first ride was in the evening, and it had rained.  I make my request, and it says my ride will be there in 5 minutes. Yay!  Usually, my worry is that the car will be a big one and I won’t be able to get in, but it says it is a Prius.  Ok, I can do that.  Next, I get a notification that my driver is “deaf or hard of hearing and uses ASL to communicate.”  I think, “That’s interesting.  I’m glad to know that Uber uses drivers with disabilities.”  (I’m not going to get into the whole deafness-as-disability discussion here, so don’t get your panties in a wad, as my mom would say).  The guy arrives and looks at Max and is visibly unhappy, so I point at Max’s “Service Dog: Access Required by ADA Law” patch.  The dude doesn’t get out of the car to help, so I try to get Max on the floor between the front and back seats, but it’s a no-go.  Not enough room; it’s a Prius, after all, and not the larger Prius V either.  The guy’s getting upset that Max is getting the seat wet, but I try to get him to understand that the seat needs to be moved forward, but he waves my attempts at communication aside and grumpily drives us to my destination.  I was put off by the experience but thought that it was an exception and chalked it up to the fact that sometimes it can be difficult when the disparate needs of two disabilities collide.

So, I looked up service dog stuff on the Uber web site so I could be better armed in the morning. This is what I found:

Please note: all drivers are required by law to transport registered service animals. If you experience issues using Uber with your service animal, please reach out to us by reporting an issue with your trip. help.uber.com

I decided that things might go more smoothly if I let the driver know ahead of time.  Yeah, that’s it.

“Ride” #2.  I request my ride.  He’ll be there in 10 minutes.  It’s an SUV.  Ok.  I’ve got my foldable stool.  I have time to let Max sniff around for a bit.  It’s all good.  I press the “contact driver” option and type a message: “FYI – I am traveling with a service dog.  He can go in the back.”  Notification: “Oops. Your driver had to unexpectedly cancel your ride.”  What?  Coincidence?  I think not.  Good news is that the new driver is just up the street.  I don’t chance it.  I do NOT contact the driver.  He’ll just have to take me.

Ride #3. The new driver gets there, and he’s a nice, older man.  He compliments Max’s manners and helps me get him into the car in a good position.  I apologize for his wet paws, and he says, “no problem.  People get the floor wet, too.” Ok.  Maybe it’ll be fine from here on out.

Ride #4. I’m no fool; I’m not contacting the drivers any more.  They have to take me: it’s the law, dammit.  The guy pulls up and is not happy: “We’re not supposed to take dogs.” I said, “It’s a service animal; you have to.”  He’s foreign, so I explain a bit, and he acquiesces.

Ride #5.  Similar to #4, except this time, I don’t explain. I just say, “he’s a service dog; it’s against the law to refuse.” And I just get in.

“Ride” #6.  The end of my seminar.  I’m sick of this Uber crap. I’m not in the mood to argue.  I’m tired; it’s hot.  Maybe I’ll try to walk to the bus stop.  I get about a block and a half: “nope,” says my ankle, “not going any further.” So, I stop at a little cafe, grab a drink and get on the Uber app.  It’s rush hour.  He’ll be there in about 15 minutes.  So, I sit on the steps outside with Max and follow the car on the map.  Oh, here it comes.  I see the car make and model coming down the street… and pass us.  Hmmm.  Maybe he didn’t see us. That planter is sort of hiding us.  I see on the map that he is turning around the block to come back.  Ok.  Good.  It was a mistake. I “contact driver” and type: “we’re just outside, on the steps.”  The car comes back around… and passes us.   Notification: “Oops. Your driver had to unexpectedly cancel your ride.”  WTF!?!?!

Ride #7.  The new driver arrives.  He’s super nice, and when I try to get Max on the floor, he says, “he can sit on the seat.  It’s ok.” He hears me using some French with Max, and he comments that he’s Haitian, and we have a nice, enjoyable ride.

I call my friend C, with whom I was staying, to tell her I’m on the way.  And, I tell her I’m irritated.  A true friend, she’s got some bubbly in the fridge!

I go into my room and put my stuff down, and I just need a little cry.  Like I said, I was tired, hot, and achy.  I can get weepy when I’m mad about things involving my disability.  It’s already difficult enough to make it through the day most of the time, but when you’re already grumpy and one more person stares, a kid laughs, or someone won’t give you a damned ride, you get a little angsty.  I’m getting my cry on when C unwittingly comes in, and I turn around all pathetic and whimpery, and then she’s nice to me, and I go into the ugly cry.  She gives me a hug, and says, “you know, it’s about the dog, it’s not you.  Not because you’re a dwarf.”  Think about it and say, “I guess. Yeah.  Ok. Let’s have that bubbly.”

We had a lovely dinner with wine and cocktails.  But it ain’t over, Uber.  I’m gonna write a blog post about you, jerks.

I did some research, and this isn’t the first time people with disabilities have had trouble with Uber.   They are currently being sued for refusing rides to the blind… oh, and one driver put a guide dog in the trunk.  The National Federation of the Blind filed a civil suit against Uber for such treatment, and this is how Uber responded:

Uber had requested the case to be dismissed, on the basis that its contracts require customers to take disputes to arbitration and argue their complaints as individuals, not in class-action suits, according to SF Gate. The ride-hailing company also argued that it is not a “public accommodation” and therefore not subject to ADA requirements.  http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/04/a-guide-dog-discrimination-lawsuit-against-uber-will-move-forward/391293/

Not cool, Uber.  Not cool.  What about that thing I found on your help page about requiring drivers to transport service dogs?  Hmmm?

In response to such problems, in 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission established that ride-share companies (e.g. UberX, Lyft, and SideCar) are under their authority and thus are subject to accessibility compliance.

And, it’s not just about dogs.  It’s also about people with wheelchairs, and there are groups suing both Lyft and Uber over that as well.

Beyond what I found on the Interwebz, I reached out to a disability studies listserve in which I participate, asking for some stories.  One respondent, who uses a guide dog, relayed multiple instances where he was denied a ride and even indicated that he tried Lyft – to no avail –  simply because Uber had been so horrible.

All of these instances have left me standing on a curb somewhere trying to find a ride home or just to run weekly errands. I have reported all instances that I have experienced to both Uber and Lyft. Now every time I request an Uber, I am always a bit fearful that I will get left on the sidewalk again.  ~H

Another person commented that he had used Uber to travel with his guide dog to a skilled nursing facility to spend time with his loved one and had not had problems.  He did note that this was his first time using Uber and that the ride had been organized by the facility.  I’m not sure how businesses set up rides, but maybe they can actually talk to a person?  Or, maybe as the respondent said, “Maybe [X (city in the West)] is more dog-friendly than other cities, but all the drivers were informed that I was blind and travel with a guide dog and uniformly the drivers have been terrific, accepting my dog and giving us a friendly ride.”

Perhaps there needs to be a button that says, “I am traveling with a service animal” or “I have ADA requirements.”  Couldn’t the driver then receive a notification, much like the one I received about my deaf driver, that the client requires accommodation?  A notification that reminds the driver that it is illegal – and may be enforced with dismissal – to refuse service?  It would seem awfully suspicious if your driver canceled that ride!

Before I finish this post, I want to go back to my conversation with C about the the ride refusals being about Max and not about my dwarfism.  At the time, I sort of half-heartedly agreed (because I was thinking about the bubbly) and said something about if not feeling like it, or some other blah blah.  Well, I’ve been mulling it over, thinking about why it bothered me so much, if it really was just about a dog.  And, I think she’s right: in the driver’s mind, it is about the dog.  They aren’t refusing a ride to a dwarf; they just don’t want a dog to mess up their car.  But, then I thought about the times people in wheelchairs have been refused.  Are the drivers refusing the wheelchair and not thinking about the person?  That sounds ridiculous.  But, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s probably the case.

This gets us to larger issues about living with a disability.  Yes, a wheelchair might be inconvenient to you, the able-bodied.  Yes, you might have to get out of the car to help fold up a walker and put it in the trunk.  Yes, my service dog’s hair might get on the seat.  To what extent are people with disabilities separable from the mobility aids we use?  If my aid is an inconvenience, then that sends the message that I am an inconvenience.  And that’s what hurts.  To the average person, the thing and the person aren’t the same; however, to a person with a disability, the thing (the wheelchair, the walker, the cane, the prosthesis, and yes, the dog) make our lives infinitely better.  They are, to some extent, an extension of our selves.  If you reject the thing that makes my life livable, you are rejecting me.  It is personal; it’s about my person.  It is another message that the normative body is the correct body, that the world does not have to move and change for the Other body, that public space is not for us.  To the disabled body, this is another way of signaling the desire to put us back in our place: hidden away.

This is the thinking against which the disability justice movement fights: the notion that deviation from the norm should be met with fear/disgust/anger/etc. by the “normal” and with shame/loneliness/self-loathing/etc. by the “crippled.”  You see, to be a disability activist is to refuse to be hidden and to risk being treated with those same fears, disgust, and anger.  (I could go on and on about how this is even further exacerbated by the historical burden of dwarfism and the “freakish,” but I’ll save that for another post).

To engage the public with “crip pride” is to risk being told by the world that you are an inconvenience, that if you want to be out and about, you shouldn’t threaten normative ideas about the body, beauty, space, and independence.  What normative society really seems to want out of the disabled is the “super crip.”  You know what I’m talking about.  That “extraordinary” cripple who is “just like you” “in spite of” X, Y, Z.  Doesn’t that make you feel better to know that I can be just like you?  That you can forget about my disability, even if I can’t?  The onus is on us to make you feel better about yourself, and about us.  It’s friggin’ exhausting.

One more thing before I go… This has got me thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and what it says about White Privilege and how blind even the very intelligent and ultra-progressive can be to it.  This tendency of the majority is to put the burden onto the minority to explain themselves and to make that majority feel better about themselves, i.e. their privilege is real.  Why is everyone so upset about the #BLM interruption of the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle?  Because we want to feel good about being liberal, free-thinkers, and being confronted by a group of people who demand recognition – a seat at the table – reminds us of our privilege.  It doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves; on the contrary, we feel guilty, and we don’t like it.

So, next time you are confronted with whatever social justice issue that makes you uncomfortable, think about it.  What really makes you afraid?  That your privilege might be taken away, or that you have so much of it?

Members of minorities who wish to preserve their self-definition need to define themselves in opposition to the majority. The more accepting the majority is of them, the more rigorously they need to do so, because their separate identity collapses if they countenance its integration into the majority world. Multiculturalism rejects the 1950s vision of a world in which everyone is subsumed by uniform Americanness, and chooses one in which we all inhabit our own treasured particularities. In his classic work Stigma, Erving Goffman argues that identity is formed when people assert pride in the thing that made them marginal, enabling them to achieve personal authenticity and political credibility. The social historian Susan Burch calls this “the irony of acculturation”: society’s attempts to assimilate a group often cause that group to become more pronounced in its singularity.

Solomon, Andrew (2012-11-13). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Kindle Locations 610-616). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

From the outside in

As many of us have, I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Between Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and the resulting protests and marches, I think you’d have to be living under the proverbial rock if you weren’t thinking about race these days.

What’s really got me bothered, though, is the blindness I see from fellow white folk on FB, Twitter, and the like. You can’t turn around without someone taking a stand: you’re for the police or for people of color. If you honestly think race in America is that simple, then you’ve got some soul searching to do.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not I should write a post about race. It’s tough, but I felt I should weight in. No, I am not a person of color, but I am married to one. He’s not black, but brown, and that comes with its own set of issues. However, I am part of a minority, and I know first-hand the feeling of snap judgment and prejudice. Don’t get me started on the number of hurtful things I’ve seen spread in the media about people with disabilities and Obamacare when it comes to coverage of pre-existing conditions. Life on the outside of mainstream culture, whether it’s because of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. is not easy, and I’ve decided that anyone looking from the outside in has valuable insights to offer.

That being said, there is also a fine line between advocacy and speaking for a group to which you do not belong; there is an excellent piece about this for trans awareness that you can read in the Huffington Post. Being close to a group is far from sharing the experiences of that group. I do not know what it is like to be pulled over for “driving while black,” but, as a woman, I know the potential fear of being pulled over at night by an unmarked car. The experience is not the same, but there is a shared pervading disquiet. Though, I’m pretty sure that if a woman expresses her right to drive to the nearest police station before continuing the interaction, she has a better chance at being respected than a black male who might ask for the same.

What I’m trying to get at is the shared experience of institutional discrimination. This is a very real phenomenon shared by people in the margins of society. You can see my previous post about it: 21 October, 2014 – Discrimination, Partie Deux. We live in a society created for and by white males. This is why things like feminism, LGBTQ activism, disability awareness, and civil rights movements count: their goal is to effect change (yes, that’s the correct spelling of the verb – I checked) to the structure. It is very easy for those within the structure to see no problems with it, because it does not harm them. The world of business is a patriarchal structure based on paradigms of male leadership, which make it easy for us to pigeonhole any strong woman in a leadership role as a bitch (Hilary Clinton, anyone?)… The aim of feminism is to change the paradigm to a new structure, and not necessarily one that favors the feminine either (though, they are out there). Most activists for any marginalized group really want to create a new structure, to start fresh. But… this is always frightening to the current people in charge.

The caricature of the black male so pervasive in the coverage of recent events has got me thinking about Richard Wright’s Native Son, which I have taught in a freshman seminar for the past two years in my “Capital Punishment in Literature” course. Though we talk about other books like A Tale of Two Cities, In Cold Blood, and The Last Day of a Condemned Man, amongst others, I use Native Son as a vehicle to talk about race and the justice system. It was actually the Troy Davis case that gave me the idea for the class, but every year, there seems to be something else relevant and contemporary to talk about the 21st century justice system. Trayvon Martin had been killed shortly before my first session, and George ZImmerman was acquitted just before my second time around. If I were teaching the course this year, I’d not have a shortage of material. How can a novel that was published in 1940 about race in Black Belt Chicago still be so informative today? I was looking back at my underlines and textual notes, and so much of the marks echoed the sentiments expressed in recent protests.

Even the introduction rings true to the contemporary endeavor:

“The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright’s urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation. As proud, rich, and powerful as America was, Wright insisted, the nation was facing a grave danger, one that would ultimately destroy the United States if its dimensions and devious complexity were not recognized. Native Son was intended to be America’s guide in confronting this danger.

Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America. The dehumanization of African Americans during slavery had been followed in the long aftermath of the Civil War by their often brutal repression in the South and by conditions of life in many respects equally severe in the nominally integrated North. Nevertheless, Wright knew, blacks and whites alike continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races even as the nation lurched inexorably toward a possible collapse over the fundamental question of justice for the despised African American minority.” (Introduction to Native Son by Arnold Rampersad).

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

What Richard Wright’s attempted to show in his novel was the deep underbelly of racism, to expose it at the roots. For him, the conditions of people of color living in Chicago were symptoms of a greater illness: an entire society built on, and repeating, slavery. Really, it’s institutional racism. Institutional racism isn’t always conscious; in fact, based on the reactions to Ferguson and NY, I’m guessing that most people don’t believe it because they don’t see it (I love this explanation of institutional racism). People think of racism as an individual act, but it runs much more deeply than that, as it is ingrained in our social institutions: law, government, education, business, etc. The fact that so many of our institutions and their policies disenfranchise a variety of groups (e.g. the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill) implicates us in those very systems if we do nothing about it. An educator who does not speak up when accessibility is violated, who does not speak up when a colleague is mistreated, who does not question disparities in their own school, or someone who sits quietly by because “things never change,” perpetuates those injustices. If we do not lead by example and teach our young people to question and think critically, then things may really “never change.”

One of the products of our unequal social foundations is that word that people throw around, but is nevertheless very true: white privilege. It’s really easy for white people to come to the defense of the police and call Michael Brown a thug. In a culture where the black male is the archetypal perpetrator, it is so easy to dismiss his death because he somehow “had it coming,” even though he didn’t. I know plenty of white thugs who really had it coming, but never saw the end of the barrel. Al Capone, anyone? As far as I know, in this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. Brown did not enjoy the due process that was his right, because of a snap judgment created by the culturally accepted norm of the angry black man. The face of the stereotypical cop is a white one, and we trust our own and fear the other. It is so easy to do. That said, it is possible to support police and call out the inequities of our current system.

Are cops racist? I don’t think so. (Though there are exceptions to every rule – think about the scandal in Ohio at the moment). That’s like saying all men are rapists. I’ve known a fair number of cops, and each of them has been awesome and committed to the notion of “protect and serve.” I do not question that. But, the justice system as a whole, as a product of our society, feeds into the stereotypes of black man as criminal, of brown man as terrorist, of Latino as illegal. As a member of the dominant society, it is so easy to fall prey to the images spread by the media of the black gansta, the flaming faggot, the butch dyke, the confused tranny, the retarded crip, without thinking too much about it. By blindly accepting those images, by not questioning them as they fly by our hyper-connectivity, we are complicit in these systems that disenfranchise. If we do not question the system, we tacitly accept it as just. However, I must also not that criticizing a social structure is not equivalent to judging the individual people working in the system. I take my hat off to all the men and women who choose to protect their communities; they are indeed under a pressure that most of us fortunately do not know.

By the way, I don’t use the pejorative terms above lightly. There are people who do use these words amongst themselves, when none of these people can hear. Or, even in public, on social media in online news sources when these people can hear and see. We live in a culture where people living outside the norms are caricatures of “real people.” It’s really easy to convince yourself that these lives don’t matter, that our side is the right side, because “they have it coming.” White privilege (and straight privilege, and cisgender privilege, and able-bodied privilege… and… and) are all real.

Was Michael Brown a thug? I honestly have no idea, and I don’t care. What I do care about is the fact that this is just one drop in the bucket of a string of “shoot first, ask later.” I shouldn’t have to be nervous when my husband and his brother are pulled over in the middle of the night in Arizona only two years after 9/11. But, the fact is, I’m still scared more than 10 years later. My husband is a physician, an American. People feel better when I explain that to them, but don’t you see the problem with that? I have to explain it to them. And it shouldn’t matter where he was born. People shouldn’t feel better when he doesn’t have an accent, but they do. People shouldn’t feel better when a black man sounds “so well spoken” (i.e. white), but they do. Straight men and women shouldn’t feel more comfortable around “normal-seeming” gay/lesbian folk (i.e. passing for straight), but they do.

Our culture is infused with norms that are unfair. What the #blacklivesmatter movement means is important. It’s not about one man but about a system that needs to change, and it cannot change without white people, and other people of color. What it means is that we need to open our eyes and be courageous enough to stand up for change, even if it means our own group looses a little bit of power. Imagine what we could learn if we let everyone have a valid voice? How much brighter would be our society?

I leave you with a few excerpts from Native Son to ponder in light of current events. When times were different? image

BOOK I: FEAR
Bigger and his friends “play white”:

They were silent again. Presently, Bigger cupped his hand to his mouth and spoke through an imaginary telephone transmitter.

“Hello.”

“Hello,” Gus answered.

“Who’s this?”

“This is the President of the United States speaking,” Bigger said.

“Oh, yessuh, Mr. President,” Gus said.

“I’m calling a cabinet meeting this afternoon at four o’clock and you, as Secretary of State, must be there.”

“Well, now, Mr. President,” Gus said, “I’m pretty busy. They raising sand over there in Germany and I got to send ’em a note….”

“But this is important,” Bigger said.

“What you going to take up at this cabinet meeting?” Gus asked.

“Well, you see, the niggers is raising sand all over the country,” Bigger said, struggling to keep back his laughter. “We’ve got to do something with these black folks….”

“Oh, if it’s about the niggers, I’ll be right there, Mr. President,” Gus said.

They hung up imaginary receivers and leaned against the wall and laughed. A street car rattled by. Bigger sighed and swore.

“Goddammit!”

“What’s the matter?”

“They don’t let us do nothing.”

“Who?”

“The white folks.”

“You talk like you just now finding that out,” Gus said.

“Naw. But I just can’t get used to it,” Bigger said. “I swear to God I can’t. I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knothole in the fence….”

BOOK III: FATE
Bigger’s lawyer, Max, defends Bigger:

“His entire existence was one long craving for satisfaction, with the objects of satisfaction denied; and we regulated every part of the world he touched. Through the instrument of fear, we determined the mode and the quality of his consciousness.

“Your Honor, is this boy alone in feeling deprived and baffled? Is he an exception? Or are there others? There are others, Your Honor, millions of others, Negro and white, and that is what makes our future seem a looming image of violence. The feeling of resentment and the balked longing for some kind of fulfilment and exultation—in degrees more or less intense and in actions more or less conscious—stalk day by day through this land. The consciousness of Bigger Thomas, and millions of others more or less like him, white and black, according to the weight of the pressure we have put upon them, form the quicksands upon which the foundations of our civilization rest. Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling? Does that sound fantastic? I assure you that it is no more fantastic than those troops and that waiting mob whose presence and guilty anger portend something which we dare not even think!