Thursday, February 9, 2017

Hardships of wheelchair users and buses in Korea (a personal story)

Today's post is really just a recounting of something I witnessed a few months ago. No tips or useful content here, but it is a slice of Koreana I guess. You see, I noticed two articles that came out this past week highlighting the difficult problems faced by disabled people in Korea using the bus system. I figured it's a good as time as any to do a quick write-up of an experience I had a few months back that really illustrated the difficulty these people face. The articles, which I recommend, are:

Ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, disabled people try to board buses before a press conference by the group Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD) at Seoul’s Gangnam Express Bus Terminal on Jan. 26. The move was meant to demonstrate the lack of wheelchair access on the buses. (by Kim Bong-kyu, staff photographer).
Image/Caption: Hani

Now I'm not disabled, so this isn't a personal experience, but I was right there and saw it happen. It was kind of a surreal experience. But let me give a few warnings first.
  • Please excuse the vagueness of locations and details. I don't want you knowing too well where I live.
  • This is all just your old buddy Sam's personal story time here and I'm not a writer or anything. It's long and it might be boring but I tried to liven it up a little bit.
  • I'm not trying to be rude or crude, even if some parts might sound that way. I'm just trying to keep it honest about what I was thinking at the time. In other words, this is a trigger warning about how I tell stories. Even though I honest don't think there's anything offensive here, I guess the way I talk about certain things could be a little crass to some readers. 
  • I didn't know the guy's name, so I call him "Wheelchair guy" just because that's the most relevant part of him to this story. Please don't email saying I'm pigeonholing the man. Hell if anything I want to share this story hoping that he won't have to deal with this stuff again.
OK, here goes nothing. 

The story of Wheelchair Guy

So I was in central Seoul, late afternoon a few months back, waiting outside at a bus stop. This was for one of those big red inter-city buses, #1XXX. You know the ones. The ones that are usually standing room only at certain times of day, at least when they are nice enough to break the law and actually stop for you. [Side note: I swear I thought that whole "no more standing" rule would be great, but having bus after bus pass by you when you could have just stood for awhile made me change my mind. I don't take that route anymore, so I'm curious if they are still enforcing it or not?]

There was a line already forming at the bus stop sign, and I was maybe 7th or 8th in line. Suddenly this wheelchair guy rolls up (see what I did there) and just rolls right up to the front of the line. The person in 1st (2nd now) is obviously a little annoyed and doesn't know what to do or even if anything should be done, so she just sort of takes some awkward steps back. Wheelchair guy is just blazing confidence and seems like he's done this a hundred times before so I figure that maybe disabled folks are allowed on first? It's hard to guess his age, because he seemed to have maybe a bit of a mental disability too. Honestly I don't know much about that area so I couldn't say. Down Syndrome maybe? He could talk, but a bit slurred and slow. Still he seemed very confident in what he was doing and saying so I was sure he'd done this routine before. He was maybe late 20s, early 30s? But you could also he was early 20s and I'd believe you. 

Then it hits me. Wait a second... This bus is highly elevated. You have to climb a good four steps to get up on it, and besides that, the aisle is way too narrow for a wheelchair. I've been taking this bus long enough to know that there's no lift or "kneeling bus" feature. How the hell is this going to play out? Can this guy take this bus? 

So about 5 minutes before the bus arrives, wheelchair guy turns and looks at the girl behind him (whose place he stole), and asks:
"Can you carry my chair up?" he says, just fully direct like if you had asked a waiter "Hey could you get us some water?"
Girl is confused that a stranger even spoke to her at all, much less comprehends what he asked, and just goes "Huh?"
"Can you carry my chair up?" he asks with a very small tone of impatience, as if the waiter was bizarrely not comprehending your request for water.
"Huh?" she goes again. 
Then some awkward silence. By now one headphone is out of one of my ears since I can tell this is going to be weird. 
"Uh... I... huh?... I don't..."
So before she can finish, wheelchair guy rolls a foot or two over to Man #3 in line (formerly #2), and asks him the same thing. Man #3 seems like a college senior type guy, like he had done his army service and was finishing up school now. I don't know that at all, but I'm thinking it based on his whole look. Clearly a college kid, but also clearly not the goofballs that make up the freshman classes.
College Boy asks him "you mean you want me to carry your chair into the bus?"
"Uh... sure... OK."

Then the 5 minutes until the bus arrives, and I am just standing there now watching what's going on and real eager to see what happens. I had an idea of offering my own help, but of course I didn't. I was farther back in the line, and he didn't ask me, and it seemed like it was already taken care of, and I figured (just being honest) that this was shaping up to be a low level spectacle already, and adding a big foreign guy to the mix would just draw more eyes.

Now here's the real shocking part, where it really all came together for me.

When the bus pulls up and its doors open, Wheelchair Guy rolls right up to them, reaches his arms up to the handrails that lead up that small stairway, and just heaves himself right up out of his chair and onto the first step. This guy's upper body strength was insane. He proceeds to hoist his whole body, dead floppy legs under him and all, right up the way. Essentially he was dragging his body up the stairs. I kid you not, his feet just scraping the stairs as he heaves one arm up more, then the next a bit more, and so on. Imagine the monkey bars from school were at a 45 degree angle, and you were climbing up them but the rungs were gone and it's just the two parallel poles, and your legs are jelly. That was this guy. 

I'd be lying if I said everybody in that line, including me, didn't just stare at this. I'm sure a couple people were thinking:
“‘We don’t have time to wait for him! Why does he have to use the bus now?’ This is one of the most common comments I receive,” said Lim Tae-Wook, a 27-year-old man with a first-level physical disability which forces him to use a wheelchair to get around.
Even the bus driver was staring. No one had a clue what to do. Finally Wheelchair Guy heaves himself into the seat right behind the bus driver and calls down to College Boy below.

College Boy fiddles with the chair for a minute, getting it to collapse like an accordion. He lifts the thing up as he goes up, and slides it into the seat along with its owner. And then we start filing onto the bus, which luckily at this time of day is pretty empty. I halfway expected College Boy to sit right behind Wheelchair Guy, just for the sake of helping him down again later. But nope. He went straight to the back. I can't say I blame him, honestly. Who wants to get involved in other people's affairs? [Maybe Korea has finally gotten to me...]

Finishing up here, after everybody in line had boarded, Wheelchair Guy passed his wallet to the bus driver, who beeped it for him and passed it back, and finally we were off. I started wondering about why the driver didn't do anything but stare during this whole situation.

I don't know what happened to Wheelchair Guy. His stop was after mine. I do know that as people started finally getting off, he said goodbye to each one. Like I said, I'm pretty sure there was some issue other than just with his legs. 

Thoughts about all this

The shock of just how unexpected this scene was, and the kind of brutal image of this guy hoisting himself up like that, really stuck in my head after that. I really thought about my "privilege" of being able to easily take that kind of bus. How would the disabled get to Seoul without a subway station -and an accessible one at that- nearby? 

The other other time I have seen a disabled person take the bus here, it was a local blue bus, and it actually knelled down and had an extending ramp that came out of the bottom. Now even then, it took a good 5 minutes for the driver to try to buckle the man in, since he seemed pretty unfamiliar with the equipment. It looks like that's a common problem:
I could not get on the bus. This was because the drivers did not know how to seat the wheelchairs in the buses. The drivers turned away, saying that the system was not working. But it was perfectly fine.”
This was just a blue local city bus, and was a very newer one,  Those red buses from my story, and come to think of it, a majority of buses I've been on, have that stepped climb that a wheelchair user just couldn't surmount in any normal, convenient way. 

I also flashback to Wheelchair Guy whenever I see an old man on his Jazzy Scooter driving right down a busy road in traffic, with heavy cars, buses, and trucks blaring past him, often themselves sliding over into the other lane to avoid him. How freaking dangerous, but how else is he going to get around? The sidewalks are terrible and the road is smooth. It's that simple. How is Wheelchair Guy going to get around? The bus is not meant to accommodate someone like him, but how else was he going to get home? I mean this really says it all:
“Disabled people also want to travel and go home by bus, and it would be nice if they could,” she told the Hankyoreh in a telephone interview.

I don't know. I'm no public safety or accessibility expert or anything. I just hope the guy got home safe, and that soon some of these buses on important routes like that can be upgraded so that he won't have to ask anybody to carry his chair up for him [what if he'd been alone at that stop?] or have to carry himself up a staircase. 

You know, I always stand there in line cursing the bus and how annoying it is when it's late or it's raining or the driver's got the heat cranked way up or it's crowded or I get a seat where the back doesn't lock and it just falls back the moment you sit in it. But after that day a few months back, I try to keep those dumb thoughts in check. It could be worse. But for the handicapped just looking for a ride home just like I am, it is. 

Let's hope it won't be like that for long. And if you're interested in Korean public transport issues, as always I recommend checking out Kojects

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