The Red Bridge Plate (or, Murder on the Long Island Rail Road) — Part 1

A good twenty years ago, my husband Michael and I treated our seven-year-old nephew to a Mets game. I don’t remember the final score, who won or even against whom the Mets played. However, one incident occurred that day at Shea that I’ll never forget. And although the subject of this essay is an event that took place just last December, the Shea Disaster seems as good a place as any to start.

Like 55,000 other Mets fans, we had one objective when the game ended: getting home. But unlike most of those 55,000 fans, Michael (who is blind) and I (whose arms are paralyzed) could not drive or (at least in the 1980s) take the train or subway to our destination. So we headed for a pay phone (when did cell phones arrive on the scene?) and called a local car service. We were told where to wait and assured that our car would arrive in 15 minutes.

Thirty minutes later, we were still waiting. Cars bearing the correct logo arrived with great regularity, but the name the drivers shouted was never ours. We trudged back to the pay phone and were assured that the very next car was ours — guaranteed. When it came into view, we rushed toward the driver but before we could utter a word, a burly man hurtled past us, yanked the car’s rear door open, got inside and immediately leaned forward, shoving something into the driver’s hand. “Wait!” we sputtered as the driver dutifully pulled away. As the car gained speed, the passenger rolled down his window and barked, “Life is tough!”

Yes, we were furious, but part of us wanted to genuflect and exclaim, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” A New Yorker was treating us like dirt. Was this not the ultimate sign of emancipation?

Two decades later, you’d think I’d be impervious to impudence. So would I. But on December 28, 2005, smack dab in the middle of what Western civilization calls the season of peace and good will, I suffered two indignities within a span of two minutes — and it happened on the Long Island Rail Road.

To be continued…

Finally! Reflections on the C Word

Friends, I’ll wager that the record-breaking blizzard of this past weekend put a grin on the face of every kid in New York. I’m grinning too, but the snow is only peripherally responsible for my glee. Truthfully, the following sentence in Monday’s New York Times gets the credit for my euphoria:

“The biggest winter storm in New York City history — destined for lionization as the Blizzard of ’06 — buried the region and much of the Northeast yesterday under blowing, drifting, thigh-high snows that crippled transportation and commerce, knocked out power and disrupted life for millions in 14 states.”

Well, I’ll be! The media is using the word “cripple” appropriately.

This reminded me of an e-mail I received a few years ago:

“Hello. I’m in my forties and, for most of my life, I’ve used a wheelchair to get around. Over the years, I’ve seen (or should I say heard) many words attempting to describe me come in and out of vogue. First, I was a cripple. Then I was crippled. Then I was special. Then I was handicapped. Then I was disabled. Then I was challenged. Then I was differently abled. My question is: What term do you consider preferable? And, honestly, what difference does it make?”

Here’s how I replied:

If your first question were in a multiple-choice format and the possible answers were:
a) a cripple
b) crippled
c) special
d) handicapped
e) disabled
f) challenged
g) differently abled

I’d choose:
h) none of the above

Why? Because I think words matter, and they shape our attitudes in more ways than we’d care to admit. Take the word “cripple.” The most appropriate use of the word “cripple” that I ever came across spanned the front page of my local newspaper: “BLIZZARD CRIPPLES THE CITY.”

“Finally!” I remember exulting. “Someone figured out what ‘cripple’ means!” And what is that, pray tell? Brought to a standstill. Stopped in its tracks. After all, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Old English root of cripple is creep. I don’t know about you, but my disability – although severe – has not stopped me in my tracks.

And in case you think my word critique is a symptom of over-sensitivity, check this out: The dictionary defines the verb, to cripple, as “to deprive of capability for service or of strength, efficiency, or [get this] wholeness.” Well, if that’s what cripple means, they’ve got the wrong customers if they think the word applies to you or me.

Now, on the other side of the spectrum, we’ve got “special.” Unlike “cripple,” “special” sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it? Don’t make me laugh. Turning to the dictionary once again, we find “special” defined as “distinguished by some unusual quality; especially being in some way superior.” Yes, that does sound like a compliment, but is paralysis, or mental retardation, or deafness, or blindness a form of superiority, in and of itself worthy of a compliment? I certainly don’t think so. Of course, neither is it a form of inferiority, worthy of an insult. What we have here is a euphemism, the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. Well, I don’t know about you, but since my disability is neither offensive nor unpleasant, I find the euphemism offensive and unpleasant. (Of course, the same critique applies equally to “special,” “challenged” and [shudder] “differently abled.”)

This leaves us with “handicapped” and “disabled.” They are, by far, the least problematic on our multiple-choice list. The more politically correct word these days is “disabled,” why, I’ll never know. Think about it: You tune into the radio’s traffic report and you hear, “Avoid the Tappan Zee Bridge; a disabled tractor trailer has caused a 90-minute delay.” Now think again: You turn on the news and you hear a political commentator remark, “Joe Brooks may be short, fat and bald but he never let those drawbacks handicap him in the mayoral race.” The way I see it, if something (say, a tractor trailer) is disabled, it can’t budge. If something (say, a horse) or someone (say, you) has a handicap, it (or you) may be working against resistance or proceeding more slowly, but it (or you) will get to the finish line.

What about “none of the above”? Well, if I had to fill in that blank, I would use your very own words. Take a look at the opening sentence with which this correspondence began: “I’m in my forties and, for most of my life, I’ve used a wheelchair to get around.” What did you do here? You avoided what I call definitional labels (words that define a person) and opted for a functional label (a word that describes how that person functions).

At the crux of all this is the difference between the verb “to be,” which defines what a person is (a cripple, special, handicapped, disabled, challenged or – heaven help us! – differently abled), and the verbs “to do” or “to have,” which describe what the person does (gets around with a seeing eye dog, walks with a limp, uses crutches, reads at a second-grade level, communicates in sign language, etc.) or has (a disability, epilepsy, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, etc.).

At the risk of sounding like some ivory-tower philosopher, I’d like to tell you why definitional labels leave a bad taste in my mouth. In a nutshell, the moment we use the verb “to be,” we have created a verbal equation. What mathematical symbol can replace any form of the verb “to be”? The answer, of course, is the equal sign. So when we say, “She is a cripple” or “He is an epileptic,” we are creating an equation of sorts:

She = cripple
He = epileptic

And the way equations work (if my memories of elementary school serve me right) is that whatever is on one side of the equal sign finds its complete match on the other side of the equal sign. You can say, “2 + 2 = 4” but you can’t say, “2 + 2 = 4 + 1.” So if we say, “She is a cripple,” there is no room (philosophically speaking) on the right side of the equation to include “and a gourmet cook, a mother of three and a high school principal.”

A word of warning: This model works for me, but it doesn’t mean that I never use words like blind, deaf, mentally retarded or even disabled and handicapped. Those words are perfectly fine, as long as I haven’t forgotten the person linked to them. For example:

• My neighbor, David Ross, is mentally retarded (yes).
• The mentally retarded are represented on our block (no).
[Instead: Some of our neighbors are mentally retarded (yes.)]

• My boss, Cheryl, is blind (yes).
• The blind should be hired at our firm (no).
[Instead: Our firm should hire blind people (yes).]

This correspondence intrigued me to no end and, like a pebble tossed into a lake, it took me to ever-widening circles of contemplation concerning the words that shape my world. One thing was clear: Nouns are the essential ingredients of definitional labels, words that restrict our identity to one thing only. Nouns are the enemy.

Just a few days later, an absurd – and obscene – memory resurfaced that only reinforced my militant opposition to nouns. The year was 1962. The month was May. The city was New York. I was sitting in a yellow school bus, the kind equipped with a hydraulic lift and absolutely no shock absorbers. My public school’s Health Conservation [read: segregated] class was on its way to the Museum of Natural History. After battling traffic for over an hour, the bus driver pulled into the parking lot and headed for the museum’s rear – and (surprise) only accessible – entrance. Before he had a chance to turn off the ignition, a museum guard rapped authoritatively on the bus’s windshield and pointed to a far-off sea of yellow where school buses apparently had to park. Full of self-importance, our driver slid open his window and bellowed in the most mellifluous Brooklynese, “I gotta pock here. I got wheelchairs!”

I was only 10 years old, but I knew something was dreadfully wrong. Was I a cripple or was I a wheelchair? Decisions, decisions.

I close with a more recent memory. The year was 2003. The month was May. The city was New York. My husband and I had just attended a dazzling concert at Carnegie Hall. As we proceeded from the lobby to the sidewalk, a man several feet in front of us said to his companion, “Let the wheelchair pass.”

I smiled and said, “You mean, ‘Let the woman in the wheelchair pass.’”

The man retorted, “Well, you’re a part of it.”

“No,” said I with an odd mix of gratitude and glee, “it’s a part of me.”

Quick! Head over to Google!

Friends, there I was just minutes ago, heading over to Google for yet another Web search, when I beheld a sight that, frankly, made my day. Check it out TODAY (it won’t be there tommorow)!

…Did you look yet? I almost hesitate to discuss the image adorning the Google home page before you actually see it. So I’ll stop for now and ask you what your reactions are.

I for one am as pleased as punch, but I wonder if the graphic in question could possibly be accessible to the population in whom it would probably generate the most pride. Any geeks out there have a clue?

Bon anniversaire, Louis!

The Yellow Sign – Part 3 (or, Will Wonders Never Cease?)

Well, there I was, gearing up for a battle royal, when the telephone rang.

“Hello, Mrs. Levy,” said a man with a cordial voice. “This is [name omitted] from the Division of Traffic Control. I understand that you and your husband object to the ‘Blind Person Area’ sign near your home and that you wish to know who requested that it be placed there.”

“Uh,” I replied, wishing that my words would not fail me so abysmally, “yes, that’s true.” Something told me that it would be okay to take off my boxing gloves. I was right. I am stunned.

The voice continued smoothly, “No problem. And we want to apologize if the sign offended you. It will be removed promptly.”

“It will?” I echoed, almost disappointed that my cause célèbre was about to evaporate.

“Yes, ma’am. And you have every right to know who requested the sign in the first place. His name is [name omitted] and he lives at [address omitted]. Do you know him?”

“Never heard of him in my life,” said I.

“Really? We assumed he was your friend,” the man replied. (Oy, with friends like these…) “And since he was bringing such a sensitive matter to our attention, we rushed to take care of it. By the way, he also requested that a stop sign be placed at the same location.”

I immediately informed my gentleman caller that we would be fully in favor of a stop sign, something that could benefit every driver and pedestrian. Then I tried to explain that the “sensitive” thing to do when a community member requests a sign of relevance to a third party is to consult with the third party before taking action. After several reiterations, I was left with the sobering impression that the caller had not absorbed my definition of sensitivity.

Before concluding our call, I brought up our interest in a traffic light at the other end of our block, where the perpendicular traffic of West Broadway is harrowing. I was given the name and address of the appropriate contact person at our county’s Department of Public Works. Yet one more item on my to-do list.

All of this occurred late Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday at about 1 p.m., my friend stopped by. Immediately upon entering, she commented, “Well, I guess Michael is no longer blind or no longer lives here.”

My eyes widened. My jaw dropped. “You mean…”

“Yup,” she replied, flashing a conspiratorial grin. “It’s gone.”

The only downside to this dénouement is that I had to tell Michael that he would never have his chance to be photographed — as he had been gleefully planning for weeks now — sitting behind the wheel of his friend’s car several feet in front of the yellow sign that is no more.

The Yellow Sign – Part 2

The Public OffenderHello again. Here I am, intrepid rabble-rouser, with a yellow sign update.

First, a huge thank you to all of you who posted comments regarding this bizarre situation. If you didn’t have a chance to review them all, please feel free to do so now (see below). One particularly creative comment was inadvertently posted to my “By Way of Introduction” entry; it has now been put in its proper place (which can — and should – never be said about its author!). So if you missed Pat’s anarchic solution, feel free to check it out.

Second, Michael and I have decided to fight this intrusion on our civil rights.

Third, here’s what has happened so far:

I called the office of our Town Supervisor, which referred me to the Traffic Department.

I called the Traffic Department, which referred me to the Town Attorney’s office, but not before telling me that I was not entitled to know who requested that the sign be installed, and not before presuming that the sign was on my property (why else would one want it removed?), and not before voicing bewilderment that a blind person would object to a sign so clearly for his benefit.

I called the Town Attorney’s office, which confirmed that I was not entitled to know who requested the sign and told me to mail a written request explaining why we objected to it.

I called the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), whose legal advisor suggested I cite the ADA provision in title 5, section 501(d):

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require an individual with a disability to accept an accommodation, aid, service, opportunity, or benefit which such individual chooses not to accept.”

More to follow.

The Yellow Sign

A rather strange development came to my attention last weekend, and I’m not quite sure what (if anything) I should do about it.

Over one of our Sabbath meals, our daughter casually remarked that a new sign had been installed several yards away from our home. Rectangular and yellow with black letters, it read, “Blind Person Area.”

Many of you know that my husband Michael is blind. Thank God, he is exceptionally skilled at navigating all over the place with his cane. Hey, after living in Manhattan for 30-odd years, he ought to be!

Both Michael and I were at best surprised and at worst stunned by this piece of news. We’re still trying to tease out all of the questions and reactions teeming in our brains, among them:

  • Who arranged to have this sign put up – our neighbors, our friends or total strangers?
  • Who chose the wording?
  • Why were we not included in this decision?
  • Do we have the right to insist that the sign be removed?
  • Is it appropriate to insist that the sign be removed? We’re not particularly interested in being run over by a negligent driver, but then again, who is?
  • Should we just let it be?
  • And why does this yellow sign sickeningly conjure up an image of a yellow star?
  • A bit of further clarification: The sign is on a pole at the corner of Narrow Lane (our block) and Station Place (a relatively quiet one-way street that turns onto our block). The sidewalk on Station Place is either nonexistent or intermittently so. Most pedestrians walk toward the train station in the street, and Michael and I are no exception.

    Now, if anyone were to ask me what (if anything) I’d want in the sign’s place, it would be a convex mirror across the way from where the yellow sign now is. That way, drivers could see a pedestrian (disabled or not) heading toward Station Place before they turn onto Narrow Lane.

    Ironically, at the other end of Narrow Lane is a dangerously busy street called West Broadway. Cars whiz by, and there is no traffic light at that corner or for several blocks in either direction. If I had my way, there would be a traffic light there for the safety of everyone, including Michael and myself. But there is no traffic light, and there is no yellow and black sign.

    So, what do you all think?

    Looking forward to your replies,
    Chava