The Everyday Activist: “Never Underestimate The Power Of The Handicapped”

December 1, 2009

I flew back to LA from NYC today, and decided to take the FlyAway bus from the airport to Union Station. The bus is fabulous. It costs $7, leaves every 20 minutes, and takes you directly to or from Downtown LA to your terminal. But the best thing about today was witnessing one of the most remarkable acts of charity I have ever seen. When our bus arrived at the last terminal before hitting the freeway, the bus driver assisted a wheelchair-bound young man (probably in his mid-20’s) by physically lifting him out of his chair and seating him on the bus. I was so moved by the driver’s graciousness that, upon arriving at Union Station, I asked him for his business card and told him that I’d be writing a letter to his boss about his extraordinary good deed and his sense of duty to uphold the public sector’s commitment to make all forms of transportation it manages accessible to people with disabilities.

I did a little research about the policies and decided that my letter deserved to go to more than just the boss of the private firm that employs him, but also the City and State agencies that support the public transit link through taxpayer subsidies.

As a former political operative, I know the power of letters that recognize the good deeds of everyday people. Most people do not do charitable everyday works to be recognized. The material reward is never the goal. We help people out because want to live in a society with what political scientist Robert Putnam would call a high quotient of social capital, an environment where reciprocity is common. But I believe that recognizing those good works helps to beget more of them. (It’s a very basic belief that I have always had about community and Putnam articulates it gracefully in his classic “Bowling Alone.”)

When I confronted the driver and told him my plan, he was shocked and pleased. He said to me, “God bless you,” and extended his hand to shake mine. I said to him, “No, thank you,” and left. When I got home, I sat down to write the letter because I know that letters commending public employees often get noticed or go in their files, especially when you indicate in the letter that you are sending copies of the letter to multiple agencies that would have a marginal interest in the incident. So I’m sending the following letter to the Mayor of Los Angeles, the Governor of California, the President of Board of Directors of Los Angeles World Airports, and an organization that advocates on behalf of the disabled in California. It might be a little much, but I was extremely moved. Here’s my letter:

Today, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, I took the FlyAway bus from LAX to Union Station and witnessed one of the most incredible acts of charity I have ever seen committed by one of your bus drivers. The driver (an employee of CoachAmerica, which holds the FlyAway contract), Mr. A. Clark, physically lifted a young paraplegic man out of his wheelchair and carried him onto the bus so he could ride it.

I did not know the young man, but I have disabled relatives, and I was touched by his most remarkable act of kindness. And as a former tourism professional with years of experience working with bus operators, I have never, ever witnessed a driver act in such an extraordinary way. I don’t think it is ever expected that a driver should lift another fully grown person onto his or her bus. I hope that you commend Mr. Clark for his kindness and for his dutiful fulfillment of public transportation’s mandate to never discriminate against those with disabilities.

Mr. Clark should also be thanked for saving CoachAmerica and the City of Los Angeles (which I assume subsidizes the service with taxpayer dollars) from the embarrassment of leaving a disabled traveler stranded on the street. I understand that the Los Angeles World Airports website states the FlyAway bus policy very clearly: “All…are equipped to accommodate disabled travelers… Drivers will assist patrons to get on and off the bus and will assist patrons with baggage.” (http://www.lawa.org/welcome_lax.aspx?id=350) But the simple fact is: there was nothing about this bus that was “equipped” to accommodate a wheelchair-bound person, aside from the driver Mr. Clark. Without drivers like him, who are reliably physically able to lift full-grown adult patrons, this statement on LAWA’s part is demonstrably false.

Public transportation has a mandate to never discriminate against handicapped passengers. Through his actions, Mr. Clark demonstrated his personal commitment to that ideal, even though CoachAmerica and the City, by hiring the firm to manage this wonderful part of the city’s public transportation system, are falling short of their mandate to do the same.

I realize that the policy from the LAWA website is written so vaguely that it includes Mr. Clark’s good deeds withing the realm of possible means by which the City makes FlyAway accessible. But it’s not an acceptable solution, in my opinion. Mr. Clark told me that he felt a personal responsibility to help the young man. Paraphrasing: “Otherwise, he would have just waited to see if the next one would take him.”

P.S. I thought the Handi-Man sketch was hilarious when I was 11 years old. It’s also the reason why my dad banned TV in my house for about a month. It really is as terribly unfunny now as it was back then.

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One Response to “The Everyday Activist: “Never Underestimate The Power Of The Handicapped””

  1. Orhan said

    Great letter. I can definitely feel the inspiration. I’d love to be able to write such a positive letter to public transportation officials. As it is, they have generally had the opposite tone. Boston’s MBTA is totally dysfunctional.

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