by Melody E. Holloway
I took my very first paratransit ride in 2005. This year was already packed with chaos, turbulence, confusion, and disappointment. I was 19 years old. I had dropped out of college the previous fall due to a multitude of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. I fed into the disappointment of my family, the school for the blind, prospective employers, vocational rehabilitation counselor, and that of society in general. I graduated valedictorian, earned three scholarships without too much effort, and primarily lived to please others. I was not expected to fall from the perceived definition of success this quickly. Was I?
I was apprehensive at first about applying for paratransit services through the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA). I applied with fear, reservations, and “what ifs” competing for first place in my unknowingly traumatized brain. However, I followed the lead of my first, best lifelong soulmate and bucked up. I rode to the COTA office, had my photo taken for my ADA transportation ID, and answered the interviewer’s questions with my already prepared application signed by my physician. I received my plastic COTA ADA ID in the mail weeks later. I was now an official Project Mainstream rider.
I scheduled my first ride to an outpatient community mental health center for a counseling appointment, completely forgetting to give the reservationist the destination address. This particular center has two locations. The driver arrived at my house to pick me up. Having no clue what I was doing, I asked her if she needed to see my ADA COTA ID card. This is not a requirement. The driver helped me find my seatbelt, waited for me to buckle up, and sped off.
Upon arrival at the mental health center, I was confused. The environment was unfamiliar. The lobby was wide open, there were over a dozen people talking about treatment teams and additional services with which I was not yet familiar, and personal safety, cleanliness, and dependability were in question. I waited for over an hour before the first kind person walked me back to an office. He introduced himself and asked my reason for being there. I told him who my therapist was and that I had a standing appointment. The man had no record for me at that location. He was familiar with the name of my counselor. He informed me that my COTA mainstream ride had taken me to the other location for Southeast Mental Health, Inc. I was horrified! The wheel of apprehension, blame, and self-doubt began to squeak. The man told me he was a treatment team leader living with a hearing impairment. He uses hearing aids. He ordered me a cab to transport me to the correct branch. I apologized profusely for making such a foolish mistake. He reminded me that I had used paratransit for the first time and encouraged me to try again.
The first cab driver was helpful and polite. My therapist did everything she could to help me through my anxiety and panic. She thought I was brave for taking any form of public transportation independently. She, like every other mental health clinician I have since encountered, had never experienced a totally blind patient before. She ordered a second taxi to take me home that day.
This cab driver sticks out in my mind over 17 years later. He announced my name and identified himself. I spoke of how the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses and traumatic events which induce them appeared to be affecting my path forward in life even at that time. He asked in a gentle, but candid tone, “What stigma? I do not care about someone’s disabilities or other medical conditions. They do not define us or make us who we truly are.”
During our ride home, the driver struck up a conversation with me. He volunteered that he was a retired police officer who previously had a canine partner. He had to retire due to being shot in the line of duty. He was one of the kindest, most knowledgeable, congenial, genuinely big-hearted fellows I have met yet. I often wonder what became of him.
As I reflect on that particular day, I remember how scared I was to take my first paratransit ride. Thank goodness for the advice of my first best pal, and for a plethora of people who used our combined difficult situations to show me that kindness begets positivity, resilience, and lasting friendships. I have ridden COTA Mainstream since before Hurricane Katrina. The kindness of others helped me become comfortable and efficient with each new step toward independence, assisted by those who walked in these shoes before. This kindness has also allowed me to guide some through their own journeys down the unpredictable road of apprehension, reservation, and “what ifs.”