Travelling in a wheelchair; Caracas vs. London

We get onto the tube at the far-end carriage, which is reserved for disabled people. As usual, the entire tube is completely packed; public transport is efficient and widely used in Caracas. The carriage at the far end is slightly less so, and we get on, but a man wearing a suit jacket is standing in quite an inconvenient position. Opposite me, another man is sitting in a wheelchair, with his wife and young son next to him.

“Can you move out the way?” the man in the wheelchair said. No prizes for guessing who he was speaking to.

“It’s fine,” the man in the business suit replied, “I’m getting off at the next stop, anyway.”

“Why are you standing there anyway,” the man in the wheelchair replied, “it’s an area for wheelchair users.” The word ‘why’ might give you the impression that this was a question but, as you will notice from the lack of corresponding punctuation mark, it wasn’t.

At this point, as the man in the business suit awkwardly tried to avoid the interrogation without anyone noticing, which he should have realised was an impossible task in an overcrowded train carriage, I was about to say that I didn’t really mind and was fine where I was. But then, I stopped myself. Why should I intervene on his behalf? In fact, the man in the wheelchair was correct, he shouldn’t have been blocking the accessible carriage in the first place, and then, considering that he was, he should have politely moved out the way when he saw a second wheelchair user attempting to get on. Besides, how would I feel if I was speaking up for a disabled person trying to get onto a bus in London, for example, and they turned to me and said, “Thanks for the support, as I’m sure you face the same struggles as I do, but no thanks.”

I realised that the words that almost came to my mouth were a semi-automatic reaction. I had never seen something like this happen before.

“Why are you standing in the space for wheelchair users?” he repeated. His wife had a serious expression on her face. His son was still playing and trying to climb onto his arm.

The other man tried to mumble a response. Should have realised by now that this particular strategy wasn’t working. Turns to another person [apparently accompanying him, although he wasn’t exactly promoting the fact] and exchanges a brief shake of the head. As if to say, “these disabled people, getting on public transport like they own the place… what are we going to do with them?”

“You’re not meant to block the area that’s for disabled people,” the man in the wheelchair said, “it says it clearly on signs.” I noticed a badge that was attached to a bag in his lap; it was for the ‘Gran Mision Vivienda’, a government program aimed at building three million homes by 2017.

The man in the suit jacket then tried arguing back, but that didn’t work either. You can win an argument with weak points if you are good at arguing, but you can’t win an argument with no points. It’s not really an argument; it’s just a person embarrassing themselves.

I remember trying to argue my way onto London buses and into train stations when I was a sixth form student. Indeed, it was out of the frustration of those journeys that this blog first began, five days before my eighteenth birthday. Not only did no-one ever stick up for me, but members of the public would actively argue against me, arguing against the fact that I should be allowed onto a bus. As my younger brother, Finlay, astutely observed, that is what happens when you live in a capitalist society. When discrimination and individualism is practised at an institutional level, it trickles down through the layers of society. That is the real ‘trickle down theory’.

Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to visit other parts of the world, where different, better societies are being built.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and we were making our way to Plaza Caracas, where Hugo Chavez was due to be officially declared President, for the next six year term of government, after his re-election victory on Sunday. Over a thousand people turned out for the occasion; even after months of energetic campaigning, people are not tired, because the political process is a part of their lives, and their struggle for a better future is ongoing.

The disabled man on the tube wasn’t afraid of raising his voice, because he is one of those Venezuelans who have been empowered by this political process, much to the annoyance of the man wearing the suit jacket. He looked like he was in his early thirties and I am sure that he could recount many stories of being discriminated against, and possibly in worse ways than I have ever experienced. But, today, he is proud to make his opinion heard.


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