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Reclaiming the “Short Bus”

August 15, 2017
Kathleen Downes
Community Voices

I am now 24 years old, and still, every time a little school bus rolls by, I check to see if it has a wheelchair lift because not so long ago, I was waiting for the bus. As “back to school season” approaches and the bus rumbles down the street once more, I can’t help but feel a pang of strange nostalgia. That little bus and I have a long, complex history. 

When I started kindergarten at the local public school in the fall of 1998, I was the only student with a physical disability, and the most visibly disabled student my school had ever had. My presence, in my tiny blue wheelchair in a public school, was still fairly radical, although I didn’t know it at the time.

I had two realizations as a kid with a disability. The first, that I had a disability and always would, practically came without thinking. Having cerebral palsy was the only reality I’d ever known. The second was much more difficult: that I was different in ways that mattered. You may be thinking, “So what? You are who you are! It doesn’t matter!” But that thought entirely discounts the very distinct experience of being disabled in a world that quite frankly, is not built for us. Of course, it matters. It matters when I have to call ahead to make sure a restaurant has a ramp. It matters when people on the street don’t want to stare at me, so instead they don’t look. And it mattered that fall, when I boarded the school bus for the first time. That autumn morning, I learned that “people like me”—students with disabilities—go on separate buses. We rode “the short bus,” while the other kids piled on “the big bus” at the bus stop down the street. In principle, segregating students with disabilities for transit to school is wrong. For folks with disabilities, that little bus is likely one of the most universally recognized symbols of oppression.

But here’s where things get complicated. Wrapped up in its many layers of dust, broken seatbelts, squeaky lifts, and bizarre detours, I found something I needed—community. When I rolled onto that bus, my peers understood my perspective. Though most of my fellow riders had cognitive disabilities, we found so much common ground. I often say that sometimes you just need to talk to someone who’s “in the same boat”…or should I say bus? Our ragtag tribe aboard that little yellow vessel, from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade, gave me that. While I’ll always be grateful for my opportunity to be educated in a mainstream classroom, being different all day is exhausting. On the bus, I belonged, easily and naturally. We could talk freely about what color to get on my next wheelchair, joke about whose aide was the most annoying, and vent about getting accommodations set up at the testing center. When high school came around and most of my non-disabled peers swapped their seats on the bus for rides in their cars, it was difficult to cope with the reality that I may never drive. But on the “short bus,” my fellow riders were beside me in the struggle. Although I would love to drive someday, I would never swap the quirky and wonderful troupe that gave me my first little taste of disability pride for anything. When the bus was late or didn’t show up, I learned to advocate, and quickly became the thorn in the dispatcher’s side. I learned to find camaraderie with people who had all types of disabilities. In turn, I learned to reject the hierarchy built on the lie that people with physical disabilities are not like those with cognitive disabilities who are not like those with psychiatric disabilities. We need each other, today and always. People often throw around the “short bus” as a derogatory term, but I have chosen to reclaim it. It belongs to me, and all the ones on the bus beside me, who were not and will never be short on talent, heart, or spirit. I’ll close by addressing the bus directly, as I did in a letter stuffed in the seat on my very last day of high school.

Dear short bus, I hated your lateness that would never happen on “the big bus.” I hated the way your drivers called me “the wheelchair.” I hated the way you illustrated that some people will always think of disabled folks as “less than.” Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the ableism in the world that you made abundantly clear. When your muffler fell off in the middle of the road, you really pushed the envelope. From you, I learned the harm of segregation. But I also learned the power of solidarity, and for that I’m always grateful.

As I said earlier, it’s complicated; but I love you and I think I always have. You carry my afternoon memories of reading “Arthur” to another kid over and over again. You carry my seventh grade angst, the beginning of my advocacy, a few of my secrets, so much of my dark humor, and OK, a little piece of my heart. Let the next kids to ride you learn to be proud. And tell them that a woman who was once a little girl in a tiny blue wheelchair is rooting for them.