Invisible on the Subway: RA & Public Transportation

Invisible on the Subway: RA & Public Transportation

I’ve been back in New York for almost a month now (I got back June 3rd) after a two-week trip home to Minneapolis in May due to my inability to find housing in Brooklyn for the rest of the month. Crazy! But that’s another story. What’s also crazy and frustrating and exhausting being back in NYC is getting used to public transportation again, especially the vast and often unreliable subway system. The subway is great and is a big help with getting around places, especially when you don’t have a car (like I did in Minneapolis). But what’s not so great about the subway is that the trains and stations are usually jam-packed with people, especially during rush hour. There’s also a lot of walking, stair-climbing, and waiting required (usually that means standing), which has proven to be one of the biggest physical challenges I’ve experienced so far living in New York with RA.

More often than not, when I step onto a crowded train I scan the car and see that there are no seats available. I then try to carefully maneuver my way further inside with the hope of finding a pole I can hang onto to steady and support myself for the duration of the ride. Usually before I’ve even gotten on the train, my feet and bad ankle are throbbing and in pain from all of the walking I’ve been doing anyway. Standing on a crowded train for a few stops is bearable, but longer than that can become agonizing. Sometimes there’s not even enough room to shift your weight from one foot to the other, or lift up the “bad one” to take the pressure off it. So you’re stuck standing there, with bodies squashed against you from every angle, as you try to not think about the stabbing pain burning in your swollen feet and ankles.

There are signs on every subway train that read, “Priority seating for persons with disabilities” above the two-person seats at the ends of each train. There are also signs that run across the top of the train next to the advertisements that say, “Offer your seat to an elderly, disabled, or pregnant person. Even better, add a smile.” This is all very considerate and necessary however I doubt I’d be met with a “smile” if I were to ask someone to let me sit down. There have been times when I’ve been tempted and my ankle pain has been verging on horrific. But I’m way too intimidated and chicken, really, to actually attempt to ask someone to give up his or her seat for me. Part of me is curious to see what the response would be, though. Surprise? Scorn? Annoyance? A flat-out “NO?” Insults? I’m still feeling too fragile and new here to attempt it right now and my goal of the day is usually to just get from point A to B without additional drama or problems.

However. I hate to say it and label myself as such, but I am a “disabled” person in many respects. I have chronic RA pain, which is often unpredictable and unforgiving in its assault on my body. And more specifically, I have a very painful and swollen right ankle and foot that’s in a constant state of some degree of a flare-up. Being forced to stand for any period of time is even more painful than walking on it. The main challenge with this “disability” situation on the subway is that I don’t LOOK disabled, of course. The “Invisible Illness Problem” strikes again. I look young and healthy and “normal” on the outside even if I’m silently suffering.

So what do I do, just grit my teeth and deal with it? I can’t afford to take cabs or car services, and I’ve run into similar problems of having to stand on some of the buses here. I’ve joked a few times to a couple of RA friends about this transportation problem, saying that maybe I should step onto a train wearing my Minnesota disability parking permit hanging around my neck. Or get one of those walking boots that looks like you’re recovering from surgery (I have two of them at home in Minneapolis, actually). I don’t know what the solution is yet, but you can be sure that whenever I do see a free seat on the subway or a bus, I make a mad dash for it and then hope that nobody shoots me dirty looks and guilt-trips me into giving it up.

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