One afternoon last June, Oakland wheelchair user Oliver Freed got on AC Transit's 43 line in Berkeley and took his place in the disabled seating area. Freed was careful to thank the driver for letting him board. That way, if the shit hit the fan later, no one could accuse him of being a troublemaker. After all, he knew something the driver didn't know -- that their entire interaction was being secretly recorded on videotape.
Freed was wearing a baseball hat rigged with a spycam, purchased at a San Francisco detective store. He was on the lookout for disability-related violations of AC Transit policy, such as when a driver improperly secures his wheelchair, neglects to ask ahead of time where he will be getting off, or doesn't call out the stops for passengers with poor or no vision. His hat was ready to record whatever happened.
The resulting tape is fuzzy, but its squiggly black-and-white images clearly show the driver moving toward Freed and putting one of the bus' shoulder belts across him. That's when she made her first mistake. The driver disregarded the four wall-mounted straps that are supposed to be used to anchor any wheelchair to the floor. As she returned to her seat, and Freed discovered that he was not secure, he called out, as if in pain, "Driver! You haven't secured me yet. Driver! The wheelchair is not secured yet!"
The driver calmly returned and tried to anchor Freed according to AC Transit's official protocol. She yanked a bit at the straps, then claimed that they weren't working, saying she couldn't pull them out from the wall.
"Okay," Freed said loudly into his hat's microphone. "Driver 31860's completely refused to put on securement system. ... If I slide out into the aisle and hit some child it'll be your fault, like I almost hit this lady here. ... Driver, I'd like you to come back and secure me correctly, please."
Freed has been in roughly this same situation on many an AC Transit bus. Depending upon which videotaped encounter one watches, sometimes the driver ends up securing Freed properly, and sometimes he ends up securing himself. But on more than one occasion, it has accelerated into a full-fledged confrontation.
On one trip, after a spat with a different female driver, a passenger came forward and told Freed, "Hey, man, quit disrespecting the lady."
Freed replied, "This lady is disrespecting me!" and then went on to accuse the driver of threatening him. More passengers joined in the argument and, eventually, the police arrived.
Another time, a group of pissed-off passengers actually pulled at Freed's wheelchair and attempted to eject him from the bus. Four men tried to drag his wheelchair out of its space, but Freed, who has good upper-body strength, firmly clutched a seatback, screaming, "Assault! Assault!"
In several of the videotapes, the bus driver has said something akin to: "You got issues, man."
Oliver Freed knows he has anger issues. But perhaps he should. After all, he has been fighting AC Transit for more than five years to improve what he sees as its lack of attention to people with disabilities. He keeps a log of the outcome of every one of his bus trips, and has complained to AC Transit administrators on hundreds of occasions. He has served on the agency's disability board, and been arrested no fewer than five times for causing a nuisance on a bus. His methods may be extreme, but what he shares with many less-combative disabled riders is a belief that AC Transit is not doing its job.
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