School bus attendants and their supporters chant and drum while walking a picket line near a bus depot in New York, Thursday, January 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
In happier times, I wrote in The New York Times how our son’s yellow school bus was one of the great things about New York. The yellow school bus strike, then, is a bomb that’s landed in our already stretched-thin lives as parents of a child with disabilities. We, along with the parents of the other 54,000 special-needs children in the city, now have to figure out how to get our son to and from school when just taking him for a walk can be a challenge. Plus, my husband and I both work. The Mayor’s “Gaelic” benediction for us might be “Rotsa Ruck.”
Bloomberg is a businessman, and business is about profit and cost-cutting, but I find the sheer heartlessness of this move almost awe-inspiring. As if having a special needs child isn’t challenging enough, now the children who are most sensitive to disruptions will have their schedules upended. Imagine having to find a way to get your child in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank into a cab, or taking your autistic child from the Bronx to his school in Brooklyn, or riding the subway with your Down syndrome child for an hour, making other arrangements for siblings and still somehow getting to work on time. The city claims it will reimburse parents for taxis or driving, but what about the parents who don’t have enough cash to wait for reimbursement? Or the carless mother of the child whose program is in New Rochelle? It takes an hour—without traffic—to get to our son’s school, which ends at noon on Fridays. It’s hard not to feel that not only does Bloomberg not understand our situations, he really does not care. Just as many of our children cannot speak, so too as a constituency—overburdened, overtired, fiscally strained—we are an “easy” population on which to foist the pain of budget cuts.
And this is just the short-term disruption. The long-term plan, replacing the experienced bus drivers and matrons with lesser-paid recruits, should Bloomberg succeed, is an invitation to disaster.
Right now, our bus company’s name is Reliant, and indeed, judging from our excellent driver and matron, they live up to their name. They show up precisely on time every day (or notify us the rare times they are not) in their crisp uniforms. Our son indeed relies on them to be consistent, calm, patient and firm.
On bad days, our son can bite, head-butt, scream or pinch—fairly typical behaviors for autism, but they can be shocking when one first encounters them. Even when our son was a toddler, he could put up such a fight that in one such scrum, I remember an aide’s artificial fingernail flying off. Because of our son’s gastrointestinal problems, he can have toileting issues. It can be difficult not to take such assaults personally or want to retaliate—which is why experience and maturity needs to be taken into account. A Connecticut mother that I know learned that a 24-year-old bus aide was yanking her nonverbal autistic daughter’s fingers until they were sprained and bruised ostensibly because she was angry at the girl for wetting her pants.
Experience does not necessarily guarantee a good matron or driver, but it definitely increases the odds. Our driver and matron each have eighteen years of experience with special-needs children. We all work together to keep our son calm, but when he’s not, they know what do to. No amount of training and video-watching can prepare a driver for what it’s actually like navigating New York City traffic with the bedlam of one (or more) children throwing a tantrum behind her.
Many special-needs children can have behaviors triggered merely by another person’s emotions. A person who is nervous and agitated around a special-needs child might find the child soon following. From day one, our son’s driver and matron have dealt with his behaviors with calmness, which in turn helps him to stay calm. His driver took the time before she even started working with him to call and chat about him beforehand, as well as working out some of the traffic particulars. She has obviously developed great communication skills with parents; she calls when she needs our input on our son’s behaviors or medical issues. It’s clear that she’s very, very good at what she does. She and the matron make our son feel safe, which in turn helps us to feel safe. Earlier in the week, just before the strike, when we put our agitated child on the bus, we apologized, but she assured us he’ll calm down and be fine—and she left the parents accordingly calmed as well.
It may seem an unlikely comparison, but in the world of air travel, it’s an obvious truism that more hours generally mean better pilots; thus, the recent example of experienced pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, who was able to improvise in a crisis situation and coax his disabled plane into a miraculous landing on the Hudson. Our children with special needs are no less complicated and may similarly require in-the-moment crisis management; and just the way older pilots receive more pay and have job security, so should the drivers and matrons, who are, despite press reports, hardly to blame for the city’s budget problems (the average salary is $35,000 per year, $14/hour for a driver, $11/hour for a matron).
There is a Korean proverb that says, “When whales fight, the shrimp gets hurt.” Indeed, forgotten in the obdurate labor negotiations are the actual children, who have little voice and are often ignored or scorned in society. They are suffering now and might be suffering even more in the future. One parent of a child with Down syndrome told me of their driver (with twenty-five years of experience) and matron (with fifteen):
“Our son has been traveling on the bus since he was 2 1/2 years old…he has had the same team for two years, and surely this was also a key to his success in learning to take the bus back and forth to school without anxiety…. Although they may be paid the least among our child’s providers, they are in many ways some of the most important since they are the faces and hearts who greet our children when they start the day, and can help comfort them on their way home.”
This is no less than a social justice issue. We give CEOs millions (and billions) of dollars to keep them happy, why not afford some basic salary and job protections for those who work with our most precious commodity?