By: Patricia On: December 03, 2015 In: Featured, Writing Comments: 0

A couple of days ago, a story made the rounds in Panama regarding a man who videotaped a bus driver refusing to pick up a person in a wheelchair. The short video starts with the man taping the bus driver, who is angry she is being taped. The man argues that the person in the wheelchair is entitled to passage, same as anyone else. Buses in Panama have these sad excuses of ‘ramps’ that have to be manually deployed by the drivers. These ramps are too steep for anyone in a wheelchair, and are often rusted and broken. It’s not just the buses — Panama has huge infrastructure problems for those with mobility issues, most notably the terrible sidewalks.

The video was picked up by a few news outlets, and of course, many rose up in outrage toward the bus driver, demanding she be fired. But they looked passed the fact that no one else on the bus stood up for the man in the wheelchair. In fact, toward the end of the video, another male passenger comes up to the man tapping the video, and seems to asks him to stop taping and get off the bus. Everyone else remained quietly seated.

I found the video thorough the website of a young man from Panama called Juanpi, who uses a wheelchair. He’s trying to bring awareness to the infrastructure issues by inviting politician and public figures to navigate a couple blocks of the city in a wheelchair. Inevitably, everyone realizes that it’s almost impossible for people with mobility issues to get around the city.

I felt compelled to write him a note on my thoughts because this is an issue that affects my family closely.

Estoy completamente horrorizada por el video. Y yo tengo un hermano con discapacidad, así que me molesta grandemente. Pero no estoy de acuerdo con los que dicen que hay que botar a la conductora. Como sociedad, le tenemos un deber a los discapacitados de proveer una infraestructura con la cual ellos se puedan desplazar independientemente. Y la triste realidad es que por generaciones no hemos echo de esto una prioridad. Los discapacitados, en Panamá, no son considerados cuando se construyen los proyectos, las aceras, cuando se compran buses con rampas ridículas que no sirven de nada. El gobierno pasa leyes, pero las enforza? Si esa es la actitud de el gobierno, y las compañías en general, entonces no es sorpresa que la conductora se comporte de una manera tan desagradable. Ella ha vivido toda su vida en una sociedad que trata a los discapacitados como ciudadanos de segunda clase. Ella dirá: si al gobierno o la compañía no le importa, porque me tiene que importar a mi? Yo, por supuesto no estoy de acuerdo, pero admitamos que desafiar convenciones establecidas por toda la vida no es fácil, especialmente para personas que les falta educación y cultura (no digo esto como insulto, sino como realidad), y que quizás también han sido maltratadas por la sociedad.

Despedir a una conductora, la cual es probablemente pobre, quizás con hijos o padres ancianos, no va a solucionar el problema. El problema se soluciona cuando, como sociedad, hacemos una prioridad de las personas mas vulnerables y creamos un ambiente en donde estas pueden salir adelante y contribuir. Cuando se pasan leyes y pólizas que los protegen. Cuando mantenemos un alto requisito de toda compañía que opera en Panamá. Exijamos buses adecuados (que existen en todo país desarrollado), entrenamiento extensivos a sus conductores, y mas. Hablemos alto y fuerte, como el señor que hizo el video, en vez de dejar que la prisa y la conveniencia nos haga olvidar este tema de aquí a que salga el sol mañana. Si toda persona en el bus hubiera defendido al señor, te garantizo que la conductora se hubiera visto obligada a actuar correctamente. En vez, fue una voz solitaria la que velo en la obscuridad de un momento ignorante. La luz de la sociedad, que avanza lo que somos y queremos ser, se prende dentro de cada uno de nosotros, y no con el despido de una conductora pobre y ignorante.

No nos olvidemos de este momento la próxima vez que vamos a votar, no nos olvidemos de este momento la próxima ves que vemos una injusticia, y no nos olvidemos de esto cuando le enseñemos a nuestro hijos el deber grande que es tener compasión por otros, particularmente los mas vulnerable. Así es como cambiamos el futuro.

My main point is that Panama, as a society, has for generations dismissed the those with disabilities as second class citizens. Pedestrian bridges are built without elevators, utility poles are placed in the middle of sidewalks, essentially rendering them impassable to anyone who can’t squeeze through one side or the other, and ramps are often hilariously steep and therefore unusable. My argument is that the bus driver, most likely poor and ignorant, has grown up surrounded my politicians and companies that ignore anything and anyone that does not make them more money. It’s no wonder she behaved so disagreeably, if that’s the attitude she and those before her have lived in for generations. We don’t change society by firing a woman who might have children or elderly parents to maintain, throwing them all back into a cycle of poverty and ignorance. We change the future by teaching the next generation that compassion to those most vulnerable is not an option but a duty. We change the future by demanding the passing and enforcement of laws empowering those with disabilities to contribute to the economy and daily life — this starts with creating appropriate infrastructure for them. We change society, not by displaying singular moments of outrage forgotten by the time the sun sets tonight, but by standing up for injustices when they happen. If every person on that bus had stood up for the man in the wheelchair, I bet the driver would’ve been pressured into behaving in a less morally reprehensible way.

One single man lit a spotlight in the darkness of an ignorant moment. Society’s light, advancing who we are and who we hope to be, is lit inside every single one of us individually. It’s it not lit with the firing of one poor, ignorant woman. The moment on that bus was the failure, not of a one woman, but of a pervasive mentality: that those with disabilities are after-thoughts, only ‘burdens’ to their families.

For Panama to truly become the “First World” country it is striving to be, our infrastructure needs to match that ambition, and so do our hearts and minds. We need to realize that all the money, profits, canals and high rises will never enlighten a society that shuns those in need. And those in need include that bus driver, who was brought up, and lives every day, in the ignorance of believing we owe no compassion to the vulnerable.


Photo by Josh Hallett