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Riding the short bus.

A few days ago, someone I know referred to a mentally challenged person as a “short bus rider.” It bugs me when people do that, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I think it isn’t cool to mock a person with a developmental condition that they certainly didn’t ask for. I let the person know I really didn’t think it was right to demean handicapped people in that way. There is another reason I’m a little sensitive to the short bus joke.

The regular bus

The short bus

I rode the short bus to high school.

On the first day of my junior year of high school, I, along with friends from the neighborhood, met our school bus at the appointed time. Unfortunately, we found that the bus on our route was at capacity before it got to our stop, the last one of its route before heading to the school. We ended up standing in the narrow aisles. It was far from the safest situation for us. We complained to the driver, and probably more significantly, parents complained to the school.

On the second Friday of school, as he dropped us off at our home stop, the driver told us a solution had been found and we would not have to stand on the way to school starting Monday morning. He didn’t say how that was going to happen.

Monday morning, a dozen of us were at the bus stop. Down the hill, at our appointed pick up time, came a short bus. It stopped in front of us. The door opened. We didn’t get on. Someone said something about “some sort of mistake”, that we didn’t have “anyone like that” at our stop. The driver said,”I know, get on.” The solution to our overcrowding/safety problem was one of the dreaded, stigmatized short buses.

As we started to file on, our old bus pulled up behind us. We could hear our friends howling with laughter.

There weren’t really conversations on the short bus that first morning. There were mostly just exchanges. I remember saying something to a girl about how ugly things would get when we arrived at school. She just whispered, “I know.” We all knew it was inevitable. We were going to wear the short bus stigma.

I was right, it was not good when we got to school. People really were giving it to us as we got off the short bus. I paused at the top of the stairs, as if staying on the bus and going home was an option. I heard the driver say “go on son, the rest of the kids I drive get off this bus every day of their lives.”

I’d be lying if I said I understood what she was trying to tell me back then. I was fifteen. I get it now. I wish fifteen-year-old me did.

I walked off into the storm of jokes and insults. It was bad. It was bad all day. I couldn’t wait to get back on the bus to go home, except that I’d be getting back on my short bus.

The short bus became our nemesis and our friend. It was the one place we could all be sure we wouldn’t hear the jokes. The one place we weren’t called retards and the only reason people who’d known us for years were calling us that.

I was a short bus person for a year. The jokes backed off a bit. A girl told me she thought my bus was cute and she wished she rode it too. I thought about telling her about the other side of being on the cute bus, but she was a girl, so I was not going to debate any discussion that contained any association between me and the word cute.

There was no short bus for my neighborhood after that year.

I don’t think most of the people I went to school with remember the short bus, but I do.

Some kids get off that bus every day of their lives. Some parents put their kids on that bus every day. They all hear the short bus joke and it isn’t really funny to them. Maybe we could cut them a break on the short bus stuff.

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26 Comments on “Riding the short bus.”

  1. writerdood says:

    ?
    Did you change your blog skin?
    Maybe it’s just me.

    Anyway, I thought your story was powerful and well told. I never rode the short bus, but we never made fun of the people who rode it either. In fact, I don’t think we ever saw them in grade school. The mentally challenged were segregated, they had their own wing. In High School, it was different, they were in the same gym classes and elective courses with us.

    I didn’t hear the short bus reference until recently, and I’ll admit I thought it was funny. All I can say to people who are mentally challenged is to do the same thing every minority with a difficulty can do, you turn it around. If someone says you’re overweight, you say “No, I’m FAT!” If someone says you’re “mentally challenged,” you say “no, I’m RETARDED.” If someone says your strange you say, “no, I’m WEIRD.”

    People only seem to continue using a label if it appears to offend someone or evoke some form of emotional reaction. By taking it to the next level, you take away their fun. This doesn’t work for everyone, obviously. You have to serious NOT CARE about how other people feel in order to get it to work right.

    Anyway, those are just my feelings on it, and I’m just one person among the billions. However, I will say that this was a good article with a nice impact, and a good point to be made. One that should be pondered if not acted upon personally.

    • omawarisan says:

      I pretty much agree, but I’d probably add that they also use them when they feel like they can get away with it. Yeah, in my case, it was all about my reaction. In the case of the folks who live with this as part of their daily lives, I think it is picking at people who are not in a position to rise against it.

    • Your thoughts are well intentioned I think, but I hope you never give that advice in seriousness to someone with a disability. There is no solution as easy as you propose. I have a son who is cognitively delayed, as well as has autism. I have also volunteered in the special needs community. These students would not have the ability nor the desire to turn it around as you suggest. You’re assuming they have the same adaptive skills as you do, and really, most don’t. That is why they are bussed separately, to protect them, because they cannot protect themselves. Also, people do not go around saying “you’re mentally challenged.” They use other words. You have to understand that reality. People are not going to stop. Just look at the movies.

      I will always care about the labels. They are not just words. They are not just hurtful. They create a distance that allows society to “forget” about the needs of this population, to think of them as less than wholly human, to disregard their needs for acceptance and all the things people take for granted. We have to fight for EVERYTHING. I had to fight to get him to sing in the school chorus, to go to assemblies, to get textbooks, to participate in field day, to be allowed to go on the class field trip.

      You just have no idea.

  2. Roger's Place says:

    This is one great post!!! I hope the whole world reads it and gets the message.

  3. Betty says:

    OOMMAAA! It’s funny (for lack of a better word at this time) but the future-serial-killer son of my inconsiderate neighbor rides a short bus. Now, back in the 60s when I was in grammar school, the short bus did have a certain reputation. But since the late 70s, at least in this area, it was always the bus that transported the smart kids – that’s why it kills me, but yet I have to use, that the dumb ass next door rides the short bus. It just fits in a 1969 kind of way.

  4. coolrules says:

    Nice job with this. As hard as the experience was for 15-year-old you it sure taught you a valuable lesson about empathy. Something the world could really use more of. Way to go!

    • omawarisan says:

      Oh yeah, over time it absolutely did teach me a lesson. Wish I could honestly say it did right then and there. You’re right though, empathy is something sorely lacking in so many ways right now!

  5. izaakmak says:

    I spent about a month or so on a “long term” mental health care ward back in the 90s, at a VA hospital about 50 miles south of where I live. I think my doctors knew that I didn’t really belong there, but I was so despondent at the time that I guess they though I might benefit from the perspective the experience would give me. Boy did I!?!?

    While there, a group of us that were considered to be “higher functioning” got to ride a big white bus to attend a baseball game back here where I live. I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me in advance, but I was NOT prepared for the looks and murmured comments from the crowd when we arrived.

    I remember feeling so embarrassed and ashamed of what I imagined people thought of us. But as we watched the game, and I got to see just how much the other patients were enjoying this rare opportunity, it occurred to me that I cared a hell of a lot more about them than I did for all the people around us!

    Once that happened I was able to relax and enjoy the game. The funny thing is that I don’t think that any of the other patients even noticed how the “normal” folks reacted to us. That was when I realized that, perhaps, they weren’t as bad off as I’d imagined them to be.

    • omawarisan says:

      Thanks for bringing this perspective. I’d hope that along with some of the developmental/emotional/mental health conditions people endure at least sometimes get the gift of not noticing the harshness “normal” folks sometimes regard them with.

      I co-instruct a class on mental health issues. I always feel the week is a success when someone comes up and says they’ve realized what a fine line there is between “normal” and entering the mental health care system. Wish more folks could see that.

  6. Pie says:

    I agree with Coolrules. The hard knocks you receive earlier in life can set you up to become a well rounded person when you get older, with empathy being only one of many great humanistic qualities. Of course encountering the right kind of people along the way to help you make those hardships into treasures is really important. Otherwise those same hard knocks could breed a serial killer, or something.

  7. linlah says:

    I put a commenter on my blog on moderation because of their consistant use of the word retarded and that word makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
    Great post.

  8. planetross says:

    I don’t have anything to add … this one was a good one.

  9. Anne Beeche says:

    Searched “riding the short bus” in google to see if anyone had a story like this, and I was really happy to read yours.

    When I was a little kid, I grew up in a crappy school district where I was “ADD” for the first three years of my education. I rode the short bus as a result, and I rode it so young that I imprinted on it like a feral child on a wolf pack, and for the years that I rode it I was a part of it. I stopped being “ADD” in third grade and started being “Asperger Syndrome” (both labels have probably caused more problems than they solved) , but the short bus problem remained until I was in eighth grade.

    Eighth grade. Eight long years I rode the short bus. And for no good reason other than I had a little box or two arbitrarily checked off on an important-looking sheet of paper.

    Those years are behind me now, and I’m still not happy about them.

    Seriously though, I’m so happy to read the story of another person who was forced to ride the short bus despite not being retarded. You have my sympathies.

    • DaringVonContra says:

      I have the same problem, but Im not classified as it, people just think I have it due to my Cereal Palsy, kids, the teachers dont think I have it at all.

  10. Mike Green says:

    This happened to me too, before I went to my high school a “normal” bus came and picked my brothers up. But, for some reason the year I go to school. I had to take the “short” bus at first I was very afraid and still am, (I Still take it). It’s pretty stupid how they change the bus route for the school. My mom and I asked the school to change the route but they said they couldn’t in anyway but, life goes on. I got chirped for the first couple weeks then it died down. I just tell people the reasoning and they seem to understand. But, sometimes they laugh. I just take it and laugh with them. :D

  11. What is sad is that people who said they had to ride the short bus didn’t see it as an opportunity to reach out and get to know students they might not otherwise have met. And maybe have even helped, socially. So. Their loss.

    Thank you for writing this. My son has autism, as you know. He also has a developmental age of 4 to 6 (he is 13) and an IQ that is less than half of a typical teens. What some people call retarded and what we call an intellectual disability. You had that bus experience for a year — he has had it since age 2. If only it began and ended with the bus ride, but you know it doesn’t.

    It’s sad but the only reason why he and most kids with disabilities have to ride a separate bus is for his own protection. He doesn’t “need” it. It’s because typical people cannot be counted on to behave with decency, although I will say things have improved in the school setting very much since my day. Improved, but a long, long way to go.

    Thank you for letting people know when you don’t find their jokes about people with disabilities funny. People who wouldn’t dream of making a joke about homosexuals or a racial slur seem to think it’s perfectly fine to use these references or call things “retarded.” It will never stop until they understand how hurtful it is (unfortuantely for some not even then). It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about being decent. It’s incredibly painful for me to hear it and as uncomfortable as it is, I call people on it, every time. It is the only way it will change.

    I was in a copy center last month and a young woman was using the copier. She couldn’t figure it out and got frustrated. I was waiting for the copier, so she turned to me and said — I’m sorry, this copier is “retarded.” I looked at her and said, I don’t think it’s the copier that is the problem. She glared and said what? And I said, quietly, the copier is not malfunctioning. And my son is “retarded.” She immediately apologized. I just have the feeling from the complete shock and mortification in her expression that she will not casually use that term again.

    I wish everyone who did would spend at least 1 hour a week volunteering with people who were cognitively challenged. I think it would completely change how they look at the disability community.

    • omawarisan says:

      It isn’t right that those terms have become acceptable language for some in our society. It bugs me your son, because the label and the behavior of others adds an unfair challenge.

      It also flys all over me for parents. Folks toss those terms and jokes around without thinking how hurtful they might be to someone within earshot. You don’t love your son any less that I love mine. Why should you have to accept him being mocked when people would appreciate when I stand up for mine?

      Agree with your idea on volunteering too. I’ve done it and it is a rewarding and worthwhile experience.

  12. [...] time ago, I wrote about my feelings about the stigma of jokes involving “the short bus”. I’ll add that the term retard really sets me [...]

  13. DaringVonContra says:

    I absolutely hate people like this, being born with Cerebral Palsy I cannot walk very well, so I am unable to walk to the bustop some 3 miles away from my house, So a shortbus has to pick me up, My mental capacity is completely normal, I dont have autism, I dont have any sort of mental defects, but people think I do, Why? Because I limp everywhere and have to ride the short bus, People ridicule me and some people actually legitimately think I have Autism, speaking to me in baby talk and such, I promptly tell them that I am a straight A student and take three honors classes, to which they say they dont believe me and promptly keep bullying me, I hate this and I want to be normal so bad, all my life this has happened to me, and I hate it, I hate that some people think I have a mental defect just because my left leg doesn’t function properly, I hate being cursed with this, and I want to show all of them that there is nothing wrong with me mentally at all. Ive told teachers, and they have done stuff about it, but despite this, it still happens. Thank you for motivating me with your post.

  14. Anonymous says:

    The short bus in south Mississipi is for disabled and head start. Good entry BTW.

  15. So how did the school district solve the bus overcrowding problem after that year? Did you go back to standing in the aisle all the way to school?


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