Transit advocate Sunday Parker uses storytelling and pictures to help others overcome the lack of empathy for the systemic and ongoing barriers that impact public transit riders with disabilities, even 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Parker: Sunday Parker
Cohen: Coming up next on The Movement podcast, Sunday Parker shares the connection between her experience as an person with a disability to studying interior architecture and design to now advocating for digital accessibility at Salesforce. Hearing some of the separate but unequal access to mobility she received will show how far we still have to go for truly equitable and accessible mobility. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: After I asked Chris Pangilinan, my guest from Episode 068, for some recommendations of some folks whose perspectives I’m not hearing from that I should, he recommended Sunday Parker. According to her Twitter bio, she is a recovering Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter advocating for improved access to public transit for persons with disabilities. Welcome to The Movement, Sunday.
Parker: Thank you so much.
Cohen: So you’re someone that has a transit system in their Twitter handle. Your Twitter handle is @SundayTakesBART, so that seems to indicate you’re a pretty serious public transit user and hopefully fan. I’m curious to maybe hear a little bit more about your public transit journey, when’d you start using it, and kind of what that experience has been like.
Parker: Yeah, it is a tad bit misleading now; I am not an everyday BART user because, as I mentioned in my bio, I’m a recovering BART commuter. I moved recently to Austin, Texas, but I am still passionate about public transportation equity for people with disabilities. And so many people know me from my tweeting my experiences on BART, so I’m keeping it, and I hope to one day be able to carry that on in my new town of Austin. So I started taking public transportation back in 2010, and it was my freshman year of university. My first experience on a train was to actually go to a doctor’s appointment at UCSF. I was 17 years old, and I hadn’t avoided public transportation up until this point; it’s just that I grew up in a very, very small town in Oklahoma. And I know everyone says they grew up in a small town, but I mean that. It’s less than 500 people.
Parker: There were no stoplights. You had to drive 20 minutes just to get to a grocery store. I was bussed to a nearby school. So, I mean, I learned before I ever even took public transportation just how important personal mobility really is. And I just didn’t have any access to alternatives that didn’t involve a car. So as someone in a wheelchair, taking a car, whether it be someone’s personal vehicle or in today’s world of ridesharing, it just isn’t that simple. So my life up until this point really fully depended on the assistance of other people. And, you know, I know it’s cliché to say that people go to university to gain independence, but truly by moving to a city that had public transportation I was able to get a power wheelchair and independently navigate the city by, you know, bus or train or walking everywhere just in the same way most people got around San Francisco at that time.
So to fast-forward a little bit, I created my BART Twitter handle to share my personal experiences as an everyday transit user in a wheelchair, which, you know, varies so much from the experience of someone who takes public transportation without any mobility consideration.
Parker: So I learned, you know, through storytelling of my experiences, through photographs, and what I was experiencing that so many people, you know, just didn’t know about the gaps that existed for people with disabilities on public transportation. And through that, you know, knowledge it really builds empathy, and that really was the or I hope is a foundation for creating change, because, you know, if people aren’t aware of the systemic problems that exist, they really can never be rectified.
Cohen: I think that’s definitely true. You mentioned storytelling there. Was there a particular story that has either resonated with you or, you know, maybe even resonated with some of the folks that you engage with on Twitter about your experience taking public transit that was particularly meaningful or resonant?
Parker: Yeah, I think what—you know, this is a little bit before. This predates my Twitter, but I think I was like probably barely 18 at the time, but I somehow landed this appointment with what would have been the head of accessibility of Muni at the time. And I, you know, with all the naiveté in the world just, like, went down to Van Ness Station and, you know, marched into the Muni headquarters and was like, “I’m going to create change and tell them all about my experiences.”
And I, you know, sat down with this person, and I just started sharing, you know, “These are all the challenges. I’m so afraid to take the elevator. The corridors are so dimly lit. There’s always pee in the elevators,” and, you know, I saw kind of the life really get drawn out of his face as I was sharing all of this. And he just said, you know, “Do you have access to explosives?” And I was so caught off-guard I—
Parker: I just kind of looked at him, and he was like, “because the only way that we are going to be able to fix the issues that you’re describing is that we start all over.”
Cohen: Literally rebuild the system from ground up? I mean, is that what he was implying?
Parker: Yeah, he was implying basically that, you know, the problems have existed for so many decades because we created the system before accessibility was a requirement with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that really we couldn’t do anything about accessibility unless we could build a whole new elevator in a different location and all of these things. And obviously, you know, thinking back, I didn’t have any—you know, I had so many problems at this time, but I didn’t have—you know, I didn’t know what the solutions were, of course.
And there were solutions that did get implemented years later through some of the things I shared later on Twitter but also from others who have worked through advocacy agencies to kind of get some of these changes made like better lighting in the corridors, part of the elevator attendants that are now in the BART elevators, and some of these improvements that did happen for accessibility without having to, you know, tear down the entire system. But I think it just shows that there is kind of this lack of desire to sort of change things simply because, I think, we’re stuck—we think that we’re stuck with what we have. And it’s simply not the case. I mean, there’s so many different ways to improve the system with what we have currently.
Cohen: Now, BART is a much younger agency than Muni in San Francisco. You know, BART, I guess, was, I think, started in the ’70s, I believe, so certainly before the Americans with Disabilities Act, but—so I’m curious. From your experience, was BART—better is not the right word—more accessible than Muni? Or is it just a function of a different type of system?
Parker: Yeah, so logistically BART is technically more accessible. BART is, I believe, the only public transportation system in the Bay Area that is 100% accessible, meaning that every single stop someone in a wheelchair would be able to board and deboard the train, so compared to Muni which has many stops that do not have access points because there isn’t a ramp or Caltrain that has many inaccessible stops as well.
Cohen: I mean, from a practical matter when you were living in San Francisco and moving around San Francisco, you just had to make choices about where you went depending on what kind of access the public transit system allowed you? I mean, functionally that’s the bottom line. Right?
Parker: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of trail and error, especially when you’re new to taking public transportation, you know, learning which stops are accessible, what is the alternative when a stop isn’t accessible. You know, the Muni buses all have lifts on them, which makes all of the stops there accessible, but there are some that are really difficult to get off at depending on, you know, where they are located. And kind of learning the way that you have to kind of navigate, whether a line is, you know, super busy and you’re unable to actually get on because it’s so crowded and things like that that there’s definitely a lot of nuances to accessibility.
Cohen: Oh, for sure. And, I mean, I even think about, you know, any time I visit a new city and I take public transit, I mean, it’s challenging even if you can easily turn around and go down some steps or go back up some steps if you make an error and so forth. If you don’t have that ease of flexibility, if it requires a go down a hallway or if it requires you to use an elevator or a ramp, it just seems like that just is another barrier that you have to overcome there in order to have that same level of accessibility that an abled person would just take for granted. Right?
Parker: Yeah, you also don’t have the ability to rely on other people. Like, the first time I took public transportation I was actually described how to, you know, purchase my ticket, how to get on the train, all of this by someone who was not in a wheelchair. And when I turn around and try to do all of those steps—I think I even wrote the notes down in my phone—none of it was making sense because I didn’t know that, you know, I had to be on the first car for Muni; I couldn’t be on the second because there were steps that came down and you didn’t have access to the platform. Things like that that you can’t ask people around you because, you know, people want to help but they don’t know where the elevators are or they don’t know how you’re supposed to board the train; they only know from their own experiences.
Cohen: We’ve got a wide range of listeners that include transit agency officials and city transportation officials and public transit advocates, most of whom I’m assuming—although I don’t know for sure—are not persons with disabilities. I’m curious what you would want to tell them about your experience as a public transit user who also happens to have a disability.
Parker: I think the biggest takeaway is that, you know, my experiences are so vast and complex. I’ve had great days on public transportation, and I’ve had terrible ones. You know, haven’t we all? I think that we can all relate to that.
Cohen: Sure, yeah.
Parker: But it is definitely different when you are facing the constant discrimination of not being able to access the transit because of a disability. And, you know, I can be immensely grateful for public transportation while still being critical of its lack of equity for people with disabilities. And, you know, I share so much of my experiences through storytelling and images on social media, but until you have really lived those daily jabs of challenges during your daily commute, whether it be to school or work or appointments or social events, it’s really impossible to fully grasp the impacts that it has on a person both physically and mentally. So my ask isn’t, you know, so much of what I want you to know about my own personal experiences, but it’s really about regardless of whether you’re creating policy or designing civil life is to recognize the limitations of your own personal experiences.
There are no amount of good intentions that can make an equitable society, if we are not constantly searching for ways that we can be more inclusive. You know, I’m only a single person with one type of disability. I obviously don’t have all the answers for improving public transportation, but you can include people like me in all stages of decision-making to be able to kind of expand your own knowledge of accessibility or any other type of consideration for creating something for someone that has an experience that isn’t your own.
Cohen: Yeah, that certainly sounds like a good way to frame it, just recognizing those limitations and then seeking out the perspective of those who might, again, share that perspective that you may not have. And it seems to me that’s a, you know, as you mentioned, I think, is an important point. That’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. That requires a lot of perspectives, not just one perspective because it’s not a one-issue kind of thing. There’s a lot of different types of disabilities that will impact someone’s ability to take public transit. And, I think, fundamentally what it all comes down to is that we should all have the right to move. And so then it’s like, “How do we give that ability to everyone on this Earth that wants that desire?”
Parker: Yeah, and there are so many connections to accessibility beyond just considerations of people with disabilities. I mean, I think, you know, we’ve all experienced at one time the benefits of accessibility even if we didn’t realize it at the time. You know, if someone is lugging a heavy suitcase, they suddenly learn that, you know, “Oh, there’s an elevator.”
Cohen: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
Parker: And, you know, they hopefully find that that elevator is clean and it’s operable; but if they don’t then they do experience the challenges, not to the extend of people with disabilities who can’t haul a heavy suitcase up the stairs if they have to, but it does give you some level of understanding that, you know, accessibility is important.
Cohen: Yeah. And I remember talking to Chris and then also Tabitha Decker from TransitCenter about some of the work they’ve done with the New York City subway and making that accessible, and one of the things that, you know, their reports really underscore is that obviously this is important for persons with disabilities but it’s also important for anybody that needs a walker; it’s also important for parents with strollers. I mean, this is an issue of accessible access to transit that is not only important for you and your life and millions of others who have disabilities but also for the millions of other people that need a walker or some other mobility aid or have a stroller. I mean, this is not a small issue; this is a huge, huge issue.
Parker: Yeah. And I don’t always like to go in the mode of making threats, but it is something that can impact you at any time in your life. I mean, it is—you know, a disability is something that is always evolving and someone can become disabled at any time, and they may find themselves in a situation that they do need accessibility. So it is really for everyone’s benefit, regardless of whether it impacts you now or in the future, to care about accessibility.
Cohen: So, you know, you were talking about kind of the benefits of accessibility. You actually went a different direction than I thought you were going to go. You talked about the heavy suitcase, and that certainly is one. You know, an area that I think about a lot as it relates to accessibility certainly is wayfinding. And certainly some transit agencies have done a great job with wayfinding, and some agencies have done a really poor job with wayfinding. And I want to maybe tie that back to, you know, professionally you are an accessibility outreach program manager for user experience at Salesforce, but I read that you went to school for interior architecture and design. And so I’m kind of curious about this connection between your educational background on one side, your professional work, and then your experience as a public transit rider who also has a disability as well. Is there a connection between all three of those there?
Parker: Yeah. I appreciate the digging there in my background. [LAUGHTER] It is—I’ve actually never even answered this question publicly, so I’ll do my best. You know, it’s quite a long story, but it really does all connect. And I’ll be intentionally vague in some areas just for the sake of time. But, yeah, so I went to school for interior architecture and design because I was passionate about wanting to create aesthetic spaces like most people, but my first semester I learned about universal design, and that really changed my perception on what it meant to design for the built environment.
And, you know, I quickly became kind of known for my accessibility critiques in all of my courses. And one thing I learned was that there was this theme of, you know, separate but equal as standard for design. You know, I was asked—or I would ask the person, you know, “Oh, so where is the ramp into the building?” And they were like, “Oh, well, you know, it’s going to be around the back.” And then I’d have to, like, take the time of explaining what the impacts of that design had on me as someone in a wheelchair who had to access from a different part of the building as others. And there was this constant—you know, people had the right intentions of creating, but they didn’t understand that what they were doing, how it would impact.
So in school if I had to pinpoint the main pivotal moment in my life it was really towards the end of my bachelor’s degree where I took an elective course in urban sociology. And it was taught by the most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had who showed me, you know, the human relationship that we have to our environment. He introduced me to documentaries like The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, taught us how to conduct post-occupancy evaluations and really kind of question the status quo of what is and, you know, why it doesn’t necessarily need to be the way it is. You know, I learned historically that we made so many intentional and unintentional mistakes in creating a society that works for some but inadvertently shuts out others. And it was usually rooted in ableism, racism, sexism, and classism.
And with all this knowledge I was so inspired to go out and make change but really quickly became faced with the reality that not a lot of interior architecture and design firms really cared so much about accessibility, and so I—you know, in my interviews I found there were two things that kind of stood out. It’s, you know, there was a lot of work, a lot of physical demanding work that went into the industry and that people didn’t care about accessibility. And I just couldn’t ethically contribute to the status quo of inaccessibility, but I also, you know, needed to work in an environment that was a little bit more flexible in terms of to accommodate my physical disability. And I ultimately just decided that it wasn’t good for me to really pursue the industry after my graduation.
And so to kind of skip ahead a little bit, I, you know, still needed a job after graduation, so I ended up working in Apple retail, which, you know, gave me good healthcare but didn’t need the experience. So I, through doing that and kind of figuring out what I wanted to do next, I needed to take public transportation in a new way, and it was to get to work. And I was an hourly employee. I was clocking in and clocking out, and I was frequently finding that I couldn’t get to work on time because of public transportation. You know, there are four elevators that I have to go to to get to work just using public transportation. There was another one to get actually into the building, and so there were just so many variables, being able to get on the train that wasn’t too crowded at the time, so many challenges that I was facing, and I was kind of coming into work and I was already just so frustrated.
And that’s when I started to actually tweet about my experiences on public transportation, because I was sharing all these experiences and someone finally said to me—a colleague one day was like, “Oh, why don’t you share this on Twitter,” and I said, “You know, no one’s really going to care about that,” and they didn’t for a long time. I think I probably had like 10 followers, and when I got 100 I thought I was the most famous person in the world. I was like, “Why are people wanting to, like, follow someone who tweets photos of poop and pee in BART elevators?” But, you know, as I mentioned, people really were curious about what they hadn’t experienced themselves. And so I continued doing that and was really passionate about accessibility. And through working in tech I found a way to connect those dots with working in digital accessibility, which is what I do now.
And, you know, it was really great for me to be able to find a way to work in a career of accessibility that didn’t necessarily impact me in my everyday. I learned about digital accessibility in a way that I had always thought of physical accessibility as being ramps into a building and, you know, elevators and all of that. But when I learned that there is this different layer to accessibility that is about being able to access the computer and screen readers and things like that it just opened my eyes to, like, “Okay, there’s this other side to accessibility that I could get into and be passionate about.” And so that is how I went from tech but sort of went into a role that was more related to what I am passionate about.
Cohen: That’s an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it. And I love that connection that you just shared between the physical accessibility and the digital accessibility, because that does make a lot of sense, obviously that connection and especially because of how you were stymied from kind of pursuing that from a physical accessibility standpoint from the interior architecture side. I want to dig into something you mentioned earlier which really kind of caught my ear a little bit.
You said there was this kind of philosophy of this kind of separate-but-equal approach to accessibility. So you mentioned the kind of going around back to access the ramp, and so then I’m kind of picturing a building with some steps to kind of enter in a grand atrium into an office building or something like that that has from an interior-architecture standpoint obviously that wow factor—right—that you get when you walk into a very nice space.
Cohen: And kind of what I’m hearing or where I kind of took what you said—and maybe you can kind of verify that, but that separate but equal is like, “Yeah, we’ve got a ramp for you. Don’t worry,” but that ramp doesn’t give you that same experience that that person who just jogged up those front steps and walked into that main atrium would have, beyond the fact that you alluded to, the additional work it takes to get around the back of the building however long that might take and so forth. Is that kind of what you’re getting at there?
Parker: Yeah, and you actually touched on—there’s kind of two parts to that. You know, there is the logistical problems with separate but equal, which is, you know, okay, do you have proper signage to tell me that that ramp exists? Am I having to make a phone call to have someone unlock a door? Do I have to be escorted through that entrance because it’s not the main entrance? You know, and there’s all those—there’s examples of that all over in so many different, you know, whether it be hotels or bars or all over San Francisco.
And some of them are actually completely in compliance with the law because there is technically an access point, but obviously it’s a lot of trouble for me as the person trying to get in but also, you know, the staff and having to create all these, you know, the different signage and things like that. So it just doesn’t make sense from any standpoint to create those sort of environments. But, of course, you also touched on the more personal side of it, which is, yeah, I’m not getting that same experience as everyone else. And, you know, whether it’s, you know, entering into a hotel and kind of getting that wow factor or, you know, being able to go into a bar and kind of be able to meet someone from the logical point when you walk in—
Cohen: Right. Right.
Parker: —there’s just so many kind of emotions that can kind of evoke from that, and there’s definitely two sides to it, and both of them are important.
Cohen: Yeah, and I guess just to maybe just kind of bring that back around to public transit, you know, certainly most public transit, you know, the stairs are not the cleanest in the world, but, you know, compared to, say, the elevator experience that you were talking about before where you’ve got, you know, urine and feces that you’re dealing with, it’s—that’s a different situation. Right? You know, it’s separate, but it’s not equal there—right—even when they do have the facilities necessary for you to move around.
Parker: Yeah, and oftentimes the elevators are kind of buried in different parts of the station that are not next to the stairs, so kind of going back to, you know, obviously I don’t think anyone has any feelings of the way they like to access public transportation in that same way as like a hotel, but when you’re trying to, you know, find the elevator or meet people or anything like that, having the elevator be so far away from the stairs can pose so many challenges. And it also makes it easier to have it not maintained, because it’s not within the main section of the train.
And I don’t want to get too much in the nitty-gritty here, but, like, one of the biggest challenges with the elevators not being in the same area as the stairs—this is specifically for BART—is that the ticketing system is also outside. So in order to process my ticket I actually have to, like, go into an emergency exit and exit through the main gate. And, like, all these people are, like, looking at me like, “What are you doing?” because it makes no sense. It’s also really hard to, like—I mean, there’s no way to know that that’s what you’re supposed to do until it’s been explained to you.
So there’s so many times where people with baby strollers and bicyclists, they actually don’t know how to process the ticket. I have explained to so many people how to do this just because it really doesn’t make any sense. So that, again, is kind of going back to, like, this is a separate-but-equal access but it makes no sense and it creates so many unnecessary barriers.
Cohen: Wow. I want to maybe wrap up with this, which is, you know, you touched on your teacher earlier who was inspiring for you, but I—you know, so maybe that’s an answer, maybe not. But I’m curious who inspires you and why? And then I kind of want to build from that towards what can we learn from them that can be applied in our fight for equitable and accessible mobility for all.
Parker: This is always such a challenging question because, you know, obviously so many people have inspired me, and I thinking back to some quotes that Haben Girma has made about, you know, so many people have told her she’s an inspiration but her rebuttal to that is always, you know, “Okay. What did I inspire you to do?”
Parker: And so thinking back to, you know, what has inspired me to be actionable and want to make change is not so much “who” but it’s “what.” And it’s, you know, the fact that there is still opportunity to make a world that is more accessible and more equitable to so many people; that inspires me. And the fact that there are so many layers to that, there are so many different types of disabilities and so many people get impacted by the decisions that we make in different ways. So that really inspires me, that, you know, we still have so much work that there is to be done.
Cohen: Yeah, that’s right. There is a lot of work, and I am grateful for you and others that continue to fight that fight and ask the hard questions that need to be asked so that we can achieve that. You still have your Twitter handle even though you’ve moved to Austin, so let’s share that.
Parker: So that’s Sunday, like the day, and TakesBART.
Cohen: @SundayTakesBART. All right. Well, Sunday, thank you so much for joining me on The Movement podcast. It was great to hear a little bit more about your experience using public transit as a person with a disability and also how much further we have to go, and I appreciate the work that you’re doing to help on that front.
Parker: Thanks so much.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.