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Hardly Helpless

When CTA drivers refused to call out streets for him, Sean Kennan called a laywer.

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By Ben Joravsky

According to Sean Kennan, the CTA declared war on him sometime in the early 1980s, and after a long, bitter fight he recently was forced to concede defeat.

Kennan says he will never ride another CTA bus because no matter how many times he asked--and he asked many, many times--most drivers refused to call out the stops. Many became abusive; some made violent threats. And despite his countless letters and phone calls, CTA brass was either unable or unwilling to make drivers follow a work rule on the books since the 1930s.

It's not a simple matter of courtesy. Kennan's blind, and unless he hears the stops called out he doesn't know where the bus is on its route. "I'm not seeking special favors. I'm merely asking the CTA to enforce its own rules," says Kennan. "We're talking about 18 years of mistreatment by design. It's beyond rudeness. It's abuse. Aristotle says all of education is the recognition of patterns. And I realize I was watching a pattern here, a pattern of letting a blind guy know where he stands in the world."

Kennan was 28 when he lost his eyesight in 1976, blinded by an adverse reaction to a swine flu vaccination offered by the government. "It killed my optic nerves. Within ten days of that shot I began losing sense of color and larger objects. I got to the point where I could not read. I was left with 2 percent vision in one eye. I was a young married man, a Vietnam vet. It's a bitter irony. I survived the war and came home to be blinded by the same government I fought for."

In 1980 he moved to Chicago to work as a writer for a corporation, a job that required a daily bus commute from his north-side apartment. "In 18 years I've met some truly fine bus drivers--models to be emulated. I'd be a liar and a fool to say otherwise," says Kennan. "But typically I'd board the bus with my dog and say, 'Please call out the stops.' They'd say, 'Where are you going?' And I'd say, 'I haven't made my mind up.' I shouldn't have to tell them, and I don't want to tell them. When I have to give an address to a driver I sacrifice my privacy. When the visually impaired gets on, there is no word spoken until his destination is reached, whereupon the driver says, 'Here's your stop.' Well, what if I changed my mind? What if I realize that I don't want to get out there? What if the driver forgets? It's not his job to remember my destination. What if I just don't want the driver to know where I'm going? There's a security factor here. How do I know there's not someone more dangerous--someone with a knife or gun--listening to where I'm going?

"If you're on a bus and you suddenly want to get out because you realize there's someplace you want to go, you can do that. But I can't, unless the driver calls out the stops--because I don't know where we are. That right of impulsiveness, that freedom of movement, is what this is all about. When they don't call out the stops they're telling me I don't have the same rights that you have."

Kennan says some drivers responded to his request with hostility. "They humiliated me, mocked me, taunted me, and tried to turn the passengers against me. I'm in a predicament. I can't see their badge numbers. Someone told me to feel for the impression of the number above the driver. If I did that they might get furious. Some would tell me their number--'You think I'm gonna get in trouble for this?' There was so much impunity.

"If they could make me feel stupid they would. If they could make me the butt of their jokes they would do that too. Sometimes they let me out in the middle of the street or in front of a post office box. Isn't that funny? Watch the blind guy walk into the box. I asked one driver where we were and he said, 'You blind people want to know everything. Here, I'll help you. Right now I'm at Belmont and Racine and I'm picking my nose. Now I'm at Belmont and Southport and I'm scratching my balls. Now I'm at Belmont and Ashland and I'm picking my nose and scratching my balls.' And the bus is roaring with laughter."

The drivers were "infantilizing" him, he says. "The minute they see me with my dog they want the relation to be on their terms. They want me to be the infant who begs and is led. We're dealing with people who are at the bottom of the CTA barrel and here's their opportunity to give a little out. They have the ability to use my disability to their advantage. I guess that makes them feel more powerful."

On occasion he was threatened. "One day I was walking up Clark and suddenly there are voices in front of me, and one says, 'We know who you are and where you live and if you keep this up we will kill you.' And this other voice says, 'Yeah, we'll cut your dog.' Well, that's the most frightening thing a visually impaired person can hear."

Kennan says he started wearing a whistle. If a driver refused to call out stops, he blew the whistle and called for the police. "I'm a force to contend with when I'm angry, but I don't get angry for nothing. I get angry when someone says, in effect, I'm not going to do what I'm paid for, and when CTA management refuses to manage responsibly. Drivers have to do three things--accept fares, operate a vehicle, and call out stops. It's not too much to ask."

Over the last 18 years, Kennan made more than 400 complaints to CTA officials, he says. Given the behavior of its drivers, he believes the agency made no attempt to enforce its stop-calling rule. As far as he knows, no driver was reprimanded, no investigation held. Quite the contrary. Kennan says at least one high-ranking CTA official let him know the agency had more pressing matters to deal with.

He certainly had few allies outside the disability-rights movement. During most of his protests on buses, other passengers either sat in silence or sided with the driver, presumably agitated that his outbursts were delaying their ride. No politician rallied to his side. By and large he waged his fight without assistance from even Larry Gorski, the city's director of the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities.

"Yes, I talked to Larry years ago," says Kennan. "I called a general number to City Hall and was referred to the disability office. I told Larry my story and he said, 'We hear this a lot. We'll pursue it.' I could see this wasn't going anywhere. So I said, 'Who do you report to?' He said Frank Kruesi, then one of Daley's top aides. I began calling Kruesi, and to this day he's never called back. I followed up those with calls to other assistants in Daley's office who assured me they would get my message to the mayor. But they never called back and of course Daley never called back. And needless to say, Larry never called me back."

In 1992 Kennan filed suit, in part on the advice of a sympathetic CTA board member "who told me that nothing will change unless I sue." His suit sought "monetary damages for ongoing emotional injustices, including fear of taking CTA buses, humiliation and endangerment by physical disorientation and unnecessary stress and recompense." It also sought a court order compelling "CTA management to vigorously enforce its own work rules."

In 1997, after five years of pretrial depositions and pleadings, Cook County judge Ronald Banks dismissed the case, ruling that Kennan had failed "to state a cause of action." In other words, Kennan's case had no legal merit since it made no allegations of monetary loss or "bodily injury."

Kennan turned to the Appellate Court of Illinois. But in November it affirmed the dismissal. The state supreme court refused to hear his appeal; legally, the matter's dead.

In the aftermath, CTA officials say they're trying to get drivers to call out stops. "We get similar complaints from other riders. It's one of our rules and it's important," says CTA spokesperson Noelle Gaffney. "We're planning customer training to make drivers more aware of the need to do it."

Kruesi is now executive director of the CTA. Gaffney says he's not familiar with Kennan's case, but that he is particularly sensitive to the needs of the visually impaired because he himself once had difficulties using public transit after several eye surgeries. While expressing sympathy for Kennan, Gaffney points out that he often was abusive to drivers who were only trying to be nice to him. "Many times he'd board the bus in a confrontative manner. He'd say, 'Call out the stops.' And they would say, 'Where do you want to go?' And he got mad at them.

"In addition to calling out stops, one rule is that operators should make extra effort to assist disabled passengers. And in many instances the operators would assist him to a seat and he would get very abusive. I understand it's an issue of independence and not wanting to need someone's help. We respect that. On the other hand, operators were not trying to be politically incorrect--they were just trying to help."

Gorski did not return calls for comment.

Kennan says Gaffney's response shows that the CTA still misses the point. "Listen, I've explained this to CTA officials many times before. I've never asked for any special help or assistance. I tried to explain to them that I walked through a war--I don't need anyone to escort me to my seat. They treat you like an infant under the guise of helping you, but their offer of help is a fool's deal, a bargain I don't want to make. If someone's doing me a favor, they have no duty to perform. It's the difference between providing a favor and doing the job for which you are paid. Please, no favors. And forget the special customer training--as a taxpayer that just outrages me even more. Just do your job." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sean Kennan photo by Jon Randolph.

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