Discover more from More Than Normal: Breaking Down Barriers of Disability
How transit systems can educate people about disability
Admittedly this is old news but in case you missed it, I wanted to make you aware of a cool project that was undertaken during Autism Awareness Month which is in April each year.
This year, riders on public transportation in several cities heard public service announcements that diverged from the typically robotic, “Please stand clear of the closing doors.” They may have included comments like, “Remember to be kind and have a happy New York City day,” as was reported by the New York Times in this story where you can also hear some of the announcements.
These messages, recorded by children and young adults on the autism spectrum, were the brainchild of Jonathan Trichter — a financier-turned-disability advocate after he was “personally touched” by autism in 2019 though he demurs at sharing exactly how citing respect for the person’s privacy. He co-founded two (soon to be three) schools for children with autism and other learning disabilities.
Autism is thought to affect 1 in 36 children, according to the National Autism Association. Recognizing the intense interest many kids with autism have for trains (think Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory, for example), Mr. Trichter launched the Autism Transit Project in New York City in 2021 when messages ran for a single day. This year they were broadcast for the entire month and not only in New York. Four other systems — Washington, DC’s Metro; Atlanta’s MARTA; New Jersey Transit and the San Francisco Bay’s BART systems also participated.
Atlanta commuters found them so endearing, the city continued to air the messages for another month. Ken Johnson, MARTA’s manager of customer engagement, is proud his organization participated in the project and was “enlightened” by facilitating it.
“I didn’t know a lot about autistic kids,” he said. “I’d heard of it but I didn’t know all of the characteristics.”
The project got lots of media attention and was so successful, Mr. Trichter plans to take these messages to cities like Tokyo, London, Paris and Berlin next year. He’s even had unsolicited interest from a city in Australia. As such, the day I spoke with him, he was in the process of creating a nonprofit specifically to fund the transit project. He also intends to leverage the project’s notoriety to jobs for people with autism within transit systems — a win for both employers and future employees.
“I like to think that by embracing neurological differences in people with autism, we are not only bringing them into civic life and therefore improving their own human experience, but also advancing our own civilization and society by pushing through prejudices and historical wrongs,” Mr. Trichter told WTOP news in Washington, DC.
Below are links to some of the media that covered the project with recordings and interviews with some of the 113 children and young adults who participated. This is just one way that we can give people with autism a voice to feel empowered and to educate neurotypical people that, yes, they are capable.
“These kids are different but similar and no less,” Mr. Trichter told one news outlet.
MARTA’s Mr. Johnson agrees. “The misconception is that they’re not smart,” he said. “Autistic kids are very, very intelligent and the stigma that we label kids who have been diagnosed, it’s unfair. If we just take the time to get to know them, it’s not the picture that’s sometimes painted in our heads.”
The Today Show story has short videos from New Jersey Transit and BART.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your experiences as a neurodivergent person in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you. Until next time.
Thanks for reading More Than Normal: Breaking Down Barriers of Disability! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.