Jane Jackson sat in the shade Saturday afternoon waiting for a northbound N2 Metrobus at Dupont Circle, her 24-volt motorized wheelchair straining under the weight of a bulging cloth suitcase, a canvas tote bag and rolled-up sleeping bag hanging from the handlebars behind her back. A pillowcase full of laundry shared her lap with a floppy black hat and a small covered basket she used as a purse.
A garish yellow "California" placard was struck onto the back of the wheelchair, and it was big enough to indentify a whole delegation.
Jackson was alone, however, dressed in an ankle-length Aztec print dress and a green down-filled vest. There was a button pinned to her seat which said, "Independence For 36 Million," referring to the estimated number of disabled Americans.
She was waiting, cheerfully, for a bus she was sure would have to leave without her. It had happeded before: In 1979, the 46-year-old seminary student caused a stir by jamming a foot into the door of a Metrobus that arrived liftless, after she had waited four hours in the rain for a specially equipped bus.
"I'm a product of the civil rights movement," she said. "I've always been this way."
Jackson, her dark, thinning hair parted in the middle and pulled back, has been in a wheelchair for five years, for 10 years a victim of Meniere's syndrome, which attacks the inner ear and consequently the balance and motor skills. She lives in Oakland, and came to Washington -- as she had twice before -- on behalf of the Gray Panthers, a group dedicated to winning rights for the elderly and the handicapped, to meet last week with others for a national conference on hiring the handicapped and to protest the administration's budget cuts.
The administration plans to cut about $250 million out of what is now a $1 billion federal program benefitting the handicapped.
"They want us to go to work," she said, with an ironic smile. "But they don't allow us to get there."
She had rolled the four blocks from the Washington Hilton Saturday to the bus stop -- primarily in the street, for lack of corner curb ramps -- to catch a special, lift-equipped N2 Metrobus to a friend's home on 47th Street NW.
Just under 10 percent of Metro's 1,550 buses are equipped with the lifts. But in three visits during the past 1 1/2 years, Jackson said, she never encountered one that worked properly, if at all.
Jackson, who encourages small children in elevators to ignore the usual parental rebuke and stare at her -- so that she can wink back -- invited a reporter to wait for the bus with her.
"I don't expect to be able to get on that bus, to be honest," she said. She winked.
A year and a half ago, when Johnson spent those rainy hours waiting for a bus, two Metrobuses -- three hours apart -- were supposed to have lifts but did not. She stuck her foot in the door of the second bus and refused to move until a third bus was sent out especially for her. It took 20 minutes to deploy the lift on the third bus. Someone on the bus called the newspapers.
Last week, Jackson, said she called ahead to Metro officials before taking a bus ride on Tuesday. When the first bus arrived, tailed by a supervisor in a car, the lift didn't work. A second bus arrived and took her to a transfer point. The next bus had a broken lift, and the next bus with a lift had to be hand cranked by the supervisor who, Jackson said, struck with her "valiantly" through the three-hour trip across Silver Spring.
Metro spokesman Cody Pfanstiehl blamed below-standards maintenance and repairs due to budgetary problems, lack of driver training and attentiveness, and the "touchy" hydraulic equipment itself.
"There are human problems on top of mechanical problems, on top of budget problems," Pfanstiehl said. "But the drivers are supposed to test the lifts every time they take a bus out."
On Saturday, Jackson had no great expectations. Just hope.
She recalled the driver's comment that proompted her foot into his door in 1979:
"Ma'am, people like you just shouldn't be out here."
Her eyes widened. "That was the straw," she recalls. "I said, "Okay, fine. Then no one's going anywhere.'"
"My concern is that they don't want to provide accessible transportation, that instead we should get separate and unequal transportation," she explained, describing how a wheel-chair-bound friend at last week's conference paid $60 for a lift-equipped van ride Dulles to the Hilton, and the same to return. The special vans cost as much as $20 an hour, plus a mileage charge, she said.
"Person-to-person communication," Jackson said, arriving at one of the basic tenets of her argument several seconds before her bus arrived at the curb. "There isn't any substitute, when you get right down to it. I was missing that. After five years [of being housebound] I really began to understand what isolation means. We use isolation as punishment in our penal system, don't we? So we punish disabled people. We punish seniors by isolating them, warehousing them.
"People don't change their attitudes overnight. But if we keep talking about it, keep raising the issue, chipping away -- maybe we'll begin to realize that none of us is immune, and make this an accessible society."
The N2 bus arrived at the curb. The driver, Tyrone McCreary, spotted Jackson immediately. He applied the hydraulic brake, sprang out of his seat and asked a group of passengers to clear the area set aside for wheelchairs.
"Be with you in a minute, ma'am," he said, testing the lift.
Two women waiting for a different bus sat and shook their heads in wonder as McCreary deployed the lift, Jackson rolled onto it and was raised up into the bus, where McCreary strapped her and the chair in.
Less than two minutes after it it arrived, the bus was off.
"It's really something, I tell you," said one woman to the other, who nodded in agreement. "Years ago, they never had anything like that."