Constance Oliver: Planning for the Future
Albany, Georgia (Senate District 12)
It's a long walk from the bus shelter to Constance Oliver’s first two stops: the check-cashing business and the cell phone store where she’ll pay her monthly bill.. She walks across the back parking lot of a mostly abandoned strip mall and past empty storefronts, joking that she’s getting her steps in as she points to her watch. Constance is a major fan of all things high-tech. What’s it like, walking all this way on rainy days? “On rainy days? I don’t go out on rainy days! I just stay home!”
(Story continues below after slideshow.)
Today is one of those early fall days in the South that’s masquerading as summer. On the city bus, Constance sits in the aisle-facing bench seat, craning her neck toward the front to watch for her stop. In her lap, little Adele Alexa smiles cheerfully out at boarding passengers. People nod and smile at the two, often waving at Adele Alexa in her brand new pink booties and matching embroidered dress; Constance responds with a shy smile, giving a little squeeze to the Cabbage Patch Doll, who, she says, looks just like her.
Adele Alexa goes just about everywhere with Constance. Otherwise, she is completely on her own. Most of the time, that’s by foot—walking to the Piggly Wiggly or the Dollar Store near her cinderblock apartment for necessities. “Everybody at church says I need to get her a stroller,” she jokes, and we talk over the pros and cons of one of those snuggly infant carriers that fit close to the body. (Pro: Constance could be hands-free. Cons: Hot on a day like today. Fewer people could appreciate Adele Alexa’s fabulous outfits. And, probably: expensive.)
Trips to Target, like she’s taking today, or to Books-a-Million, or the electronics store Five Below, cost extra money, too, and she only visits these places when she receives her twice-monthly $60 allotments of spending money. (She also receives supplemental security income.)
Constance, who’s 47 and lives with an intellectual disability, enjoys taking the bus herself; enjoys going around to the places where people know her and know Adele Alexa, and enjoys budgeting and planning to figure out what she can afford and what she can’t—a skill she’s still working on.
There was a time before she had the freedom to do these things at all. Her mother moved her to Albany from Moultrie, Georgia when she was 27 because Albany had better services for Constance’s disability. The Arc of Southwest Georgia, dedicated to providing support for people with disabilities so that they can live in the community, is headquartered here. At first, Constance lived in a group home. But then she met The Arc’s founder, Annette Bowling, who agreed when Constance told her that with some support, she could live independently. Now, in the small apartment where she cares for her betta fish, Nemo, and Adele Alexa, she cooks for herself—things like the greens, chicken, and mashed potatoes her grandmother taught her to make as a child—and a case manager drops by once or twice a month to take her to appointments or help her with filling out paperwork.
It's her Medicaid waiver that makes this arrangement possible. The waiver grants Constance services like the case manager while enabling her to live in a community setting, and this is how Constance likes it. As the bus goes over a bump, she repositions Adele Alexa on her lap and says, “See, like, ‘independent’ means I can go anywhere I want to go. But being in a group home or a personal care home, you can’t do that. You got to tell somebody where you at.” And then she pulls the cord, indicating to the bus driver she’s requesting a stop.
Her first stop today is the check cashing place, where the clerk asks if the baby—pointing to her doll—still has the sucker she gave her last time.
“She wants another!” answers Constance, holding Adele Alexa up, and the two start in, laughing.
“I’m a-give her three of them,” says the clerk, handing the lollipops around the glass that separates them. “There you go, darlin’. Give her a sucker! You better take care of that baby.”
“You know I do. I take her to church and everything!”
“Don’t drop her, now!”
After that, it’s onto the cell phone store, to pay her bill. Usually, this means she gets to visit with the friendly dog belonging to the owner. The dog isn’t here today, but she checks out some of the used electronics for sale as he goes into another room to get her the correct change.
“Bye-bye, Constance,” he says as she leaves. “Be safe.”
The fabric of community feels palpable around her. These are the kinds of interactions that would be far less likely were she still living in a group home or, like many people with disabilities who lack Medicaid waivers, a nursing home.
She’s buoyant as she strolls back to the bus stop after her last errand of the day—Target. Even though they didn’t have a cord she needs for her handheld Nintendo, they did have the other item on her list: a planner in which to write her goals for next year, and she gets to talking about those goals as she walks. She wants to finish up her GED, which she is pursuing virtually at Albany Technical College. She wants to learn to tell time on an analog clock. She also wants to learn to manage her money more independently and, eventually, to work at a daycare like the one run by The Arc of Southeast Georgia. And before all that, she’s reminded, walking by an appliance store, she wants to save up her money for a TV to put in her bedroom.
At the bus stop, she begins jotting down notes along these lines in her new planner. And she waits.
In total, the journey to Target, which is fifteen minutes by car, takes over an hour with a transfer in the middle. At each bus stop, she’s waited between 15 and 30 minutes in the blazing afternoon sun—which adds more time. “Yeah, sometimes it’s late,” she says after a while, planner in her lap, fanning herself with a church pamphlet from her purse. “Depends on who’s driving the bus. They’ve got a lot of new drivers now.”
Like many cities in this late-pandemic era, Albany has been experiencing a bus driver shortage. Earlier this year, the shortage caused a temporary shutdown of one of the bus lines Constance depends on to make this trip and others she makes regularly: to the library where she studies, to doctors’ offices, as well as other places.
People who live with disabilities use public transportation in numbers disproportionate to other Americans. This makes investments in transportation especially crucial for people like Constance. Twenty-six percent (26%) of people with disabilities do not own a car. And yet 80% of federal transportation funding is dedicated to highways (American Association of People with Disabilities, www.aapd.com).
Constance is looking forward to the opening of a new comprehensive bus terminal downtown early next year. Although it will likely have little impact on the length of her bus trips around Albany, it will mean she won’t have to travel to what she says is a dicey section of town when she wants to catch the Greyhound to visit her family in Moultrie.
When the bus finally does arrive, the bus driver doesn’t smile or wave at Adele Alexa, and Constance is quiet as she takes her seat. It’s been a long afternoon and she’s ready to go home, sit on her own sofa for a while, and make some ramen for dinner. After a spell of silence, she perks up. “You know, I think I have that cord for my Nintendo at home. I might have it.” She gets her planner out, and all at once, she’s back at it: making plans for the future once again.
Writer: Kate Sweeney, Photographer: Jessica Whitley