Saturday, December 11, 2010

Transit Barriers to Toronto and Back

On Monday, Dad phoned me to tell me a cousin had died, and that the funeral would be in Toronto on Wednesday. I asked him if he could help me to get there and he said no. He was too busy and suggested that I don't go because of the difficulty in accommodating the wheelchair. I would have none of it. I was determined to be at the funeral. The trick was to find accessible public transportation that could get me to Toronto Wednesday morning in time for the 10:30 am service.

I already knew, after making enquiries a few days before, that wheelchairs are not allowed to board the train in Kingston because an employee, who normally works that shift, has a disability that prevents her from using the lift to board a wheelchair onto the train. I looked into taking a bus instead, but the times were not practical.

I decided my only option was to call the station master at Kingston, explain the situation, and ask if the employee shifts could be changed. Alternatively, I offered to bring a person who could help out instead.

He said it was printed in the formal schedule that wheelchairs were not allowed, but that he would call around and see what he could do. I couldn't find anything on the Via Rail web site to indicate this, so I'm still not sure what he is talking about. However, a short while later he called me back, said a different employee would be working that day and that he would "bend the rules, put his job on the line" and let me onboard. I ignored the attempt at a guilt trip and, instead, sincerely thanked him for his help. I then made a reservation and paid for the ticket.

The next challenge was to figure out how to get to the train, because there is no wheelchair accessible transportation at that time of the morning. Conventional and Specialized Transit don't start running that early, and Kingston does not have accessible taxis.

I phoned an acquaintance who, in the past has told me she would be willing to help me out with a drive, in a pinch. She not only agreed to drive me to the train on Wednesday morning, but she also made a brilliant suggestion. She suggested we take my power wheelchair to Via Rail Tuesday evening and store it there overnight because she knew how often I had been stranded in Toronto and thought the power chair would be much safer. I phoned Via Rail to make sure they could store it, and then arranged for the Access Bus to take me to the station to drop off the chair. Dianne followed me in her car with my manual wheelchair.

The next day, she picked me up at 4:30 am, drove me to the train, and I was home free, or so I thought. However, I should have known better because experience has taught me that having a disability can be a logistical nightmare.

I got to Toronto and discovered that Wheel-Trans, which was scheduled for 9:05, was so late that, at 9:50 I abandoned it for the subway. According to the Priority Line, the bus would not be arriving for another 20 minutes and it would take a half an hour to get to the church. Seeing no point in arriving at the church after the funeral was over, I headed for the subway. By doing this, I was able to get to the church by 10:15. I had already done my homework to figure out the routes the day before because I knew from bitter experience, that Wheel-Trans could not be depended upon.

At the funeral, I found out there would be a reception that would be held in a place that was 2 blocks down the road. It was scheduled for 12 - 2 pm. I phoned Wheel-Trans to ask if I could change the pick-up location and delay the time by about 30 minutes, but I gather flexibility is not allowed. By this point, I had been on the phone for 40 minutes so, it was frustrating to wait that long only to be told that I can't do what most humans would do; attend the reception. I hung up the phone, decided to forget the bus and accept the penalty for being a no-show. I then went to the reception. I knew the route back to Union Station so I figured I could take the subway back in time to catch the 3:15 train to Kingston. I left the reunion at 2:15 and headed for St. George’s station. I believed I had ample time to get there to be pre-boarded the required 20-30 minutes before the train left. After all, I was in a building located right beside the subway and the elevator had worked well in the morning.

I must be a dreamer to have thought it would work out because, in the end, nothing did. Silly me; I keep forgetting that the rules for wheelchair users differ widely from those that exist for the non-disabled.

What happened is when I went back to the St. George's subway station; the one that I had exited from in the morning, the elevator was no longer working. Not only that, but when I tried to pay my token by sticking it in the coin slot beside the accessible gate, I was yelled at by the TTC ticket lady for using it instead of handing it to her directly and letting her push a button that would swing open the gate. How was I supposed to know? I don't live in Toronto, for Pete's sake.

Anyway, she let me through the gate and didn't think to warn me that I would be trapped because the elevator was no longer working. Worse, once I was in, she was so rattled that she couldn’t figure out how to let me out.

When she realized her mistake, she escalated and started to yell across the room to tell me I should have checked out the TTC website before going to the station to get an elevator status update. I didn’t bother to tell her that I had already activated the TTC Alerts the night before, and expected that any elevator breakdowns would be announced through the alerts, which I could receive on my cell phone. She then told me she couldn’t refund my token or let me out until her supervisor arrived. Thankfully, a passenger came to the rescue. He handed me a token and then helped me to get out of the gate.

When I got out of the St. George’s station I was at a complete loss as to where to go next because I already knew that I could not take the subway from St. George’s on the Bloor Street line to the Yonge Street line and transfer, because the elevator was still out of service. I also knew that the stations at Spadina and Museum, on the Bloor-Danforth line, were not wheelchair accessible.

Instead, I pulled out my Toronto map, got my bearings, and was able to retain a level enough head to figure it out. Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve been stranded in Toronto, so this time, I went there over-prepared in a way that, I originally thought was overkill, but I now know was a good thing. It saved my life and helped me get to the train. I was able to figure out that I could head south in my power wheelchair on Avenue Road, go around Queen’s Park, and then hopefully find an accessible subway station somewhere along the way so I could get back to Union Station before the train to Kingston, left at 3:15 that afternoon.

I raced south, dodging an incredible number of pedestrians that you never see in such numbers in Kingston, and finally found an accessible station at Queen's Park. I hastily boarded the subway, headed south for Union Station and said a fervent prayer that there would be no more obstacles, got out at Union Station, raced upstairs, dodged through the wall of people lined up for GO Transit, dashed up the next elevator to the Via Rail level, raced up the ramp, found a red cap, showed him my ticket, and apologized for arriving late to pre-board. He started to remind me how late I was, then took one look at me and apologized. He could see I was close to tears.
He then asked what was wrong. I told him about my TTC experience and he was furious. I was apparently the second passenger that day that had had a rather nightmarish experience with the TTC. Apparently the other passenger was also clearly shaken by the experience. I was relieved to know I was not alone, but what the heck is going on?
  • Are people with disabilities and passengers such a nuisance, that the employees don’t believe they need to bother doing their jobs, deliver good customer service, or be polite?

  • Does the TTC not expect their employees to do better?

  • Does the top brass at the TTC properly train and support their employees?
It was clearly evident that the employee who worked in the subway station was seriously frustrated and stressed out beyond the point where she could be rational anymore. My question is, why?

I obviously made it to the train and got back to Kingston, but the next day, I couldn’t help but wonder about the health of that clearly stressed out employee. I also wondered how other passengers, especially tourists and the disabled would be able to manage in a similar situation, so I decided to call the customer service line, register a complaint, and add that I was very concerned about how she was handling the stress. I was also very concerned about her inability to provide adequate help, when she was so stressed out.

As a customer who doesn’t live in Toronto and already has limited options in using public transit because of a wheelchair, it was not a good scene to have her lose it like that.

Having worked in customer service before, I know that one of the most important lessons you can learn when speaking to a customer, is to keep your voice calm, cool, and collected, so you don’t invite a more animated response in return. The more she escalated, the more I escalated back and, in hindsight, I regret that I didn’t put my customer service training to good use to diffuse the situation. Fear does that I guess.

Wheelchair Users – An Important Tip Regarding the TTC Alerts:
According to TTC Customer Service, they do not send out email alerts when an elevator breaks down. Instead, we are to check the web site or phone one of two customer service lines, depending on the time of the day. I will be writing to request that these alerts be included, to make it more convenient.

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1 comment:

Kristen said...

What a complete nightmare! People just don't get it about what it means to accomodate persons with disabilities. If we tell our stories someone always comes along to tell us not to whine or complain and to stop sounding like a victim. We don't tell our stories to get sympathy. We just want things to change. You are one very determined and strong woman.