Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Travel When Using a Wheelchair: Will Plans Ever Work Out?

On Friday I took off to a conference in Saint-Sauveur Quebec; a trip I had planned, and started saving money for, months ago.

Little did I know that one part of my plan fell through by Galland Bus and I would be left stranded in Montreal. I've seen discrimination before, but this was the most blunt and blatant form of discrimination I have ever seen.

What bugs me even more, was the whole transportation nightmare that I'm about to describe below, could have been avoided when I asked my fellow Toastmasters if I could join their carpool to get to the conference. They refused to give me a ride because they said they would have too much luggage and my wheelchair would take up too much space.

I then tried to charter a small bus. The costs were prohibitive, so that option was out.

I guess, reality wise, I should have accepted that I have a disability and given up, but I'm not that way inclined. I want to live as normal a life as is possible. Besides, by taking part in life, I can escape becoming depressed and a cost liability to the health care system. I can also avoid taking medications and treatments that are designed to minimize the level of chronic pain I experience each and every day. The incentives were strong enough to find another way to get to the conference in Saint Sauveur, so I made my own travel arrangements.

I called 2 local travel agencies to find out if there was a bus that goes to Saint-Sauveur and they said they didn't know. I said can you not look it up? And they said no, not unless I was committed to buying the tickets from them. I asked how can I commit when I don't know the price or if you can get me there? They said this life is about risks. I turned around and left.

I found a really helpful travel agency in Cobourg instead. They gave me the phone number for Tourism Quebec. I called them and they were extremely helpful. They told me I could take Galland Bus from Montreal to Saint-Sauveur, take the Metro (subway) from the train to the Bus station or paratransit. They weren't sure if the subway stations were accessible yet, so they gave me both numbers.

I phoned Galland Bus and asked if they were accessible. They said yes, but they needed a week's advance notice to put the bus on the route. That's what they do at Coach Canada and Ontario Northland, so I thanked them and set about making my other arrangements. I got registered on the Montreal Paratransit services, found the Galland Bus schedule to figure out the best timing for things, and then phoned the hotel to make sure it would be accessible as well. I even went to Google Maps to check out the terrain in Saint-Sauveur because I would have to be wheeling 700 m from the bus stop to the hotel when I arrived there. All things checked out so I registered for the conference. I then bought my train ticket (one of those non-refundable, non-exchangeable things). Finally, I phoned back Transport Adapte, booked my Access Bus from the train to the bus station in Montreal, and phoned Galland Bus to request that accessible bus be put on the route for 5:05 pm April 29 and 1:35 pm May 1st to get back from Saint-Sauveur. I asked if I could pay in advance and they said no. Just go up to the ticket counter and buy the ticket. They would have an accessible bus on the route. The procedure is identical to that of Ontario Northland and Coach Canada so I trusted them.

On Friday, the day of travel, for reasons I cannot explain, I had a funny feeling that led me to start phoning around to double-check everything. The first call was to Galland Bus. Would you believe they had no accessible bus on the route? They asked what day I phoned. I pulled out the phone bill and read them the date and times of the calls. They said do you know the name of who you spoke to and I said no. It was a woman and she answered enough questions I didn't feel there was any reason to doubt that she knew what she was doing. Well Galland said, sorry. You can't take the bus. They said if you can walk and get into the bus on your own, we can take you. Well, I can't walk, but I've gotten into several buses by dragging myself up the steps on my butt, so I believed it was good.

I grabbed my phone bills to take with me, switched into my manual wheelchair from my usual power wheelchair, and headed downstairs to catch the Access Bus to the train station. There I asked about refunding the train ticket. Derek, the station master in Kingston, said he would try but he could make no guarantees. I then tried to refund the conference ticket and reach the person who was depending on me to share the cost of a room in Saint Sauveur. I knew that she too, had a low income, so I was not comfortable with the idea of leaving her stranded. I couldn't reach anyone so, not wanting to waste the money that was non-refundable, and wanting to really go to the conference I decided to head to Montreal, talk to the people at the bus station in person, and if necessary, bum my way into the bus. I knew the wheelchair could be stored underneath in the luggage compartment. I never imagined that I would get to the station and be literally refused a ticket. The ticket agent said I'm not allowed to sell tickets to wheelchairs. I need your reservation number for when you reserved that accessible bus. I knew nothing about a reservation number. I showed her my phone bills to prove I had called, and she said that didn't matter; they can't just produce a bus. She then took me to the information counter. They refused to help as well. By this point I knew I was stranded so I was frantically trying to rescue myself while insisting that they had to pay for it. The first request was a taxi or access bus to Saint-Sauveur. They said No. The second request was the taxi fare back to Via Rail. Again the answer was no.

I panicked and couldn't think clearly enough to realize that, if I had $40 to pay for the 2-way bus to Saint-Sauveur, I had the money to pay for a taxi back to the train. I then heard the announcement to say the bus was at gate 18. As a last ditch attempt, I raced over to the gate with the $20 in my hand thinking I could pay the driver cash like I have seen done on GO Transit and Ontario Northland. The driver refused to take the money and he refused to let me get into the bus on my own. He then spoke into a 2-way radio in French. The next thing I knew, this person grabbed my wheelchair from behind and without warning, pulled me backwards from the bus and into the station. I grabbed the wheels to stop this assault and locked the wheels. They dragged me along anyways. My hands started to burn so I had to let go and give in. I was taken to some community workers (social workers that, I guess, have a booth at the bus station all the time). The bus then left.

I was scared and humiliated, so I was crying pretty good by this time. Those community workers tried everything, and I mean everything, to get me rescued at no cost to me, but it was impossible.

I pulled my last card (a back-up plan) I had previously arranged but one I was reluctant to take. I sent a text to a fellow Toastmaster from Kingston and told him I was stranded. I then asked if he could pick me up. He said he would, but it would take him 2 hours out of his way so that, instead of arriving in Saint Sauveur at 10 pm, he would be arriving at midnight. He was a speech contestant, so I didn't have the heart to rob him of sleep. That's why I didn't pull the card until the last minute.

I then realized that there was an express bus from downtown to the Dorval Airport. I had no idea where I was or where the highways go in relation to Montreal, but I knew airports are generally on the edge of town. I asked the community worker what highway it was near and then sent a text to Carl to ask if it would be better to meet me at the airport.

The idea worked. In fact, it shaved almost an hour's worth of extra driving time off his trip. I hopped on the bus, paid the $8, and had a wonderful 45 minute tour of Montreal on the way to the Airport. I wouldn't have seen the city if I waited for him to arrive after dark to take me to Saint-Sauveur. I guess, when the chips are down, we can find those golden moments to help keep us sane.

At the conference, without my power chair, it was very difficult, but that's another story.

For now, this message is to raise awareness. We may be able to bail ourselves out of the worst messes, and we often can recognize that things are survivable if we can put them in perspective, but what happened?

We are people. People who have a disability have far fewer opportunities, than the non-disabled, to bail ourselves out of a mess such as this. It is also against the law to discriminate against a person who uses a wheelchair, or worse, grab onto their wheelchair and take them somewhere without their permission. The person who did this could legally be charged with assault.

If a person can prove that they did their part to reserve an accessible bus by producing phone bills that show they made several calls to the bus company to make the necessary arrangements, then it is the responsibility of the bus company to get them to their destination.

I don't know what happened this time, but there are plans to follow it up to pursue a course of action.

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