Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Disability, Public Transit, and A Logistical Nightmare

I am a member of the ODSP Action Coalition and as such, occasionally have to attend meetings in Toronto. When this happens the transportation and hotel costs are covered but finding a wheelchair accessible place to stay overnight, that is accessible enough and affordable, can be quite the challenge. For this reason I will often choose to do a day-long commute by MegaBus from Kingston to Toronto and back. The bus is accessible, the service is good, the schedules are good, and generally the price recommends it.

Several weeks ago the Coalition scheduled 2 days of meetings; one in person and one by Webinar so as to include as many people within the province of Ontario as possible. I was asked to assist with hosting the Webinar. I agreed and then booked the bus and the hotel according to the scheduled meeting times.

Unfortunately the day for the in-person meeting, that was to start for 1:00 pm on Thursday, had to be switched to 1:00 pm on Friday, and the Webinar that I was to be co-moderating at 10:30 am on Friday, got switched to Thursday. This posed some logistics problems, because the MegaBus that was booked to get to Toronto on Thursday, was scheduled to arrive at 11:00 am.

Needless to say I all of a sudden found myself scrambling to find a way to get to Toronto on time.

Now, if you don't use a wheelchair, you might find the change annoying and a lot more expensive, but that's about it.

If you use a wheelchair, especially an electric one, and you live in a city with no accessible taxis or specialized transit that runs from 7:30 am - 10:45 pm (conventional transit runs from 6:00 am - 11:00 pm), the change can be well nigh impossible unless, of course, you become a master at achieving the impossible. I did it, but believe you me, I highly doubt very many people would have the patience, stamina, and/or time management skills to do it.

Below is a bulleted list of all the steps I had to take to rearrange things. The order named below is also very important because of the rules of the various forms of public transit for a person who uses a wheelchair (and in some cases, the mainstream public).

  1. Phone Via Rail toll-free number to reserve a spot on the train that departs Kingston at 5:32 am on Thursday.
  2. Phone Kingston Via Rail station to ask for permission to store the electric wheelchair in the baggage room overnight on Wednesday.
  3. On finding the station master was away for the day at something else that was work related, phone Via Rail Customer service in Quebec to request that an employee be made available Thursday morning to put me on the train. The Kingston Station is normally an unmanned station that early in the morning.
  4. Phone Kingston Access Bus to request a bus to Via Rail on Wednesday afternoon so I can drop the electric wheelchair off at the station.
  5. Phone a friend to ask if they will come to my place Wednesday afternoon, use the manual wheelchair (actually sit in it, ride the lift, and accept staying in it) while riding the Access Bus to the train station with me because no empty wheelchairs are allowed to be transported on that service.
  6. On finding out that no friends were free to ride the bus to the train station and help to abide by the rules, phone the Access Bus back and seek special permission to take the empty wheelchair on the bus. The concession I must make is that I must push the chair - the drivers are not allowed to. They agreed, however, to take the empty wheelchair into the bus via the lift. Breathe a huge sigh of relief when the permission is granted.
  7. Phone an acquaintance with a car and sheepishly ask them to get up at 4:00 am to drive you to the train station on Thursday morning so you can leave the manual wheelchair at home, retrieve the power wheelchair at Via Rail from the baggage room, and not have to worry about finding another person to ride the empty extra wheelchair back home on the Access Bus, a day later. It also minimizes the inconvenience for the Kingston Station employees because the baggage room is rather small and, if I left the manual wheelchair there for two days, it would seriously be in their way.
  8. Deal with the Toronto end; the booking of Wheel-Trans, the long-distance calls to do it, and endure the long time sitting on hold until you get through.
  9. Phone MegaBus to cancel the wheelchair accessible booking for Thursday morning.
  10. Go online to the MegaBus web site, pick another day to book it (arbitrarily if you have to so you don't lose money on the non-refundable ticket), pay the difference and get the new reservation number.
  11. Phone MegaBus again and ask for a wheelchair accessible bus on the new date, and then ask them to email you to confirm (sometimes the message doesn't get through to the drive otherwise).
  12. And FINALLY... breathe a huge sigh of relief that you learned about the earlier meeting time more than 24 hours before the day of travel. If the notice was under the required 24 hours for a wheelchair booking, you would not be able to buy a wheelchair accessible space on the train or the bus. You also wouldn't be able to switch the date of the bus ticket to another date you can use. The ticket is non-refundable with less than 24 hours notice so you would be expected to just throw it out.
Now I ask you; would you have the patience to do all this extra travel arranging? Would you know how? Do you consider these steps to be a good example of appropriate disability accommodation or an example of delivering good quality customer service?

My guess is the majority of people would object very loudly and protest against doing all this extra work. And yet... the disabled speak out, object, and their voice is ignored. Why?

Please speak out to your MPP, the media, or stand in solidarity with a person who has a disability by offering to help speak out against having to jump through all these hoops created by too many rules, inadequate access to public transportation, and a failure of society to grasp the sheer magnitude of this situation. We need accessible taxis NOW. We need better access to transit now, or we need lots and lots of money to buy our own $70,000 vehicle with a lift so we can live a more equal and full life, without having to waste so much time trying to work around poorly designed rules created by the able-bodied who have no idea of their impact.

Thank you for reading and helping to speak out in a way that will put an end to this logistical nightmare.

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