The city is making more cabs wheelchair-accessible and dedicating cash to Wheel-Trans, but when it comes to transit, people with physical disabilities still encounter many obstacles.
“You can’t live a spontaneous life, especially in the winter.” That was how Mike Stewart, a 48-year-old project manager and Bloor West Village resident, described his experience with Wheel-Trans, the city’s door-to-door accessible transit service for people with physical disabilities. Stewart developed multiple sclerosis nine years ago; to get around, he relies on his scooter and, if he wants to go further afield, Wheel-Trans.
Many days, it’s hard enough just to get dressed. He then manoeuvres his scooter to the waiting Wheel-Trans, often through slush and snow. “Even if people shovel their walkway, you still get stuck,” he said. But he “cannot say enough good things about the drivers. They’re excellent. In the wintertime, they’ve got to put the ramps down, shovel out snow, find a spot to put you.”
For anyone with physical-mobility constraints, navigating the city is tricky. Though most buses can “kneel” to the curb, fewer than half of subway stations have elevators, and the new low-floor accessible streetcars are only scheduled to roll out on Bathurst and Spadina at the end of this summer. Then there’s the further challenge of having to wrangle your way onto any of these routes, many of which are often jam-packed with riders. The recent announcement that 290 cabs (six per cent of all taxis) will be accessible by 2015 is encouraging. But for now, Wheel-Trans (whose fares are equivalent to the TTC) remains the best affordable option. Demand has nearly doubled since 2003.
The ride itself, however, might be the least challenging aspect for users. To take Wheel-Trans, one has to become one’s own advocate and booking agent—lining up rides a week in advance to embark upon the most basic trips. “You have to live your life a minimum of three or four days in advance,” said Stewart. “Rarely—once out of every 20 times—can you call in the morning or book something online the day before.” Stewart says that booking a trip by phone can take upwards of 45 minutes because of lengthy hold times. (Wheel-Trans customer service said the average is about a third of that.) The online option is far more expedient, but only 38 per cent of bookings are made that way—and many elderly clients tend to lack the web prowess required to do so. If rides are more than 30 minutes late, you can inquire about your vehicle’s approximate location, but that usually means another long wait on the phone.
The city approved a $106-million subsidy for Wheel-Trans in its most recent budget, which will ostensibly go towards contending with increased ridership, implementing 24/7 service, and a predicted increase in contracted taxi trips (to fill in when there’s not enough vehicles). Stewart hopes there will also be tech improvements, like tracking vehicles by GPS and making that information available on an app or online—even something as simple as being able to add new addresses online (which Wheel-Trans said will be possible in the near future).
For some, improvements can’t come soon enough. Randy McNeil is a “22-going-on-49-year-old” former industrial millwright mechanic who returned to school for community and justice services after MS took away the use of his legs. He has navigated three separate systems—Mobility Plus (York region), TransHelp (Peel/Mississauga), and Wheel-Trans—to get to his classes and placements, travelling up to three hours each way. “Wheel-Trans has been the benchmark,” said McNeil. “They’ve been great.”
The more pernicious problem, he contends, lies with widespread discrimination and the inability of local and provincial authorities to meet requirements outlined by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which aims to enforce new accessibility standards by the year 2025. McNeil singled out the lack of accessible subway stations and on-demand accessible cab services. “I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a Canadian living in Toronto and we don’t have accessibility in this day in age,” he said. “AODA compliance by 2025? We’re only 11 years out from the deadline. This is an election year. I’m going to be raising as much hell as I possibly can. Take it seriously. ”
Wheel-Trans by the numbers (2012)
7,877: Average number of daily trips.
506: Total number of vehicles.
46,787: Number of registrants who have used the service in the past two years.
48: Percentage of subway/RT stations that are accessible.