Transportation Ministry says steps being taken to ensure staff aware of obligations to people with disabilities by Paul Forsyth
Niagara This Week – St. Catharines
Magick is Tori Starchild’s anchor.
The adorable little Jack Russell terrier keeps the Allanburg woman grounded when her anxiety symptoms rear up, sensing her stress and burying her moist nose beneath her hand.
“She demands attention so I pat her and get distracted from what’s stressing me,” said Starchild. “That’s how she calms me down.”
But Starchild said when she needed her most this week, while preparing to undergo the stress of writing tests on Thursday at the DriveTest centre in St. Catharines that’s licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, she was refused permission to have the six-and-a-half-year-old dog by her side.
This, after enduring hours of waiting to undergo tests to ensure her licenses to drive commercial buses and dump trucks set to expire the next day at the crowded centre on Bunting Road.
Starchild’s husband Wolf contacted Niagara Centre riding MPP Jeff Burch’s office, and he quickly had his staff contacting the ministry to look into the matter.
Joshua Henry, senior issues adviser with the ministry’s communications branch, confirmed on Friday that the incident occurred. “We apologize for this experience,” he said.
As for the lengthy wait that Starchild and other clients faced, Henry said there a technology outage on the system that DriveTest uses to access information from ministry systems. The outage affected all DriveTest centres across the province, pushing up wait times and call centre response times, he said.
“Services have since been restored and we apologize for the inconvenience,” he said.
Starchild said she arrived shortly before the office opened and had a ticket stub, since lost, indicating she’d be serviced by about 8:38 a.m. But she said only a couple of the five kiosks were open, and time dragged on.
“Everybody was complaining about the wait,” she said.
Starchild said it was about two hours later that she was finally brought in to do her tests. But a woman staff member refused to allow Magick who Starchild has had for about two and a half years to remain.
“I said I have test anxiety and I asked if my dog could be with me,” said Starchild. “She said, no, the dog would be a distraction and wouldn’t be allowed, and had to leave the room.
“I wasn’t allowed to have my dog at the most stressful and anxious time, when I needed her to keep me calm.”
Starchild said the dog, wearing a service dog harness with photo identification clearly indicating she’s her service dog, is no bother.
“She’s very quiet and doesn’t bother anyone,” she said.
After her test she said she had to wait about another hour and a half to get the official results.
“I was there over four hours,” she said. “It was very negative. I don’t like being around crowds.”
Burch said Starchild’s experience suggests there may be problems at the testing centre, one of many across Ontario privatized under a previous provincial government.
“She was denied the use of a service dog,” he said. We have concerns they may not know the rules.”
Burch said waiting so long is also unacceptable.
“It looks like it’s gotten out of control,” he said. “Here you see someone with a disability and they’re waiting for hours, and they’re denying them service with her service dog.”
Burch said his office will push the ministry for answers about the level of service the contractor is providing.
“These contractors make a lot of money,” he said. “They’re paid to provide a level of service they’re clearly not providing to the residents of Niagara.
“We have some serious concerns and we’re going to make sure they’re addressed in a timely manner.”
Starchild said she had no choice but to access the St. Catharines centre because it’s the only such licensing bureau in Niagara.
“I feel like my rights as a human have been violated,” she said. “I have a disability and I needed my dog. I was discriminated against.”
Starchild said she’s feeling comforted by the fact Burch’s office has her back.
“This was wrong and something has to be done about this,” she said. “They’re taking action and doing it.”
Henry said the ministry and DriveTest are fully committed to meeting their obligations under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), including establishing practices for providing services, providing the appropriate customer service training to employees, and ensuring DriveTest locations are accessible to those with disabilities.
“Customer service agents are trained on AODA requirements and the duty to accommodate individuals with service animals,” he said. “We apologize for this experience.
“The ministry and DriveTest management are taking steps to ensure DriveTest staff are aware of all their obligations under the AODA, including situations similar to the one that happened yesterday to ensure it does not happen again in the future.”
DriveTest communications specialist Sarah Bradley said her agency strives to provide services in a respectful and accessible manner for all customers in accordance with the principles and guidelines of the AODA.
“DriveTest sincerely regrets the negative experience had by our customer and we will be issuing a formal apology to this applicant,” she said.
Starchild said she was refused entry with Magick about a year ago at a former St. Catharines restaurant and is routinely challenged at other eateries on whether the 16-pound canine is really a service dog by people used to seeing much larger golden and Labrador retrievers used as service dogs.
“Magick gets carded a lot,” she said. “They’ll actually ask if she’s actually a service dog.”
Starchild said people need to know there are a growing number of smaller dogs becoming service dogs, as the range of conditions that service dogs are used for continues to expand.
Paul Forsyth is Niagara This Week’s regional reporter, as well as Thorold reporter, covering a wide range of topics from politics to community and human interest stories. In his 30 years of reporting he has won numerous journalism awards at the local, provincial and national level. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org