The Toronto Star , Jan. 11, 2011
When Mary Caruso asked the bus driver to let her off at her usual stop at Lawrence Ave., E., and Victoria Park last Tuesday, he explained that he
shouldn’t be doing so because it’s not wheelchair accessible. But he did anyway.
Caruso, 52, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a power wheelchair, says she would have thought he was joking, except that the week before another bus driver – not so obliging – told her he would never again let her off at her Don Mills library branch for the same reason.
She has used both stops “hundreds of times,” she says. “I was shocked, because I had been getting off there so many times. It was a matter of him
moving up 2 feet.”
Caruso is not alone in her frustration. Three patrons of the TTC who use wheelchairs have told the Star that in recent weeks they’ve been told by
drivers they can no longer use stops that they have used for years. The
transit commission says there has been no directive to drivers to account for this flurry of calls. (Last year the commission received 13 complaints
from customers denied entry or exit at inaccessible stops.)
A quick primer on the TTC and wheelchair accessibility: There are 169 bus routes on the TTC network, all but eight of which are accessible to people
in wheelchairs. The buses on these routes have a mechanism that allows wheelchair access as well as seating that can be flipped up to accommodate a
wheelchair and a seatbelt that can be buckled for greater stability.
But on these 161 routes, 2,838 out of 9,149 stops are regarded as inaccessible because they do not meet the standard – a hard surface that’s
2.2 metres wide from the curb to the sidewalk.
And it is those stops that are the source of the problem.
TTC drivers are encouraged to pick up passengers in wheelchairs only at stops that are designated as accessible, says Gary Carr, chief engineer for
the commission’s operations planning department: Drivers should not use their discretion. “They are encouraged not to make that call, because there
could be issues they are not aware of.”
The reality, of course, is that many do stop when they see someone in a wheelchair at a bus stop, even if it has no accessibility posting.
In the case of Sharon Fenton, 56, adherence to the rules would mean she would have to wheel her chair 15 minutes in one direction or the other on
Victoria Park instead of wheeling to the foot of her street to a bus stop she’s used for years.
“I’m mentally capable of knowing if I’m safe or not getting on or off of a bus,” she says. “I know how to control my wheelchair.”
David Lepofsky, a Toronto lawyer who is blind, says access for the disabled remains patchwork in Toronto. “People with disabilities have to fight one
street corner at a time, one bus stop at a time, one barrier at a time,” he says. He has won two human-rights cases against the TTC, forcing it to
announce subway and bus stops. The TTC spent $450,000 fighting him.
And the accessibility rules contain a built-in paradox. Glenn Johnson, the commission’s senior planner for system accessibility, concedes that an
individual with a stroller – no matter how big – can access any stop.
But things may be improving. Until recently, the TTC dealt with city staff at four districts regarding inaccessible stops, bogging down the process.
Moreover, with little money to upgrade only a few stops, the top priority was given to stops with higher usage.
Recently one person was appointed to oversee missing 2.2-metre hard surfaces at bus stops, making it easier to work with the city. There has also been
more money budgeted. By the end of this year, the backlog of requested fixes
will be made, officials say.
“We are seeing a renewed priority by the city, in getting these platforms in place,” Carr says. “If we know there is any single wheelchair user, then
that stop becomes a priority.”
Perhaps this news will be of comfort to Caruso, who is feeling frustrated her old familiar stop is now being denied her. “It’s like you’re giving me
something, but you’re taking it away,” says Caruso. “I can use it, but I can’t use it.”
As it is, she says many drivers have trouble lowering the ramps, making her wait sometimes for three or four buses. “I pay as well. I don’t think
someone (able-bodied) put in our position would stand for that.”
Sharon Fenton says her only alternative is Wheel Trans, but a bus must be booked days in advance. “I’m not going to know Tuesday that I want to go
shopping Thursday,” she says. “Why can’t I just be like someone else, that
if I feel like going out I can just wheel out and get on the bus?”
And where does the provincial government fit in? The McGuinty government’s transit plan, released for public comment in September, has not required
city governments, including transit authorities, to retrofit inaccessible
bus stops and stations or to make new roadside route stops fully accessible. But there was nothing in it to push accessibility in existing transit stops
or stations or new ones in the future. Only a deadline when it has to be done.
Meanwhile, accessibility has been required by the Human Rights Code for years. The TTC has fallen short under that law, as Lepofsky’s cases in 2005
and 2007 have demonstrated. As he says, “the TTC is commissioned by the city. Their governing board is made up of city counselors. So maybe the city
should talk to itself.”