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Appalling Toronto Star Report of Disability Accessibility Barriers on Greyhound Bus Ride from Toronto to Kitchener Reveals that the Ontario Government Doesn’t Understand or Recall Why It Passed the AODA

January 31, 2014

SUMMARY

On the front page of the Wednesday, January 29, 2014 Toronto Star was an appalling story, set out below about inexcusable accessibility barriers that a woman with a disability reportedly suffered, on a recent inter-city bus ride in Ontario. It highlights the human toll that persons with disabilities suffer due to the Ontario Government’s glaring failure to keep its promise to effectively enforce the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
The Toronto Star reported that a woman with a disability, taking a one-hour bus ride from Toronto to Kitchener, had to suffer a four-hour ordeal. This included accessibility equipment breakdowns and evidently insufficient internal staff training and accessibility procedures. It culminated, according to the Toronto Star, with the victim of this breakdown having to endure some 30 minutes, stranded outside the bus in the freezing cold on a defective lift, while needing to use the washroom. Firefighters had to be called to free her.

As horrible as was this incident, the Ontario Government’s reported response to it was similarly troubling. By way of background, last fall we revealed Government documents showing that the Government had then chronically failed to use its substantial enforcement powers under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This was so, despite the Government’s knowing of rampant violations of the Customer Service Accessibility Standard by a clear majority of private sector organizations with 20 or more employees, and despite the Government’s having funds available for enforcing this legislation.

In this Toronto Star report, AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky is quoted, pressing the fact that persons with disabilities, like the victim of this reported transportation ordeal, don’t have a public number to call to report such obvious violations of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act’s accessibility standards. The Star article shows that a spokesperson for Economic Development Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins (the minister charged with responsibility for enforcing the AODA) reportedly ignored the Government’s promise to enforce the AODA. That spokesperson reportedly wrongly shifted responsibility to individuals with disabilities to solve these issues by privately investigating them and presenting a personal discrimination case at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

In so doing, the Wynne Government seems to have publicly forgotten or ignored the very reason why the AODA was passed in 2005, after a decade-long grassroots campaign by Ontarians with disabilities.

MORE DETAILS

The January 29, 2014 Toronto Star article gave the AODA Alliance a platform for highlighting broader problems facing persons with disabilities that this ordeal illustrates. The article states:

“Provincial regulations requiring transit companies to provide accessible equipment and trained operators have been in force since 2011,” said disability activist David Lepofsky. “The Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) has important enforcement provisions. It has stiff fines, provisions for directors and inspectors, and appeals to a tribunal,” he said.

“Yet as far as we can discover, there is no Ontario government phone number that people like Chantal can call to report a barrier that violates the AODA,” he said. “We have been asking for this since 2012.”

The article then quotes Dr. Eric Hoskins’ official spokesperson as follows:

“A spokesperson for Eric Hoskins, the minister of economic development, trade and employment, said the act sets standards; it doesn’t play a role in resolving complaints.

Individuals are encouraged to contact organizations directly. If they feel their rights are still not being upheld, they can file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, said Gabe DeRoche.”

The Government’s reported response is a cold and cruel slap in the faces of Ontarians with disabilities. For years, Ontario’s Liberals promised disability accessibility legislation with teeth and effective enforcement. This was promised so that individuals with disabilities wouldn’t have to suffer the ordeal of battling barriers one-at-a-time by personally fighting human rights complaints.

As but one illustration, AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky knows from bitter experience what that burden can be like. He personally had to twice wage multi-year battles at the Human Rights Tribunal against the Toronto Transit Commission just to get bus and subway stops reliably announced to accommodate blind people like him. No one should have to suffer that undue hardship.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires the Ontario Government to lead Ontario to become fully accessible to persons with disabilities by 2025. To achieve this, the Ontario Government must both enact and effectively enforce accessibility standards in areas like transportation.

As noted above, last year we revealed that the Government inexcusably wasn’t enforcing the law. Now the Government reportedly makes things worse by wrongly making it sound like it just must enact accessibility standards, but need not effectively enforce them.

Dr. Hoskins’ office has sadly chosen to forget the very reason why its own Government passed the Disabilities Act, even though we’ve reminded the Government of this of this time and again. It reportedly also omits its vital role as AODA Enforcer in Chief when describing its responsibilities under the AODA.

This is all the more troubling since in the 2012 fall, in an unsuccessful effort to get the Ontario Government to set up a phone line to report AODA violation, we launched a public campaign, by urging people to call then-Premier Dalton McGuinty directly to report accessibility barriers. To learn more about our October 29, 2012 “Dial Dalton” Campaign, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/10292012.asp

In our ongoing non-partisan role, we urge one and all to raise issues like this in the two Ontario February 13, 2014 by-elections. For tips on how to raise disability accessibility issues in the February 13, 2014 Ontario by-elections, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/01272014.asp

To learn more about the Ontario Government’s failure to effectively enforce the AODA despite available funds and its knowing of massive violations, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/11182013.asp

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Text of the January 29, 2014 Toronto Star Article on Transportation Accessibility

The Toronto Star January 29, 2014

News

‘Traumatic’ ride has student seeking changes; Faulty equipment, driver training issues result in painful, frigid 4-hour bus ordeal
Graphic: Laurier University student Chantal Huinink, 30, was trapped on a Greyhound bus last week when its wheelchair lift malfunctioned. Glenn Lowson for the Toronto Star

It was the trip from hell.

Except temperatures were hovering close to -20 C last Wednesday evening when Chantal Huinink, a master’s student at Wilfrid Laurier University, arrived at the Toronto Coach Terminal to board a Greyhound bus back to Kitchener.

Huinink, who uses an electric wheelchair, was in Toronto with a friend to see Les Misérables and had booked the trip with the bus company’s accessibility office a week before.

But what should have been a one-hour journey turned into a bone-chilling, four-hour ordeal. The 30-year-old social work and divinity student came close to being seriously injured and then stranded in the freezing cold, due to faulty equipment and untrained drivers. Huinink finally had to be rescued by firefighters.

“This was an emotionally traumatic and physically troubling experience,” she said in an interview this week. “I believe it violated the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in many ways, and I really want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone in the future.”

Provincial regulations requiring transit companies to provide accessible equipment and trained operators have been in force since 2011, said disability activist David Lepofsky. “The Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) has important enforcement provisions. It has stiff fines, provisions for directors and inspectors, and appeals to a tribunal,” he said.

“Yet as far as we can discover, there is no Ontario government phone number that people like Chantal can call to report a barrier that violates the AODA,” he said. “We have been asking for this since 2012.”

A spokesperson for Eric Hoskins, the minister of economic development, trade and employment, said the act sets standards; it doesn’t play a role in resolving complaints.

Individuals are encouraged to contact organizations directly. If they feel their rights are still not being upheld, they can file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, said Gabe DeRoche.

But Lepofsky said people with disabilities shouldn’t be forced to go to the Human Rights Commission.

“We have never said (the government) should send an investigator for every complaint,” he said. “But there should be a number to call to lodge a complaint so the government can track what’s going on.”

Huinink has faced faulty equipment and untrained drivers on Greyhound and GO Transit buses before. But this trip was particularly egregious. She arrived at the bus terminal to find the wheelchair lift ready for her. But she had to wait for 25 minutes in frigid temperatures while the driver struggled unsuccessfully to untangle the tie-downs for the lift.

Finally, at 8:30 p.m., she was asked to take another bus, which she boarded without incident. Anxious not to miss her pre-booked accessible-transit ride home from the Kitchener bus terminal, Huinink didn’t argue when the driver used only two straps to secure her wheelchair. But when the driver hit the brakes, Huinink’s wheelchair jerked forward and her feet became painfully wedged in the seats in front. Unable to move the seats – and apparently unaware of how to operate the side door to access the straps and free Huinink – the driver returned to the bus terminal for help.

With no other accessible buses available, the driver and other Greyhound staff eventually used a cable to secure everything in place.

Since Huinink had now missed her connection in Kitchener, Greyhound staff agreed the driver would drop her off at the university.

But when the driver arrived at the busy intersection of University Ave. and Hazel St. and opened the accessible door to activate the wheelchair lift, it descended to the sidewalk and got stuck, leaving Huinink stranded on the bus with the door open.

“The driver tried troubleshooting – opening the lift, closing the lift, fastening the seatbelt, unfastening the seatbelt, trying to drive the bus with the lift down and the door open. . . This went on for half an hour,” Huinink said, noting that the bus alarm – which activates when the door is open – was deafening.

“My companion and I were very cold and it was too loud for us to tolerate,” she said in an interview.

By this time, Huinink had to use the washroom. “The driver could offer no ideas as to how or when I would be able to get off the bus,” she said. “He seemed at a loss at what to do.”

Huinink finally called campus security, who called the Waterloo fire department. Firefighters helped her safely off the bus – three and a half hours after her ordeal began.

Greyhound officials will be contacting Huinink to apologize, said a company spokesperson in Dallas. “This is not reflective of how Greyhound operates. We pride ourselves on stellar customer service and a stellar travel experience. It appears this situation does not reflect that,” Alexandra Pedrini told the Star.

Greyhound, which is subject to Ontario accessibility standards, is conducting an internal investigation, including interviews with the drivers.

All coaches are checked daily to make sure the lifts and tie-downs work. Those inspections did occur in this case and the buses were found to be “roadworthy,” said Pedrini.

Drivers undergo extensive training, including the operation of wheelchair equipment, she said.

“We’re looking into exactly what the cause was for the entire situation and we’re working to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Pedrini said.

“Establishing reliable transit, where all the drivers are trained and equipment is in good working order, is important for my full employment and my ability to serve others as well,” Huinink said. “But it is a bigger issue than just me. Everyone deserves equality of service. It is supposed to be the law in Ontario.”

Accessing transit

GO Transit: All buses are accessible. Highway coaches have a motorized lift; low-floor models have a ramp. All buses are inspected nightly, including ramps. Riders needn’t call ahead unless they’re not sure their stop is accessible. All GO trains include an accessible coach, but six stations remain inaccessible. GO plans full accessibility by 2016.

TTC: All buses are accessible by ramp or lift. Drivers must ensure ramps work before leaving. Subway trains are accessible, but only 32 of 69 stations are. Future streetcars will be accessible, but current ones are not. Drivers get equipment and sensitivity training.

Via Rail: Long-haul trains are accessible and have wheelchair tie-downs. Stations have elevators, sliding doors, Braille signage, accessible washrooms, wheelchair lifts. Train staff are expected to assist passengers at unstaffed stations and en route, if service is requested 48 hours before.

Laurie Monsebraaten and Tess Kalinowski
Toronto Star