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Blind Hamiltonians Fight for the Right to Keep Their Bus Passes

Al MacRury Tue Dec 11 2012

Some legally blind Hamilton Street Railway riders are shocked by the city’s recent decision to take away their “free” bus passes.
Hamilton Spectator file photo Blindsided.

That’s how some legally blind Hamilton Street Railway riders — including myself — feel about their municipality’s recent decision to take away their “free” bus passes. And using the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) to justify such an action leaves us lost in the dark.

Cathie Mason is regional manager for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), the agency which has printed the HSR photo ID cards for decades.

“Clients informed me about the city’s policy change on Nov. 12,” she says. “The CNIB was never consulted.”

She jumped into action and, with the help of the Canada Council for the Blind (CCB), met with some city councillors on Dec. 3.

“I am not a lawyer, but I told the council members the legislation was not intended to remove services already in place,” Mason said. “I noted a number of sections in the AODA which support this. They adjourned and promised to get back to us (tomorrow).”

The topic is a complex one for those who don’t have to use what’s often referred to as “alternate” or “accessible” transportation.

Many years ago, the Disabled and Aged Regional Transportation Service (DARTS) went under heavy public scrutiny, as its operational costs soared. An audit found many deceased riders on its passenger rolls. Cutbacks were ordered. In 1997, the council of the day said blind folks who could walk were not eligible to ride DARTS, which is a contracted service. The taxi-scrip program debuted. It gave some of us a modest discount to ride taxis, seeing we could not drive or use DARTS.

Even there, we are under tight bureaucratic restrictions. We can only buy three, $40 books/per month of phoney paper money at 60 per cent of face value. That’s a saving of $48, since you pay $72 instead of $120. But my true transportation costs, for example, average about $750/month. Just ask my friends in the taxi business.

“If you ever retire and try to leave town, we’ll have a blockade outside your home,” veteran Hamilton Cab driver Bill Pring jokes.

While blind riders have been told they may reapply to DARTS, those who are rejected may also lose their taxi-scrip eligibility.

In a response to Action Line on Monday, city staff state: “Those passengers that once qualified for the Taxi Scrip program now should qualify for DARTS, as both programs are based on one’s ability to use the HSR. If a Taxi Scrip passenger applies for DARTS and is deemed not eligible, they probably did not qualify for Taxi Scrip in the first place.”

Note the words “should” and “probably.”

Grandfathering applies. If you qualified for taxi scrip or DARTS prior to Nov. 1, you can continue to use that service. But don’t jump out of one lifeboat thinking the other looks safer. A blind Hamiltonian doing so could be left without DARTS, taxi scrip or an HSR bus pass. Is that the spirit of the law everyone fought so hard to implement? Is that its intent?

On its own website, the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario discusses “conventional transportation service providers offering reduced fares for people with disabilities who can use the conventional services.” The link is: mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/programs/accessibility/other_standards/iasr_2012/trans_iasr/sec66_fare_parity.aspx

Many years ago, the HSR had a three-month long bus strike during the winter. I was a working, blind, single parent with two young children in two schools miles apart. I stumbled through snowdrifts. You couldn’t get a taxi. They were going 24/7.

The fundamental principle of public transportation is to service those who need it the most. Surely that includes the elderly, schoolchildren and those of us with disabilities.

Councillor Sam Merulla wants council to reverse its decision at Wednesday’s meeting. He says council has been misinformed by staff.

The proposed fare for Jan. 1 would see blind adults pay $87/month (or $1,044/year), while seniors aged 65 to 80 pay $205/annually and those aged 80 or over still ride free. Is that parity?

Other Ontario municipalities such as Toronto and Ottawa say the blind will continue to ride their public transit systems at no cost. Hamilton council also wants HSR wheelchair riders and those with scooters or walkers to pay up. Due to their mobility issues, however, many of those would already have DARTS ridership privileges.

City staff estimated the HSR provides 300,000 “free” rides a year. But that figure was based upon a two-day random survey by its drivers.

Wednesday’s council meeting begins at 5 p.m.

Reproduced from http://www.thespec.com/news/business/article/851568–blind-hamiltonians-fight-for-the-right-to-keep-their-bus-passes