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TTC Expands Wheel-Trans Eligibility to Include People With Cognitive, Sensory, or Mental Health Disabilities

The transit agency made the change to ensure it was complying with the Ontario Human Rights Code and the provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It took effect Jan. 1. By Ben Spurr, Transportation Reporter
Tues., March 7, 2017

For Jack Fuller, taking the TTC can be an overwhelming and stressful ordeal.

The 16-year-old East York resident has been diagnosed with severe social anxiety that often makes the crowds on a packed bus or subway too much to take.

“He just won’t get on by himself. And even if he’s coming with us it’s a big argument,” said Jack’s mom, Cindy Monk-Fuller.

Monk-Fuller drives Jack to school every day, but his not being able to take public transit means there is little flexibility in their daily lives.

“If I go away for a couple of days, it’s, ‘How’s Jack going to get to school?'” said Monk-Fuller, adding that it can be especially difficult if he has to go to medical appointments in the middle of the day.

She also worries about her son’s future if his condition persists. “If he’s not over this, the poor guy can’t go anywhere for the rest of his life,” she fretted.

That’s why Monk-Fuller says she was “over the moon” when she found out that under new rules that went into effect on Jan. 1, Jack and others like him could be eligible to take Wheel-Trans instead of the conventional TTC.

For the first time in Wheel-Trans’ four-decade history, the regulations extend eligibility for the service beyond passengers with physical mobility issues to those with cognitive, sensory, or mental health disabilities that prevent them from using the conventional transit system.

The TTC board endorsed the rules in 2015 in order to comply with the Ontario Human Rights Code and the provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The legislation required all paratransit services in the province to comply by this year.

The Fullers have yet to sign up for the program, which requires customers to prove their eligibility by filling out an application form and having it verified by their health professional, but Monk-Fuller said they intend to do so.

Last year Wheel-Trans carried 3.9 million passengers with disabilities from door to door in specialized buses or in hired taxi cabs. The rides cost the same as a regular TTC fare and are subsidized by the transit agency at a cost of about $30 per trip.

While the expanded eligibility will bring paratransit service to more Torontonians, it comes at a cost.

Thanks in large part to the city’s aging population, demand for Wheel-Trans was already surging before the new eligibility criteria went into effect. According to the transit agency, in the five years before 2016 demand increased by 29 per cent, and in 2017 alone it’s expected to rise by another 20 per cent, to 4.7 million trips. Of this year’s projected growth, 8 per cent is attributable to the new eligibility criteria.

The net budget for the service this year is more than $140 million, compared to $116.7 million budgeted in 2016. The TTC says this year’s budget includes $6.7 million for the new regulations.

A spokesperson for the agency said it’s too soon to know how many people have signed up for the service as a result of the new rules.

The growing cost of Wheel-Trans is a significant concern for the cash-strapped TTC. A February 2016 report warned that left unchecked the cost of the service could rise by 175 per cent between 2016 and 2025.

In order to reduce that financial burden, this year the agency plans to begin transitioning to a new “family of services” model that will divert some passengers with mobility issues onto the conventional transit system. The transition will occur in conjunction with efforts to remove barriers on the TTC. Under the AODA, the entire network must be accessible by 2025.

Toronto lawyer David Lepofsky, who advocates for accessible transit, called the expanded Wheel-Trans criteria “a good change” but said it’s one that the TTC should have instituted long ago. He argued that the fact it took this long is evidence that institutions are reluctant to improve accessibility unless they’re forced to by legislation.

Although some people might make a distinction between transit riders who use a wheelchair and those who experience severe anxiety, Lepofsky said both have disabilities and that by law people with cognitive or mental health issues must be given the same accommodation as transit users with physical challenges.

“We don’t rank order which disability is more important,” he said. “It’s not like physical barriers are more important than other kinds of barriers. They’re all barriers. Full participation is full participation.

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