When Diane Driedger beat breast cancer in 2009, she also lost her Handi-Transit service, even though chronic fibromyalgia often still laid her low with pain and fatigue.
At the time, the former head of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities was working on her PhD at the University of Manitoba. When she had a flare-up, getting to campus by regular transit, especially in the winter, often left her so drained she had trouble concentrating in class.
That prompted Driedger to complain to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, alleging Handi-Transit did not adequately accommodate people with episodic conditions -- illnesses such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or arthritis that flare up badly one day, but can be tolerable the next. People like Driedger often failed to meet the key test for Handi service -- they were able to walk 175 metres outside, but not all of the time and not without a disabling level of pain and fatigue.
'Any step forward to increasing accessibility of services for people with inflammatory types of arthritis is very important to us...'
On Monday, after four years of negotiations, the commission announced it had brokered a deal between Driedger and the city that will expand Handi-Transit's assessment process to include episodic pain and fatigue as barriers to mobility. Later this fall, when Handi-Transit rewrites its assessment manual, it will better reflect the effects of illnesses with occasional flare-ups, which could allow more people with chronic illnesses to access the specialized service.
It's not clear how many more people may now apply for or receive Handi-Transit approval, or how the service's budget may be affected. Driedger says she knows of several people with chronic illnesses who, like her, were denied Handi-Transit despite confirmation from a doctor.
But city spokeswoman Michelle Bailey said the city is not bracing for a wave of new applicants.
"We do not anticipate an increase in registrations for Handi-Transit services, as we have always considered and enrolled applicants with episodic disabilities including, but not limited to, individuals with arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, cancer, diabetes and fibromyalgia," she said in an emailed statement.
Driedger jokes that because she's a "sturdy Mennonite," people often don't realize she suffers from a chronic disability because her pain and fatigue are largely invisible.
Asked how the city will ensure people using Handi-Transit are legitimately having a flare-up, Driedger said the honour system should work.
"I think we have to trust people here to define their own situation," she said.
Typically, Handi-Transit is not a convenient way to get around. Many trips must be booked in advance, limiting flexibility, and wait times can be frustrating. And, many people with episodic illnesses can cope with regular transit, have their own car or can arrange rides.
"Any step forward to increasing accessibility of services for people with inflammatory types of arthritis is very important to us and we consider that very good news," said Tanya Misseghers, the community engagement and marketing co-ordinator for the Manitoba office of the Arthritis Society.
Of the 250,000 Manitobans with arthritis, about 20 per cent suffer from the inflammatory type that can be episodic and debilitating but often invisible.
Disability advocates have long criticized the city's rigid Handi-Transit eligibility rules. The latest deal brokered by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission is at least the third time the commission has intervened on behalf of people with disabilities in disputes with the city.
Earlier this year, a 71-year-old woman with intellectual and physical disabilities won a $2,000 settlement after the commission ruled she had been unfairly denied Handi-Transit services that helped her get to work.
Following a complaint several years ago, the commission ordered Handi-Transit must serve people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. In that case, negotiations between the commission the city and the complainant also took four years.