Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Transit's wheelchair service spotty

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Having been in a wheelchair for the past 18 months and refusing to sit at home, I am out in the community every day taking the regular bus (most of the time) and Handi-Transit (when necessary).

Many people with disabilities and seniors stay indoors for most of the winter, finding it too difficult to venture out in the cold, snow and ice.

Since I use regular Winnipeg Transit most often, I have noticed many incidences that have caused me to be concerned.

To be clear, my experiences have ranged from superb service (such as bus drivers getting up and assisting me up the ramp, helping me put up the seats so that I can secure my chair) to very poor.

For example, some bus drivers allow three baby carriages and two wheelchairs to fit in spaces on the bus meant for two wheelchairs or two carriages and don't say a word.

Another time, a half-empty bus stopped at my stop and the driver told me the passengers wouldn't move back to make room for me and, therefore, he couldn't let me on.

Then there's the many incidences where the bus driver refuses to deal with drunk and/or abusive passengers, or allows so many people on the bus it takes up to five minutes for wheelchairs to get off because, not only do people have to move, they often have to get off the bus to let me off.

Even more frustrating in the wintertime is when the ramp freezes and gets stuck.

I've come across bus drivers who simply look at me and say, "Sorry, ramp's not working," and speed off. On the other hand, other drivers get out of their seat and pull the strap until the ramp is loose so I can get on the bus.

When I raised some of the issues with Dave Wardrop, head of Transit, I discovered some interesting perspectives.

Firstly, city council has only passed one policy concerning Transit use -- "First come, first served" -- by baby carriages and wheelchairs, with the proviso of two wheelchairs per bus because of the tie-ins.

There is, however, no limit on baby carriages because they vary in shape and size. It is up to the bus driver to decide how many strollers are put on the bus at one time.

As Wardrop indicated, bus drivers have the authority to decide many issues, including how to deal with drunk passengers, how many people to allow on the bus at one time, etc.

In fact, when a wheelchair ramp freezes on an accessible bus and will not deploy, it is at the bus driver's discretion whether or not he leaves his seat to pull the ramp down manually.

It is interesting to note bus drivers only get 30 minutes of customer training.

According to John Young, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Centre, in the old days Transit drivers received 90 minutes of disability training, but requested a reduction in that training.

The ILRC feels that this diminishment of training would contribute to a lack of understanding or indifference to issues of accessibility. That is when Winnipeg Transit turned to the Alzheimer Society for training of 60 minutes or less.

In fact, ILRC and other disability organizations feel a half-day training session would be more appropriate, especially for those in the disability community using the service.

As Young suggests, "It is no surprise that a significant confusion on drop-offs and services have emerged in the past two years considering the lack of providing systemic training and awareness to Transit staff."

On the other hand, some interesting information was presented by Wardrop at my meeting that suggested they could request Flyer Industries to move the pole at the front of the bus an inch or two in order to make loading and unloading of baby carriages and wheelchairs easier.

They also recognized that with a growing senior population, there is going to be a need for more buses.

There are 545 buses presently, 75 per cent of which are low floor. By 2012, there will be 645 buses and by 2014, all buses will be low floor. Beginning in 2016, buses will increase by eight per cent per year subsequent to construction of additional garage space.

But, the fact is, some drivers take their "discretionary powers" too far and ignore the safety of their disabled passengers, while other drivers are excellent in the way they handle their passengers.

Nick Ternette is community and political activist, writer and broadcaster.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2011 A14

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