Some Wheel-Trans users fear they could soon lose access to the specialized service as the TTC is set to start compelling thousands of clients who for years have relied on the paratransit program to reregister for it.
The TTC says that starting as early as this fall, users who signed up for Wheel-Trans before 2017 will have to be reassessed to determine their eligibility. The TTC estimates at least 25,000 customers will have to go through the process, which they expect will take years.
According to the transit agency, the need to reassess Wheel-Trans clients stems from the provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). But many who use the service are apprehensive.
“I don’t know of anyone in the community that’s supportive of it,” said Wheel-Trans user Terri-Lynn Langdon.
Wheel-Trans is the division of the TTC that serves transit users who have physical, cognitive, sensory and mental health disabilities. This year it was projected to provide 4.3 million trips, with a budget of $149 million.
Those eligible for the program have traditionally been able to take “door-to-door” trips on Wheel-Trans vehicles or contracted taxis for the price of a regular TTC fare.
But changes are coming as a result of AODA, legislation the then-Ontario Liberal government passed in 2005 to set provincewide accessibility standards that have to be met by 2025. The law compels the TTC to introduce three categories for Wheel-Trans eligibility: unconditional, conditional and temporary.
To fall under the unconditional category, customers must have a disability that effectively prevents them from using conventional TTC service at any time.
Riders falling under the conditional category have a disability that limits their ability to “consistently” use conventional transit, but are deemed able to use the conventional TTC system under certain conditions, such as if their trip is between two subway stations that are designated accessible.
Temporary eligibility applies to people with non-permanent disabilities.
While riders with the unconditional designation qualify for door-to-door Wheel-Trans trips, the provincial regulations state the TTC can deny Wheel-Trans service to people who have conditional or temporary designations in instances where they’re able to use the conventional transit system.
Although the TTC has been sorting new clients into the three designations since January 2017 as it moves toward full compliance with the act, the thousands of clients who enrolled prior to that date will have to reregister to determine which category they fall under.
In addition to ensuring clients who signed up before and after January 2017 are treated the same, TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the reassessment process will allow the agency to “make better use of limited resources” and is the “fairest way to ensure that the customer receives the level of service that best matches their abilities.”
He said the agency expects “the vast majority of customers reregistering” will retain “some level of Wheel-Trans access.”
The TTC hasn’t started enforcing the new eligibility criteria for any customers, which means clients with the conditional eligibility still have the option of choosing door-to-door Wheel-Trans service. Green didn’t give a timeline for when the new rules will be put into effect, saying only it would be sometime “in the future.”
He said the TTC expects as many as 60 per cent of reregistered riders to fall into the conditional category, meaning thousands of people who currently receive door-to-door service on Wheel-Trans vehicles will be compelled to use the conventional system for at least some trips. In some cases they will be offered Wheel-Trans service for a segment of a journey but be required to take the conventional system for the remainder.
Using the conventional system is something the TTC says is getting easier as the agency improves accessibility by buying low-floor buses and streetcars, and making extensive renovations to subway stations. Forty-five of the network’s 75 subway stations are accessible.
There are also advantages to disabled customers being able the conventional system, because door-to-door Wheel-Trans trips have to be booked in advance, and being able to simply take the next bus, streetcar or subway allows riders more flexibility.
Under the provincial legislation, the TTC must make the entire transit system accessible by 2025. But even then it’s expected many people with mobility issues will still require Wheel-Trans.
Langdon, who uses a wheelchair, doesn’t think the new assessment process is fair. She was placed in the “conditional” category when she applied for the service in the summer of 2018 after she became pregnant with her daughter.
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She said the conditions of her new designation will allow her to use Wheel-Trans during rush hour and when weather is bad, but at other times she’ll have to take the conventional system.
Langdon says the criteria doesn’t take into account the fact that when she travels with her young daughter it’s impossible for her to navigate both her own wheelchair and a stroller on the conventional system.
She said she tried to get the conditional designation reversed, “because it’s not true, it doesn’t reflect how I have to take transit and the barriers that I experience with it.”
Louise Bark, a 59-year-old wheelchair user who registered with Wheel-Trans prior to 2017, says she’s worried the new eligibility criteria will also force her to use the conventional TTC network.
“I may very easily be perceived to be a ‘conditional,’ and that’s scary to me,” she said.
Her concern is that she has a power wheelchair that the TTC may assume allows her to easily get to a transit stop to take an accessible bus or streetcar, while the reality isn’t that simple. She said she has sensitivities to pain, extreme temperatures and scent that would be difficult to objectively quantify on an application form but which can make riding on a bumpy, crowded vehicle unbearable.
Bark said she tries to stay active in order to fend off isolation and depression, and not being able to get around the city to volunteer jobs and to go exercise would significantly reduce her quality of life.
“I don’t know until I actually do the application. But these are things that are definitely on my mind,” she said.
Some accessibility advocates say they understand why the TTC is making users reregister. Mazin Aribi, who chairs the Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit (ACAT), a volunteer group that advises the TTC on these issues, said that as the system becomes more accessible it only makes sense to get people who couldn’t previously use the conventional system to start riding it.
Aribi uses a wheelchair, and said improvements like the TTC’s introduction of accessible streetcars has allowed him to travel on routes he wasn’t able to before, such as Queen St.
But he acknowledged there is anxiety among some Wheel-Trans clients about being reassessed.
“The TTC’s got to do it right, and we are monitoring it very carefully, and we need it to be done correctly. They’re asking ACAT’s advice, and we’re providing. It’s a process,” he said.