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Wheels For Wheels

Steffanie Date, Sault Youth Association for local2 sault ste. marie
July 15th, 2011 at 10:29am | Last Updated at 10:30am

This article is a column or editorial.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of LOCAL2.

Inclusive communities are accessible communities. And for people who experience a physical disability, public transportation is the first point of access to community. In Sault Ste. Marie, specialized transportation services consists of Para bus service, or curb to curb service, and low-floor bus service along regular city routes.

Tyler Muller

Recently graduated from Sault College, Tyler Muller relies on both service options on a daily basis
Credit: Sault Youth Assocation

The Para Bus service supports a fleet of ten buses with six on the road at all times. The remaining four buses are regularly ‘in’ for maintenance or reserved as back up pending potential break downs. Regarding low-floor buses, each route supports service leaving the terminal at a quarter half past every hour. While this sounds sufficient to those who do not depend on specialized services, for people who require accessible public transportation these provisions dramatically fall short of satisfactory.

Recently graduated from Sault College, Tyler Muller relies on both service options on a daily basis. “My whole life is scheduled around the bus. I can’t call to book my ride more than a day in advance. I can only book a week in advance if it’s medical or work related. Anyone using this service is reliant upon it. I can’t tell you how many times the dispatcher has apologized for not being able to accommodate me. You can’t go anywhere. And that’s just sad- becoming a prisoner of your own home.”

Tyler Van Frankenhuyzen

Van Frankenhuyzen states, "Sometimes the bus is great and sometime not so great. Last summer the Para bus driver let me off at my stop but there was a bike lying right in the middle of the walkway".
Credit: Sault Youth Assocation

Policies around Para bus services that are designed to respond by priority needs create significant barriers for people working towards an independent lifestyle. Don Scott, manager of Parking and Transit Services commented, “Para bus service delivery has been structured according to the Ministry of Transportation criteria as well as municipal policy. We prioritize work over going shopping. If you go to any municipality you’ll find this. We just don’t have the capacity to be all things to all people. As much as we’d like to say ‘yes’ sometimes we have to say ‘no’ just to be able to function.”

Muller has often had to reschedule or cut short his plans because he was not able to secure a booking time through the Para bus. On these occasions he catches the hourly low-floor city bus but this comes with risks. “More often than not I can get somewhere riding the low-floors but I can’t get back because the ramp is broken. And then I’m stuck at the bus terminal or wherever, waiting up to an hour and a half for a Para bus or low-floor bus that’s working. Sometimes I have to call my family to pick me up which I hate. I’m 22 years old, I’d like to be independent.”

Although Muller has found the accessibility of public transit below par, he is far more concerned with the courtesy of service he has experienced. “Because they prioritize medical and work above any other need they always ask me why I need the service. When I was booking a series of Saturdays for a former job I the dispatcher questioned me asking if it was a paid job. When I didn’t respond the dispatcher told me she found out that I wasn’t being paid for the work I was doing and scolded me for lying to her. I took this complaint to management and I was told that I had been dishonest and that was why I couldn’t secure my weekly ride to work. I was devastated- I had people counting on me at work. And I was called a liar and spoken to like I was a child.”

In addition to the unpredictability of the mechanical success of the low-floor ramps on the city bus, Muller has also had to put up with the unpredictability of the drivers. “Some of the drivers are great. They feel pretty bad when I’m stuck without a ramp and work really hard to track down a bus to get me home. But once when I was waiting at the bus stop, the bus rolled up and when the driver opened the door she told me she hated it when I took the bus because I held her up and told me to take the Para bus like everyone else.”

Some users have had mixed reactions to the city’s Para bus service. Gail Slavik is the mother of Tyler van Frankenhuyzen. When Gail or her husband are unable to transport van Frankenhuyzen using the wheelchair accessible family van, the Para bus service is used. “When we use the Para bus it’s generally a good experience. There have been some wonderful bus drivers who knock on the door to make sure I’m home to let Tyler (van Frankenhuyzen) in and one will even bring our dog cookies. But we have had problems with bookings. Sometimes we’re on the phone for 30 minutes waiting to make an appointment or sometimes the bus doesn’t show up at the right time or place and sometimes it shows up on the wrong day. It’s great having the Para bus service in our community but too bad it is often not available when you need it.”

Van Frankenhuyzen states, “Sometimes the bus is great and sometime not so great. Last summer the Para bus driver let me off at my stop but there was a bike lying right in the middle of the walkway. When I asked him if he could move it so I could get by he said ‘nope, that’s not in my job description,’ and closed the doors and drove off. I had to try to wheel around it and ended up crashing into it. Drivers should not have the right to say ‘no’ to a request for assistance when clients ask for simple help, like opening a door or helping them up a ramp in the pouring rain.”

Scott acknowledges that the service isn’t perfect. “Sault Ste. Marie Transit is currently undertaking an operational review and we are inviting riders of Para bus or city bus to assist with identifying what currently works well for them and what we can do better. We are looking to incorporate existing best practices and find new efficiencies in our daily operations to provide an appropriate level of service combined with affordability for the customer and the municipality.”

Ontario’s Public Service Accessible Customer Service Policy mandates the provision of goods and services in a way that respects the dignity and independence of persons with disabilities. Ministries are also tasked with ensuring that customers with disabilities receive accessible goods and services with the same quality and timelines as others do.

Muller summarizes his thoughts about the improvements he’d like to see happen with accessible public transportation. “The bottom line is the city needs more buses- more Para buses and more low-floor buses. We can’t be a part of life without those buses. And they need to be more compassionate and understanding and stop asking questions that are none of their business. They have no right to ask why I need to book a bus. Or to ask me if I’m getting paid for a job.”

The City of Sault St. Marie has hired transportation consultants from HDR/iTrans to facilitate a number of Para bus and related focus group meetings taking place the week of August 16th, 2011. Anyone wishing to participate in the Para bus focus group meetings can contact d.scott@cityssm.on.ca. Focus group meetings for regular city bus service will be scheduled in September 2011.

*For further information or if you have a youth related topic that you would like to discuss or share please contact steffanie@saultyouthassociation.com .


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