Surveilance and Access to Transit

Recently people who ride Wheel-Trans, Toronto’s segregated transit system for people who cannot access the TTC, sent its riders a letter. The letter informs riders that cameras that have been installed in Wheel-Trans can be used to reassess people’s eligibility for Wheel-Trans. Focusing on what it calls “Questionable Riders,” however, masks the real issues with respect to disability and the TTC.

This reassessment is not new. It has been going on in secret since the camera’s were installed in 2006-2007. In July, 2013, the Office of the Ombudsman issued a report outlining the ways that the TTC reassessment was unfair. Specifically, people were not told about how to appeal, not told about the video, not given a copy of the video and not warned that it was even a possibility that they would be reassessed. In 2012, 54 people were barred from Wheel-Trans because they were deemed ineligible through this process. The letters that people received are intended to resolve the Ombudsman’s concerns about the “Questionable Rider” program.

There are several key issues that a superficial reading of this issue conceals, however.

1) This isn’t how disability works for lots of people

Lots of people experience a lot of variation in their capacity depending on a whole bunch of factors. Some people have days where their mobility is quite high but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need Wheel-Trans. The way that Wheel-Trans works most of the time is that you need to book it in advance (they do have same day booking now but it is even more unreliable than advance booking). People cannot necessarily anticipate that they are going to more mobile than other days and folks can be penalized if they cancel on the same day as a ride booking. This puts some people in the situation of having to preform disability – act to the (often stereotypical and troubling) expectations of others about what it means to be disabled.

Disability is also something that can’t always be seen. Lots of people have non-apparent (or invisible) disabilities but that doesn’t necessarily make them less in need of Wheel-Trans. The use of a camera to determine if someone is a “Questionable Rider” erases a lot of important context and much of the reality of disability.

I met someone a number of years ago who had had double knee surgery. When she went to get on Wheel-Trans, the driver wouldn’t let her on because she ‘wasn’t disabled.’ After a long verbal exchange and it became apparent she was never going to get on the bus, she pulled her pants down and showed the driver her wounds. This is where instance on visibility takes us.

2) Surveilling people for fraud is disgusting

Wheel-Trans takes calls from the public about “Questionable Riders” in addition to watching cameras to try and ‘catch’ people not being disabled enough. While this is about cutting people off to save money, it is also about controlling people by making them afraid. Like welfare tip lines, this works to keep people in line and scare people into using services less than they need or are entitled to.

3) The TTC should be fully accessible

This doesn’t mean that we should get rid of Wheel-Trans though. Some people need a ride right to their door and taking that away would be an injustice.

In 2008, the TTC planned for every subway station to be accessibly by 2020. In 2010, however, it moved it back to 2024 because of budget constraints. A year later, in 2011, they had pushed it back to 2025. I have no doubt that the TTC would keep pushing back when it plans to be fully accessible if provincial law didn’t require it by 2025. Transit inaccessibility is a choice. The TTC is wasting $85 million to cancel contracts in order to build subways rather than LRTs* – that is a lot of money that could be used elsewhere. This is particularly ridiculous since the LRT would also cost less and have more stops.*


Click here to see the Wheel-Trans reassessment site

Click here for the Ombudsman’s report

Accessible Transit Services Plan – 2011

Accessible Transit Services Plan – 2010

Accessible Transit Services Plan – 2008

* Toronto Star: Toronto election: Mayoral candidate David Soknacki would cancel Rob Ford subway