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

Wheel Trans: Paris Hilton Isn’t So Unlucky

The Toronto Star ran a story about Wheel Trans today that said: “Paris Hilton should be so lucky. Her private chauffeur probably doesn’t provide the kind, attentive service” that Wheel Trans does.

Tess Kalinowski’s ‘feel good about the incredibly problematic, segregated transit system’ article is actually about cutting the already limited program.

Wheel Trans is already considering cutting service to dialysis patients and looking at who else they can kick off the system to save money.

Wheel Trans is not a system full of frills like Paris Hilton’s private transportation. Hilton probably isn’t at risk of being sexually assaulted by her driver, as has happened on Wheel Trans. Hilton doesn’t risk being cut off of transit if she is late a couple of times like wheel trans riders are. If Hilton’s driver is late, there is probably something she can do about it, unlike Wheel Trans riders.

And, if Hilton wants to book a ride she probably doesn’t have to get up at 5:30 in the morning like some Wheel Trans riders do in order to get through on the phone. Wheel Trnas superintendent Bill Frost says: “One of the reasons is our customers are lonely people… If we doubled the operators it wouldn’t make any difference.” That is a bold faced lie. It would make a real difference to the people I know who can’t possibly book a ride. And, for folks who don’t know, it is one thing to encourage people to book online but that is really hard when they won’t let you book online unless it is to go somewhere you have already been dropped off. Why? probably because it is disablist and paternalistic.

I have a friend whose grandmother waited for 2 hours in a snowstorm for Wheel Trans once. Eventually she just started walking. She fell and broke her hip.

Wheel Trans doesn’t need cuts. It needs accountability, transparency, and to respect its passengers. It also needs more funding. I fully support cutting the number of people that take Wheel Trans if it is because they make the TTC fully accessible, not because they are drawing arbitrary medical lines to save cash.

Even Paris Hilton deserves better than Wheel Trans.

Click here for the story in The Star.