The CNE is Right to Allow People with Disabilities Free Admission

cneLast week, the Canadian National Exhibition changed its policy for people with disabilities, which previously allowed anyone with disabilities free admission to the annual summer fair. “If you want to be accepted as part of the rest of society and not be treated as some hopeless case then you need to participate and contribute to society too, whenever you can,” said the CNE’s disability consultant Laurie Sue Robertson.

After public outcry, that change was rightfully overturned.

Originally, the CNE 2016 Admissions policy stated that it was aiming to align its disability policy with those of other organizations in the region, such as the Royal Ontario Museum or GO Transit. It went on to state: “The CNE strives at all times to deliver its attractions and services in a way that respects the dignity and independence of all of our guests, including those with disabilities.”

It’s not a terrible concept. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, either.

Robertson told CBC she was aware her opinion would be unpopular, especially with other people living with disabilities. (Robertson herself has arthritis.) “Why should I get in for free?” she told media. “If I can’t afford to go, then I won’t.”

But what Robertson’s argument excludes is a nuanced view of the obstacles many people with disabilities face. Many adults with disabilities—including me—struggle financially. While we do our best to contribute to society and pay our way, it’s hard to make ends meet. The already challenging job market can be even more challenging for those of us with limitations and considerations that most able-bodied people can’t fathom. The Ontario Disability Support Program helps, but it’s not much, with often only a few hundred dollars left for the month after rent and bills. A free or discounted admission every now and then is appreciated, and it helps us to better participate in the community when we might otherwise be limited by money.

Of course, money is central to these arguments. Charging more customers brings in more money, and greater revenue is a marker of success.

But it’s not like free or cheaper admission for those with disabilities is highly publicized. In my experience, I’ve had to ask for a discount, or I’d be charged full price. Only a few times in my life have I been unaware of a discount and had my money refused. But more often than not I am charged full price. So how much money would the CNE really save?

What’s important is for the CNE to consult a group of people with disabilities, take their feedback into account, and make a properly informed decision. Too often, our views and lived experiences are overlooked. And based on last week’s outcry, it’s likely the community isn’t keen on the proposed change.

The policy will be reevaluated in the fall. As for this year’s fair, people with disabilities and their caretakers will continue to receive free admission. Let’s hope this whole situation hasn’t left too many people with a bad taste in their months come August 19 when the wacky fair foods roll out.

Originally published by Torontoist.

For Torontonians with Disabilities, Riding the TTC is Still A Struggle


For me, public transit has always meant freedom. After living my high school years in the boonies, with only a handful of other houses, a general store, and town a 20-minute drive away, to say I was excited to go away for college is an understatement.

After living in Ottawa to attend Algonquin College in 2008, I learned what it’s like to get around with relative ease, to hop on a bus to get to a movie theatre or mall without any aid.

In 2011, I moved to Toronto and lived in residence at Ryerson University. Again, I was surrounded by public transit. But there were pitfalls, and though I live with a moderate form of Cerebral Palsy that allows me to walk with two canes, I found myself struggling to get around the city.

Five years later, the TTC still isn’t completely accessible for Torontonians, like me, with disabilities.

As it stands, 34 of Toronto’s 69 subway stations are currently accessible—that is, they each have accessible entrances, fare-gates, and elevators. The Commission has plans to update all remaining inaccessible stations by 2025, per the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requirements.

I’m lucky that I can use my canes to walk up stairs when necessary; but many, like those who use wheelchairs or walkers, don’t have that option. If an individual with a wheelchair needs to be in the Wellesley or College area, for example, he or she has to commute from Dundas or Bloor stations, which each have elevators in service, or arrange alternative transportation, such as a bus or Wheel-Trans. At best, the inaccessibility of these stations is inconvenient. At worst, it hinders many from getting to where they need to go, and reinforces the embarrassment that is associated with an inability to act independently.

Matt Hagg, senior planner of system accessibility, recently assured me in an email that the TTC is on track to meet the 2025 goal. The current schedule has St. Clair West and Ossingtion stations as a priority for 2016, with Woodbine and Coxwell following in 2017. Warden and Islington will be the last stations brought up to standard because they are two of the most complicated reconstructions, with multiple bus bays, each with their own staircase.

Accessible station priorities are made with the consultation of the Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit (ACAT) and within the requirements of the AODA. Criteria for such priorities include: proximity to health care and education, demographics, transit connections, ridership, and location. These criteria were last re-affirmed in March 2013, with Old Mill Station, considered then to have the lowest ridership, as the point of reference.

ACAT meets publicly once a month at TTC headquarters, providing advice to the TTC board and staff on issues of accessibility, representing seniors and people with disabilities in Toronto. The committee has four sub-committees that looks even more closely at Wheel-Trans, communications and customer service, planning and training of staff, and the design and planning of TTC stations and vehicles. “ACAT’s input is highly valued by TTC staff,” says Hagg, “and many accessible features of the TTC stem from the advocacy of ACAT.” Blue priority seats, written descriptions of TTC stations for people with vision impairments online, and improvements to the subway platform edge at Eglinton Station to minimize the gap between trains and the platform are just some examples of service improvements ACAT has initiated.

ACAT is also consulted about PRESTO, which recently reached two million customers. While I agree that the system has the makings to be a highly accessible option—it is much easier than trying to mange coins or tokens—I was concerned when I noticed that PRESTO machines at accessible stations were not consistently placed at accessible fare gates. Vanessa Barrasa, senior advisor, communications and public affairs, wrote in an email that Metrolinx is committed to accessibility and will continue to seek feedback and make adjustments with future updates of machines and software. The TTC, however, is responsible in the placement of PRESTO machines. Hagg says PRESTO will be available at each station by the end of 2016, and at every fare gate by mid-2017.

Still, the process can feel incredibly slow for those in need of accessible transit options. According to Hagg, a typical station accessibility project takes five years to complete: two years to design and three spent in construction. This, he says, is a complex process due to property requirements, electrical upgrades, and third-party stakeholders. When it comes to property requirements, Hagg said most stations need property acquisitions, easements, or development contracts from outside parties, all of which requires a lot of coordination and cooperation from the City and anyone else involved, taking up to two years per station. Electrical upgrades, required for elevators, involve the help of Toronto Hydro, which can be challenging to schedule as the utility company already has a full plate of competing priorities. This is all made more challenging, Hagg points out, by the fact that most stations are underground, meaning that elevator construction requires major relocations and evacuation—all while still maintaining service to get people where they need to go in the most efficient way possible.

Above ground, meanwhile, only the 509 Harbourfront and 510 Spadina routes are run by the new accessible streetcars. But progress is being made: At ACAT’s May 26 meeting, the TTC announced that on June 19 the new 514 Cherry streetcar will be accessible. On the same date, the 72 Pape bus route will be extended to Union Station. This could increase accessibility for some by eliminating the need to transfer between subway lines.

Looking back on my youth spent without access to transit, I recognize that my situation in Toronto could be much worse. But the TTC must continue to prioritize accessibility for commuters like me. In the meantime, we’ll continue our nine-year wait for full station accessibility across the city. It may be a long wait, but it’s an important one.

Originally published by Torontist.

How Uber And Taxis Shape Up In The Battle For Accessibility


The moment my Uber driver, Joe, sees me emerge from my apartment building, he steps out of his car to open the vehicle’s backseat passenger door. Once I hop inside, he adjusts the passenger seat, pushing it forward to make space for my legs. “Can I help you with anything? Give you a hand?” he asks when we arrive at my destination. I politely decline.

These measures might seem excessive—as if the driver were vying for a five-star rating. But for those like me with accessibility issues, going the extra mile (pardon the pun) can make all the difference.

Joe is a driver trained for Uber’s newest service, Assist, which became available in Toronto on Feb. 26. It’s the ride-share company’s attempt at making the navigation of the city easier for those with disabilities or seniors. I know the struggle firsthand: getting around the city with Cerebral Palsy (CP) is often a challenge.

Yet, for all the hubbub surrounding the city’s taxi wars, little has been explored regarding how competing services have dealt with accessibility. In the name of journalism, I tried both services to explore it myself.

Though Uber has been lauded as an industry-changing initiative, it’s taxi drivers who have long been revered as the (somewhat) accessible counterpart to the ride-sharing company. As Jonathan Kay divulges in his definitive Uber-versus-taxi storyfor The Walrus, Uber has long ignored the accessibility issue—but cabbies haven’t. “Traditional taxis have not done a sterling job of serving disabled passengers,” Kay writes. “But things are changing. Toronto recently has begun phasing in a new general licence that will utterly transform the city’s taxi fleet by requiring fully accessible vehicles…with folding ramps.” Taxi schools, he continues, also stress the importance of “safety and accessibility.”

It’s perhaps what has pushed Uber to unveil Assist. At the same price as UberX, the new service competitively offers extra assistance getting in and out of the car to those who need it. Drivers are also trained to load and unload the wheelchairs or mobility aids riders may have. All Uber drivers with a star rating of at least 4.8, such as Joe, were invited to attend a two-hour seminar in preparation for being an Assist driver.

Despite this, I’ve always thought that Uber was a great service for people with mild to moderate disabilities. I have been reliant on Uber for about a year when TTC is not quite enough. UberX was a real saviour last winter, for instance, when I needed to be at school everyday but snow and ice made it almost impossible for me to walk on down the sidewalks without slipping or falling.

While no two people are affected in the same ways, my CP predominantly effects my walking. I walk with two canes for balance and occasionally use a wheelchair if I am going long distances, or having more difficulties than usual. I don’t usually need anything special, but considering I can’t drive, a drive from point A to point B is often helpful. It is also great to be able to do this independently, without having to depend on my boyfriend to drive me around all the time.

So last Tuesday, I decided to try out Assist. I needed to go from my apartment, near Queen West and Beverly, to my boyfriend’s apartment, near Don Mills and Lawrence, but the snow would have made the hour-long public transit journey challenging.

I noticed a few days before that there were more Uber Assist drivers available in the downtown core than in North York, which could pose a problem for anyone living with disabilities on the fringes of the city. In my case, driver Joe arrived within just six minutes—just enough time for me to get down to the lobby. I was immediately surprised by his getting right out of the car to open my door; it’s not that I’ve never had an Uber driver offer to help, but those who are willing to do so usually only rush out of the car once they’ve noticed my canes. I appreciated his willingness, even if I didn’t need much extra help on this particular trip.

Joe was friendly and eager to chat so I took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences with this new service. He told me I was only his second Assist rider, but he was happy to do it. This isn’t entirely out of good will: While UberX drivers earn 75 per cent of the profit, Assist drivers are incentivized to train, earning 85 per cent per ride. The 26-minute ride set me back just $23.05.

When it was time to return home, I ordered a taxi via the Beck website. (I tried their app, but it kept crashing.) Similar to Uber, I waited only about six minutes, and the driver had no issue finding the address. I concede that finding a taxi outside of the downtown core is likely faster and easier than an Uber.

I knew that a taxi ride often costs about double that of an UberX, so I told Gordon, my driver, to take me to Pape Station. This trip took about 10 minutes and cost $23.43. As I was getting out of the car, Gordon asked it I needed a hand. I appreciated the offer and said thank you, but told him I was fine because I figured it would be more trouble that it was worth for me to explain how he could be helpful; unlike Joe, he didn’t undergo accessibility training.

My experiences in both Ubers and taxis are still limited: I didn’t bring my wheelchair this time (but maybe I’ll feel more comfortable bringing it in the future, thanks to UberWAV), and my needs might be less significant than those of other riders who require more assistance. How either would perform in more intensive situations is unknown to me.

The choice between Uber and taxi is a personal one, in which factors like availability, helpfulness, understanding, cost, and timeliness must be weighed. But beyond those factors, it is important to recognize that choice now exists. In a city where accessibility can often be lacklustre at best, Uber Assist and accessible taxis provide two new ways to explore—and that alone should be celebrated.

Originally published by Torontoist

Home Sweet Home


I first moved to Toronto to study journalism at Ryerson University. Like other fresh-faced first-year students, I thought it made most sense to move into residence, with all of its perks and benefits. I couldn’t have asked for a better location: my new home was spitting distance from the building I’d spend most of my days in, and on a good day, it took me just 10 minutes to get from door to door. Armed with a meal plan and a few TTC tokens, and with Yonge and Dundas just a 12-minute walk away, I felt free.

My house hunts, since then, have not been as simple.

I have a mild form of Cerebral Palsy (CP). In my case, this means that from birth, the part of my brain that is supposed to tell my muscles to hold me up while I walk simply doesn’t. While other parts of my brain have picked up some of the slack, I walk with canes for balance, occasionally use a wheelchair, fatigue quicker than most people, and struggle with stairs. Ramps and elevators are much preferred and appreciated. And, despite the assumptions of many (particularly at inaccessible subway stations, as I move slowly down the stairs), escalators don’t help—I can’t lean on something that is moving.

Yet, even in a city as progressive as Toronto, few buildings—save for university housing—can accommodate my need for accessibility.

This Thursday, scholars, developers, and city directors will partake in a panel, dubbed AffordAbility, discussing affordable and accessible housing. It’s a much-needed conversation, one few who don’t encounter disability on a regular basis often forget about. I’ve had these conversations before: living with a disability permeates most facets of my life, including my living situation.

My daunting search for affordable, accessible housing began during my third year at Ryerson. I planned to spend a semester abroad studying in New Zealand; but in doing so, I was unable to save up the $6,000 necessary to make a residence payment upon returning to Toronto. Typically, students who go on exchange live off-campus, and in trying to finagle a spot in residence before I left for the semester, residence staff told me to do the same.

I, however, doubted this would work for me: my accessibility needs made a notoriously difficult Toronto apartment search nearly impossible—especially for a lease that would expire in less than a year.

Just before I left for New Zealand, my best friend, Katelyn, and I decided to move in together. Katelyn also has a mild form of CP, so the pair of us had a laundry list of needs: We agreed that we needed to be in the downtown core, walking distance from OCAD (where Katelyn was studying photography, and often had to lug equipment back and forth), close to an accessible subway station, above ground, and have an elevator if it was above ground level. For two women living with a disability, I feel these were not unreasonable requests.

Katelyn and I could scrounge up $1,400 per month for the place. Our budget proved to be a challenge—and I was pessimistic that we could find an apartment that suited all of our needs. While I was studying on the other side of the world, Katelyn and my dad would send me apartment listings, which seemed affordable in our desired area, daily. But most of them were basement apartments, which meant we would have to climb stairs every day. This thought left me feeling trapped: all I could foresee was the possibility of being stuck if I was ever having a bad day, week, or month that left me unable to climb the stairs.

I still count my blessings. Our search could have been more difficult if we required other accessible accommodations. Many who live with disabilities in Toronto require housing with wider doorways, space to get around in a wheelchair, accessible washrooms and showers, and lower kitchen counters and cabinets.

Accessible housing can be found through Toronto Community Housing, but the application process, which requires first applying for housing in general and then specifically to the Accessible Program, is long and tedious. There is also a wait list for housing that spans years, and a lengthy repair backlog to deal with.

It took a couple months of looking, not without some international bickering between soon-to-be roommates via Facebook message over what we were willing to live with and how much we could stand to spend, but Katelyn did find us an apartment near Queen West and Beverly. It met most of our requirements: it has one bedroom that I use, while Katelyn uses the living room area with access to the balcony. The apartment is on the seventh floor, with an elevator. Our building is right beside OCAD and 10-minute walk from Osgoode Station, which is accessible. I often order my groceries online and have them delivered right to the apartment, which compensates for the fact that the Loblaws near me is quite a far walk.

The building is older and not without its issues—but it’s about as accessible as I could hope for.

Like most people in their 20s, I hope to live somewhere nicer one day. But I am not looking forward to trying find another place that is accessible for me. Even if I’m able to one day afford to live in a fancy condo, I’d probably still be concerned that it shouldn’t be on too high of a floor—just in case the elevator goes out of order and I need to walk down those dreaded stairs.

Originally published by Torontoist