Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Standing room only

Since the last two blog entries were on the negative side, I'm going to take on a lighter tone today.

Quite often, there are some things that happen on public transit to me as a wheelchair user that are both ridiculous and funny – and sometimes it is hard to believe some people can be so clueless. One such thing happened to me a few days ago.

When a wheelchair user gets on the bus, it is common knowledge that people who are sitting in the priority seats in the wheelchair bay would have to relocate. Simple, right?

Apparently some people think even simpler than that.

In this particular incident, which happened a few days ago, I got on the bus, which was quite crowded but not full. The people in the priority seats simply stared at me, not realizing that they had to move. I have encountered this reaction before so I was not completely surprised. The other standees shifted over to make room for me. The driver, who was having trouble seeing through the bodies, asked if I was "in" yet. Obviously this meant whether I was in the wheelchair bay yet.

To my surprise, a few standees around answered that I was indeed "in." I was in the aisle. Of course, I quickly responded that no, I was not "in" yet.

After I did get "in," someone apologized to me because he did not realize that was what "in" meant. I asked him what he thought it meant. He was visibly embarrassed to admit that he thought it meant that I was in the aisle. I was confused. He explained further, "I thought that wheelchairs can be in the aisle as long as there is room, like how I'm standing in the aisle because there are no seats." He quickly added, "I guess I wasn't thinking."

To my surprise, several other people around him also admitted that was what they thought and that they, too, were not really thinking.

This was not the first time experiencing something like this. Though extremely rare, there were several incidents similar to it but in those other cases, there were no words exchanged (simply actions). Before that person explained it to me, I did not realize that was the rationale behind the standees simply shifting over and the people in the priority seats remaining firmly seated.

At first I was in disbelief at how THAT was the explanation for the two or three times I encountered that type of situation. But as the embarrassed passenger stared at me, I realized how ridiculously funny the whole situation was and started to chuckle. The mood lightened as a valuable lesson was learned.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I hate public transit

When I was able-bodied, I was a big fan of public transit. I enjoyed how unique every bus route was, how you can "hop on, hop off" any time you want, how it saves you money and the hassle of driving, and especially the atmosphere on board if it's the same group of people who take the same route every day.

But since I started using a wheelchair, things changed.

There is a reason why I started this blog.

Many able-bodied people may find this shocking (or not, depending on who you are) but I believe that public transit has the most discriminatory atmosphere towards people with disabilities.

People with disabilities face a LOT of crap on public transit, moreso than anywhere else I have seen. Most of that crap is not something that can be controlled by the bus driver or transit agency because it often comes from other passengers.

Here's a small sample of what happens on a regular basis for me (approximately once or twice every ten days) on public transit:
  • When boarding a bus, a passenger will say audibly, "Great, a wheelchair on my bus." Some will shake their heads at me instead. I'm not blind or deaf...
  • While waiting for an elevator at a SkyTrain station, one person will express their displeasure at having to share it with a wheelchair user. Some of those people will physically cut in front to prevent it.
  • For some odd reason, when I board a SkyTrain, some people are not happy about it. I have seen people swear under their breaths at the sight of me. Strangely, getting off never causes an issue.
  • People hate giving up their priority seats on the bus, even for those who do not need it. Just ask this athletic guy. I could understand if they were elderly or have disabilities as well, but young and muscular athletic-looking people?
  • Wheelchair users are often the scapegoat if the bus is late. This is true even if you boarded at the very first stop, during a layover WELL BEFORE it was about to leave. I have heard people who get upset at the bus being late saying, "It's because of the wheelchair" to their fellow passengers before – MANY times.
  • Threats. For a variety of reasons: "making" someone late, or having to "make" someone move from a priority seat, or completely random reasons.
Bear in mind not all of these are guaranteed to happen, but at least one of them will likely happen during the next ten days.

Some may see this as "whining" but I do not particularly care because in society, every time someone with a disability points out a problem like this, they are immediately labeled as "whiners" – so it is nothing new.

But reading the above incidents (which occur regularly), don't you think I have a right to whine? There is no other group on public transit that receives the brunt of this abuse more than people with disabilities – not people with baby strollers, not people with bikes, not elderly people, not kids.

Unfortunately able-bodied people do not understand that and sometimes I fear they never will.

When I write something that upsets people, it is very predictable. There will be two groups: one that is very upset, and one that is in agreement. The former is often the able-bodied transit fans online and the latter is often people with disabilities or disability allies. And this pattern comes up EVERY TIME.

Quite often, someone from the disability community will tell me that it's hopeless to try to "educate" the able-bodied people (who I upset) about disability issues because they simply "will never get it."

I don't believe that. That is why this blog even exists. There needs to be a better understanding and awareness of people with disabilities on public transit, who seem to have a target on their backs simply because they chose the bus, SkyTrain, or SeaBus as their mode of transportation.

This may sound paranoid but think about what kind of situations I listed above. Right now there is very little understanding and quite a lot of hostility – and many the able-bodied people who are part of that do not even know that they are doing it. It is not always their fault but when they refuse to listen or learn more about what goes on, it effectively becomes a social barrier to inclusion.

This post will also upset a lot of people (as I expected with my previous post). I will be called a "whiner." I will likely be sworn at through e-mail (which is on the right, by the way, for the people with legitimate questions). Many people will unfollow me on Twitter. Some will block me.

But this is the cold hard truth. And the truth is never easy to take.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Let the past stay in the past

Recently, some of the old so-called "fishbowl" buses have been making their rounds on the streets of Metro Vancouver. These buses are from a previous era and have since been replaced by newer buses.


GMC Classic bus, Translink
A "fishbowl" bus, circa 2006.
(Photo courtesy of BuckyHermit at Flickr.)


As expected with the current "vintage" fad ripping through society right now, many people have a sense of nostalgia for these buses. They represent a time when transit was the good old neighborhood service that was reliable, uncrowded and friendly. There are some who dislike the current low-floor buses right now. I get that.

But I have a problem with people advocating for the FULL-TIME return of these buses. As well, I can't help but feel a bit insulted when I see something like this.

While I realize the purpose of this is not to offend, it unfortunately does so. The reason for this is not because of the wording but the purpose behind it. The "fishbowl" buses' biggest sore spot is its lack of wheelchair accessibility due to their high-floor design (and of course, high-floor buses are noted for being notoriously inaccessible or having very clumsy wheelchair access).

By advocating for the return of those buses, it feels like people are looking to step backwards and undo the great progress that public transit has made in wheelchair accessibility. In other words, it feels like people are in favor of discrimination against people with disabilities just for the sake of nostalgia.

This feeling was also sparked by an incident recently that I encountered. There was a person (who I shall not name) who was VERY strongly in favor of bringing back all the obsolete high-floor buses. I informed him that unless they figure out how to make them more wheelchair accessible, that move would be a disaster.

His response? "Make a separate bus for wheelchair users [much like HandyDart]."

It's unfortunate how many people think that is a solution. There are several reasons why that would not work:

  1. That move encourages segregating people due to disability. We are not a third world country. It also violates a very vital part of the disability rights movement – the ability to be integrated (rather than segregated) from mainstream society. There are many times when I feel thankful my friends can join me for a simple bus ride to the mall instead of them having to ride separately.
  2. Handy Dart (Vancouver's paratransit service) has to be booked well ahead of time. For healthy young people with disabilities, this can restrict your access. No spontaneous trips to the mall for you!
  3. Handy Dart is often not point A to point B like fixed bus routes. That means you could be taking the scenic route to pick up a few more passengers (and load them, one by one) before you actually start heading to your destination.
  4. The cost per passenger of running Handy Dart is much higher than the cost of passenger using conventional transit. More passengers on Handy Dart means a bigger financial strain on the already cash-strapped system.
  5. The British Columbia disability transit pass (which costs $45/year) cannot be used on Handy Dart, which only accepts regular fares for a service that gives you much more restrictions than an able-bodied person using conventional transit. If you were able-bodied, would YOU choose that method?
Yes, I realize and understand that there is nostalgia for "fishbowl" buses. I am not against honoring and recognizing the past; in fact, it is extremely cool to do so. However, there is a reason why it is in the past and why we have moved on from it. Returning to the past is not always the smartest move. (Added note: I am specifically targeting those people who are making the suggestion of bringing back all inaccessible buses. I am NOT against preserving history or display it, but rather against the FULL-TIME return of high-floor buses, especially the "fishbowl" buses. There was a lot of anger because of this misunderstanding.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What is accessibility?

When most people think of accessibility, they think of several things: ramps, elevators, lack of stairs and so on. But while physical barriers can be broken down, it is only half of it. Ultimately what matters the most is whether breaking down physical barriers is complemented by breaking down social and societal barriers.

You really cannot have one without the other. I have encountered situations where a place is physically accessible but the staff working at the location were not very accommodating or accepting of people with disabilities. This includes public transit, where I have had some poor treatment from drivers more than a few times.

Simply placing ramps while holding an opinion that able-bodied people are "better" results in inaccessibility – while you are physically able to enter, you are socially locked out.

Today, I came across an interesting video from Hong Kong that talks not only about physical accessibility (including on public transportation) but also inclusion in society.



While Hong Kong is half a world away, some of what he says sounds familiar here in Vancouver, especially about how accessibility features do not always work with one another. Not too long ago, HandyDart was handled by several different agencies within Metro Vancouver before it was united under a single company. A few years ago, diesel buses were accessible but trolley buses were not. As well, at least a few SkyTrain stations were inaccessible, including one in downtown Vancouver.

In a recent discussion, I found out that TransLink is constantly in a struggle with Metro Vancouver's municipalities in their goal of making more bus stops accessible, but many cities are not as enthusiastic about the plan since it involves municipal funds and crews (as the sidewalks are under the municipalities' jurisdictions). It seems that while physical barriers are being broken down (slowly), social barriers are still rigidly in place and attempts to remove them are placed on the backburner.

Many people like to ask me, "What is accessibility to you?" Everyone would have a different answer to that but the video and the examples I just gave would be material to back up my answer – to me, accessibility is a situation where physical barriers are removed, complemented by the willingness to remove social barriers.

Of course, that is only my answer.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Faregates

It has been a long time coming but TransLink is launching a large-scale construction project involving faregates at all SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express stations. It is hoped that by abandoning the old fare paid zone "honor system," the system will attract fewer fare evaders as well as provide a feeling of security and safety on board. Also, it will integrate the new reloadable transit card ("Compass" card).

Construction is already underway at several stations. As with most new projects, TransLink is offering some information to the public about what is happening. Many people in Metro Vancouver have experienced faregate systems before; others have not.

I have had the pleasure of experiencing faregate systems in eight different cities around the world. I'm guessing that is more than the average person.

Of course, the biggest concerns I have with faregates are accessibility-related. Until recently, my concerns about TransLink's faregate accessibility were present but they were fairly minimal. But that changed the other night when I was discussing accessibility with faregates with someone online who is somewhat of an expert on public transit issues.

When stating my concerns about accessibility, the reaction from that person was, "All they need to do is widen the faregates for wheelchairs/scooters."

While that is true, it is not completely true – widening something is not all it takes to make something accessible.

That was when I realized that if someone who is so well-versed in public transit issues thinks that, then there is a chance that TransLink officials will think along the same lines.

I've been concerned about the lack of prototypes. When TransLink or Coast Mountain Bus Company introduces a new vehicle, they tend to show off a prototype before the full-scale launch. I have seen nothing of the type for faregates (and I was told that prototypes are not available yet).

At the presentation at Edmonds Station the other night, the artist's depiction of the faregates confirmed some of my concerns (though I am aware it will not be exactly as shown) and the representative I talked to did not seem to foresee some of the accessibility issues that I did.

So what does it take to make the faregates accessible?

1. Wider pathways: This was already discussed and confirmed. However, this is only the beginning.

2. Lowered displays and card-swipe area: Height is surprisingly the most overlooked aspect of accessibility, not only for transit but also for things like washrooms (where towel dispensers are often too high for people in wheelchairs to reach).

I once encountered a faregate system that was quite efficient. However, one sore spot they had was that the digital display (showing how much money was charged to your card and how much is left) faced the ceiling. For a standing person, that is fine. But for a person in a wheelchair, this is useless; how can you see a display at your eye level that is facing the ceiling?

In addition, if the card swipe pad is at the top of the faregate (a.k.a. wheelchair users' eye levels), it is nearly impossible to see WHERE we are supposed to swipe. In addition, those with limited hand and shoulder function (such as partial quadriplegics, those with cerebral palsy, etc.) will not be able to reach high enough to use their transit cards.

This is a VERY important feature that should be looked at carefully. The cities I've seen that have done it right had lowered swipe and displays, approximately 3 feet from the ground, in addition to "normal" standing-level swipe and displays.

3. Depth of card swipe area: One mistake I've seen is some cities with such "touchless" transit cards have swipe areas that are indented INWARDS towards the machine. In other words, the swipe area is in a 1-inch "sinkhole" into the machine itself. This can cause some problems for those with limited hand function.

Some cities have rectified this by doing the opposite: having the swipe area jut OUTWARDS instead. This is a very simple solution that would also work for those with limited vision -- they can feel around for the part that is jutting outwards and swipe their cards that way.

4. Audio cues: This is mostly for those with limited vision and I am sure TransLink will consider this. Some cities I have seen will play a sound clip reading out how much money is left in the card and how much has been subtracted.

5. Another possibility (perhaps a bit far-fetched): For those who use power wheelchairs and have almost no use of their hands, many choose to wear their transit passes around their neck. While bus drivers and transit police will be able to see the pass, a machine will not. I have never seen this solution before -- but perhaps a proximity reader is possible for this situation. For example, once you get 1 foot within the faregate, it will read the card.

I honestly do not know if this is possible but it might be something to think about. Perhaps the technology is available already; if not, I could see a local organization spearheading this.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Listening skills

This is common sense, but I really wish people would pay attention when something is being said to them. There is nothing worse than an unnecessary delay or chaos simply because people cannot follow instructions (as evidenced by my previous blog entry).

One of the common things bus drivers do is tell people at the bus stop to wait while a passenger in a wheelchair gets off. I have seen so many people who have normal English skills not understand the instructions and just stand there staring blankly.

Sometimes when the bus is running behind schedule and a passenger in a wheelchair has to get on, the bus driver instructs the other passengers (those who do not have disabilities or mobility problems) to enter through the back door; if they need to use the farebox, it can wait until later. However, it seems that when the driver makes this command, only half of the people actually comply even after hearing it.

One recent incident was even more bone-headed. I was waiting among a large crowd at Nanaimo Station. As usual, the 25 bus was running late. Finally, two straight 25 buses came, both destined for UBC. One was packed and the other was relatively empty. As he was deploying the wheelchair ramp, the bus driver told everyone, "There's another bus right behind me!" Everyone stared blankly. I repeated it for everyone in case they could not hear. Same reaction. As the first able-bodied passengers finally boarded, the bus behind us pulled away, only a quarter full as it took us another five minutes to board everyone.

There are often times when I wonder why people tend to shut off their ears and brains while using public transit. It is not rocket science and there are often very obvious and direct instructions you need to follow in order to reduce delays and make the ride smoother.

Hopefully this is not an indication of a problem with listening skills in our society.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Location, location

The other day, I was leaving GF Strong Rehab Centre in Vancouver and headed to the bus stop. When I got there, there were a few people waiting. Among them was a woman with her daughter, who was in a wheelchair like me. We were both waiting for the 25 bus.

Those who know the 25 bus don't need to be told how packed, off-schedule and chaotic that route can get. As the bus approached the stop, I looked and saw that it was jam packed. The girl, her mother and I quickly had a verbal plan about how to board the bus. I was going to take the forward-facing spot while she would take the backwards-facing spot. It seemed simple enough.

Of course, it was the 25 bus.

What happened afterwards could only be described as absolute chaos. I knew exactly what to do and where to go. The other passengers, however, didn't. Words can not describe how frustrating it was to repeat, "I need those seats over there" while other people just stood there and stared and the people in the seats I was pointing to were just looked around as if I was talking to somebody else.

It was stupid that it took so long to get the bus going that day. But before you think, "Of course it will take forever; wheelchair passengers always take forever!", consider this: it usually takes me an average of 15 seconds to board and be ready to go. (I'm a speed freak despite my limited walking ability.) With that kind of speed, I doubt that I was the problem. The problem was that other people had no idea how or where to vacate for wheelchair passengers.

I guess I couldn't blame them completely. After all, each bus is different. Perhaps that was part of the problem. So, without further adieu, I bring you the return of my "craptastic art" with this new informational post about the different types of buses/vehicles and which spots exactly to vacate when needed.

(All photos courtesy of BuckyHermit at Flickr.)

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New Flyer D40LF, D60LF, C40LFR (some)


The D40LF and D60LF buses (top two photos) are most common for routes operating out of Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond (as well as C40LFR, bottom photo, out of the Tri-Cities). These are the most familiar to people because the layout is very simple.


In the drawing:
-seats labeled #1 and #2: flip them up!
-restraint belts located below seats labeled #2.
-therefore: vacate if you are in seats #1 or #2.

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New Flyer E40LFR, E60LFR, D60LFR; Nova Bus


This is where some confusion occurs. The E40LFR and E60LFR buses (top 2 photos) are trolleys; the D60LFR buses are the new articulated buses (third photo from top); and the Nova Bus has the large front windows and wide front doors (bottom photo). The trick here is that the first wheelchair is behind the driver and faces backwards; the second wheelchair faces the front. Here is how it works.


In the drawing:
-seats labeled #1 and #2: if there is no wheelchair in this space, flip these seats up!
-first wheelchair parks at #1; #2 can be flipped back down if space allows it.
-seats labeled #3: if the spot at #1 is already occupied by a wheelchair, flip up all #3 seats.
-restraint belts are below the forward-facing #3 seats -- so all #3 seats MUST be vacated if a second wheelchair comes on!
-therefore: vacate if you are in seats #1; seats #2 may or may not need to be vacated (it depends on space).
-therefore: if #1 is already occupied, vacate seats #3.

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Orion V


These buses run mostly from Bridgeport Station to Delta, White Rock and South Surrey. There are a few complications here: Orion V buses use lifts instead of ramps and they only have one door. However, the process here is quite straightforward.


In the drawing:
-#1 and #2 seats must be flipped up. Obviously, only one side is needed per wheelchair.
-restraints are below #1 seats and a lap belt is next to #2 seats.
-therefore: vacate #1 and #2 when needed.

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Community shuttles


Community shuttles are kind of annoying. The only way for wheelchair users to enter is through a back door. In addition, it uses a lift that requires the driver to exit the vehicle to operate. Lastly, it requires straps and hooks that take forever to set up. Needless to say, these are not my favorite vehicles on the fleet. But nonetheless, they are still necessary.


In the drawing:
-flip up seats #1. These are finicky seats and the driver may need to assist.
-therefore: vacate seats #1.

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Bus stops


In the drawing:
-accessible bus stops are marked with a wheelchair symbol.
-therefore: allow passengers with disabilities to board first. Simple.

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SkyTrain: MK1


These SkyTrains are the old ones that first went into operation in the 1980s. They are often associated with the Expo Line but operate on both the Expo and Millennium Lines.


In the drawing:
-there are flip-up seats (#1 and #2) beside the doors. They should automatically flip up when you stand up.
-therefore: vacate seats at #1 or #2 when needed.

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SkyTrain: MK2


These SkyTrains are the newer ones that went into operation in the late 1990s with similar ones coming in during the 2000s. They are often associated with the Millennium Line but operate on both the Expo and Millennium Lines.


In the drawing:
-flip-up seats are at #1 and #2. However, they are not immediately obvious; look for signs.
-#1 and #2 seats can be flipped up like bus seats.
-therefore: vacate seats #1 or #2 when needed.

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SkyTrain: Canada Line


The Canada Line trains run exclusively on the Canada Line and have a more spacious inside layout. It is immediately obvious where the designated bike and wheelchair bays are.


In the drawing:
-wheelchair spots are at #1 and bicycle spots are at #2.
-therefore: vacate #1 when needed; #2 is often not needed for wheelchairs but it is still possible.

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SkyTrain: doors


In the drawing:
-accessible seating is often located near doors with the wheelchair symbol.
-therefore: when boarding, be aware that passengers with disabilities are likely to use this door.

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SeaBus


The Seabus connects downtown Vancouver to North Vancouver. There are no flip-up or movable seats to enhance accessibility, so things are a bit different here as well.


In the drawing:
-accessible seating #1 is often at the second door from the front or back of the ferry.
-the seating will always be next to the entrance or exit.
-therefore: if the space is needed, do not clog this area with luggage.


In the drawing:
-SeaBus doors have wheelchair symbols to indicate where the accessible spaces will be located.
therefore: when using these doors, be aware that there may be passengers with disabilities using the same doors to get on (and the same doors at the opposite end to get off).

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Whew!

That is a lot to cover. I hope it was not overly detailed. So the next time you are wondering if you should vacate your seats or spots, there will be less confusion.

If you are still unsure, pay attention to what the passenger using the wheelchair or the driver is telling you. All of us want to get moving as efficiently as possible!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

No room to spare

Did you know that TransLink offers all people a chance to test out whether their wheelchair, scooter or other mobility device will fit on board a bus?

Before my first time on board a bus in my wheelchair, I had never tested it out. I am fortunate to have a relatively compact and sleek wheelchair that can squeeze through many small spaces, but not everyone has one. If you are in doubt about whether your mobility device can get on the bus, it might be a good idea to take advantage of TransLink's offer to test it out on a not-in-service bus first.

Otherwise, something like this could happen:

(Photos from Oran Viriyincy at Flickr, taken near Seattle, WA)

Does not fit
Does not fit: Because of the people sitting on the right side, this man in a wheelchair can not go around the stanchion to use the passive restraint (his first choice). He ended up using the traditional straps.

Still does not fit
Still does not fit: the lady in the wheelchair can not go around the stanchion to use the passive restraint because there isn't enough room to maneuver around it. She, with assistance, boarded through the middle door to get to the passive restraint position.

Two wheelchairs on the B Line
Two wheelchairs on the B Line: One passive restraint (boarded through middle door with assistance, no ramp), One forward facing position (through front door ramp).

Whew! That took a long time. Speaking as a wheelchair user, I hate delaying other people's commutes and my own for something as simple as getting on or off a bus.

TransLink's buses are pretty good when it comes to accessibility, but one bus that makes the above situation unlikely is the Nova Buses (the ones with the double doors at the front). Those buses get a lot of grief from able-bodied riders but in terms of accessibility, they are wonderful – wider front entrance, front wheel moved back (making it less of an obstruction), plenty of space to maneuver in the front and so on.

However, that doesn't mean that anyone can manage those buses on the first try. If you have any concerns or doubts about getting on or off with a mobility device, take advantage of TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company's offer and test it out at their depot. More information is found here (look for "Travel Training").

Monday, October 3, 2011

[Video]: ICORD Resource Centre opening

Have you ever been past the colourful building on West 10th Avenue at Willow Street at the Vancouver General Hospital area and wondered what it was?

It is the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre; recently, it opened its brand new resource centre for people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. Priority Seating was there:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month

This has little to do with public transit, but I would like to put it out there just the same – October is Disability Employment Awareness Month.

So it is with a touch of irony that my month started out with a phone call this morning cancelling my scheduled job interview for early this week because the interview and job locations are both inaccessible.

It is hardly the first time I have been denied a job (or a job interview) because of my disability. It has happened so often now that I'm no longer surprised. But that hardly dulls the disappointment and the general bad feelings that come along with this every time it happens.

One of the previous potential employers was outright discriminatory by saying, "We don't hire people in wheelchairs." That in itself is likely violating several discrimination laws. I could have reported him but if you are someone seeking a job, would you try to ruffle some feathers and cause future employers to wonder whether you are a loose cannon?

The more common situation is when they call you, schedule you for an interview, and then either decide or realize that they cannot accommodate you or make the workplace (or even interview location) accessible.

To be honest, that is what bothers me more than the overt discrimination I mentioned earlier.

It bothers me because it shows that there is a real lack of awareness of what is needed to make a workplace accessible. For example, if you see on a resume that the potential employee has first-hand experience with disability issues, it might not be a bad idea to consider whether your workplace is accessible or not. Or you can even send an e-mail to the potential employee, stating that it is for determining whether or not accommodations are possible.

But phoning up the employee, asking him/her the standard screening questions, scheduling an interview time, etc. but not even checking or considering the accessibility issues that are obviously involved – that is when it feels that there is a big gap between awareness and understanding. And to be told, "We have to cancel the interview; we can't hire you because our workplace isn't accessible" gives a much worse vibe than a call earlier saying, "We just want to check whether we can accommodate you. Can you please describe your abilities?"

With the latter quote, I would like to segway into the next biggest issue that I have found – the assumption of one's abilities. I have had previous interviews (not screening questions) where we did not touch on any of my job abilities at all, but rather what I can and cannot do as a person with a disability.

There were a lot of assumptions about that. Some of them sound like a bad joke. For example, I have been asked whether I can use a computer. Obviously I can: I run not only this blog but several others, my background is very much based in online work and multimedia, and I have full use of my hands and upper body. Despite my insistence, some employers were not convinced that I could use a computer because of my disability. Like I said, it sounds like a bad joke but it has happened before.

It is funny how I can take public transit as a wheelchair user going from the western edge of Metro Vancouver to the eastern edge all the way to Maple Ridge (something some able-bodied people would be hard-pressed to do without collapsing from exhaustion), but somebody will assume that I can't press a few keys on a computer!

If you are unsure of whether someone with a disability has the capability to do something, ask him/her. Think of it this way – if the person knows that he/she cannot do it, then why apply for the job in the first place? If someone needs accommodations for using a computer or something else, he/she will mention it; that person might even know which organizations are available to help the company in this process! I certainly do, and I don't need accommodations beyond ramps and elevators.

The key point in all of this is disability awareness. Awareness does not mean bending over backwards to make sure someone with a disability gets in the workplace, but rather being aware of what is expected when you encounter a potential employee with a disability, as well as what attitudes both sides should bring to the table.

To recap...

It is NOT offensive to contact the applicant to ask about his/her abilities, but it CAN be offensive if you book an interview time and make it appear as if things will go ahead before realizing you should have done that in the first place. Doing the latter makes the person feel like the employer is unaware about or unsympathetic to the idea of workplace inclusion and adds to the feeling that your company is inadvertently discriminating against people with disabilities.

Do NOT make assumptions about one's abilities. We know our own abilities, just like how most job applicants know if they are qualified for a job before applying. If there is an issue that could play a factor, we will mention it. This applies in real life as well.

The final and most important thing I will mention is if your company has an "equal opportunity employer" statement, be sure you follow it. While I am not a big fan of these statements (since ALL employers should technically be equal opportunity employers by law), there is nothing worse than seeing a statement like that and then seeing it ignored or violated. It makes the statement meaningless and simply a fashion accessory for the company.

This has been a rant by yours truly. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strapped in and ready to rock

When taking a bus, one of the most interesting things that I notice is how others hook up or strap down their wheelchairs. It seems like everyone has their own method or preferred hooking up/strapping down method.


I apologize for the craptastic art.

The first thing to consider is that everyone's wheelchair is different. It's just like how people drive different cars. My wheelchair has things that others don't, and vice versa. I mentioned on Twitter how no two people load their wheelchair the same way – it's because everyone's chair and car are different.

Instead of seeking a single universal answer, it may be helpful to think about where is a "good" place to place the wheelchair restraints and where is a "bad" place to do it.


Handrims are stable hooking-up/strapping-in places... right?

When assisting, some drivers immediately try to use the restraints on the handrims or rear wheels of the wheelchair. This is a BAD idea.

There is the misconception that the wheel is a stable part on a wheelchair because, well, the whole reason the chair moves is because of the wheel! But for most rigid manual wheelchairs, the wheels can detach (part of the mechanism that makes it easier to store the chair). You don't want to be attaching a vital safety restraint on a removable part.

In addition, wheels can be damaged or bent due to force. I have heard of cases where using the wheel as a location for the restraints has resulted in a bent wheel, resulting in expensive repair costs. (I have Spinergy wheels on my chair and they routinely cost $600 a pair.)


The backrest should be an obvious place to strap down the chair... right?

Another seemingly obvious place to place the restraints is the backrest bar. After all, it's one of the closest areas to the restraint belts on a bus, right?

Well, it is the closest for sure. But I don't find that it is a safe place to strap down a wheelchair either. There are two big reasons why I don't think so.

The first reason is exclusively for rigid manual wheelchair users. Many rigid chairs cannot be folded down vertically (as in folding it down until the rear wheels are an inch apart from each other). Instead, they rely on the backrest folding DOWN on to the seat. As you can guess, since the backrest is a moving part, you don't want to be compromising its structural integrity by using it for a restraint belt.

My other reason has to do with safety and applies to all manual wheelchairs. Some people don't think of this, but wheelchairs can tip backwards. There are many methods to tip backwards (mostly to do "wheelies"). I tend to use my hips. But some others use their backs, which means – you guessed it! – putting force on the backrest. Imagine strong G-forces being applied on the backrest. It would be the ultimate wheelie, a.k.a. falling backwards and knocking your head on the ground.


Okay, how about using a non-moving part?

Another possible area to put the wheelchair restraint belts is on the axle area. This axle is also known as the "centre of gravity" bar. While it is movable, it requires strong tools to do so. I have great hand function and arm strength and believe me, you may need VERY strong tools and willpower to adjust it. Putting force on this axle will not cause the wheelchair user to tip backwards and it would take some extreme effort to make it move. This should be a good place to put the restraint belts, right?

I have never tried to use that bar, nor do I wish to. Why? Because I simply don't know if it would be damaged if the bus brakes and G-forces are applied to it. That bar is one of the most vital parts to a wheelchair that would be a complete nightmare to replace (and perhaps it might even be un-replaceable). I can't say it's a BAD idea to use it, but I can't say it's a GOOD idea either. It would be a huge risk to even test it, in my view. If anyone has input about this, please post in the comments; I'd appreciate it.


The method that is least risky to me and my chair.

My method is to choose a spot that is least likely to move, bend, or become damaged – the front bar, just above my casters. That bar doesn't look as secure as the other locations I mentioned, but for a titanium frame, it is least likely to bend. It will not move no matter what. It does not affect any moving parts. It is also easy to reach when getting off the bus. And it won't tip my chair over, which is a big plus. In short, it is nearly a foolproof place for the restraints.

Some drivers have expressed doubt over the security of this method. To the naked eye, it actually does look like a flimsy way to strap down a wheelchair. But this is the only method I've tried that has NEVER given me any problems. I've even been on a bus that had a collision before and this method passed the test. So when drivers look and ask, "Are you sure that's where you want the restraints?", I just look at them and say, "Definitely."

Do you have a preferred method of hooking up your wheelchair on a bus?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Invisible/subtle disabilities and transit: Not always a good mix!

As a wheelchair user, there are certain perks on public transit. The most obvious one is that we usually get loading priority as well as first dibs on the space at the front of the bus. It does not matter if there is a stroller or a walking person already in that place -- we trump everyone else.

The general hierarchy is generally, from top to bottom: wheelchair users, people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with strollers. To be honest, sometimes I do not feel very good about this hierarchy because it sometimes puts some people who actually need or deserve the priority seats at a disadvantage.

Before I go further, I have a confession to make. I can walk.

Okay, I cannot walk very well and it takes a lot out of me in terms of strength, energy and stamina (not to mention there is a significant risk of losing my balance and falling). But as long as I'm wearing my leg braces (sometimes accompanied by crutches), concentrating hard and going slowly, I can walk to a certain extent.

However, people often do not realize that not all wheelchair users are unable to walk. Some just have great difficulty walking or find that they cannot function fully without the use of a wheelchair or other assistive devices. Some may not need those devices but may have other limitations that restrict their physical abilities.

Where am I going with this? The other day, I boarded a 16 bus in downtown Vancouver heading towards Arbutus. A passenger boarded the bus and from my angle, it was quite obvious that she had some sort of condition that affected her muscles (my best guess was cerebral palsy). She had some difficulty with balance standing on board a jerky trolley bus and since her hands were affected, holding on to a pole was possible but still not optimal.

Since it was during peak hours, the bus filled up quite quickly and at one point, several elderly passengers came on board. Some healthy-looking young people did not surrender their seats for some reason (some were immersed in their Blackberries and some were even sleeping). Eventually the young woman gave up her spot since nobody else was doing it.

As the bus started to move, she tried to hold on to a pole but had difficulty doing so since the bus was absolutely packed. Since I was paying attention, it was obvious that it would be better for safety if she had a seat. However, people are so accustomed to giving their seats to people who are either visibly aged or use mobility devices that she was more or less ignored or overlooked.

Since there was a fold down seat in front of my wheelchair spot that would not impede me and I was getting off near the end of the route anyway, I immediately folded it down so I can offer it to her. Right away, someone thought, "Oooooh! A seat!" and tried to take the seat for himself. I had to assert myself at that point and say it was specifically for that woman. It was interesting how confused everyone looked; they did not understand why she would need a seat, until many stops later and after much visual scrutiny.

This is not the first time I've seen someone with an invisible or subtle disability ignored or overlooked. The most common situation in this category is younger people with conditions requiring more subtle assistive devices, such as a blind cane or walking cane. (Yes, some younger people have to use canes to get around too.) Theoretically they could ask for a seat, but this is Canada. We are often almost too polite to ask.

I guess the point of this story is to show that while it is a challenge to take public transit as a wheelchair user, it is a million times more challenging to do it as someone with an invisible or subtle disability because those people are often seen as "able-bodied" even if they use certain assistive devices. So if you are young and able-bodied and sitting on a priority seat, please stay alert (and awake) and be on the lookout for anyone who may need it.

P.S. -- other points:
  • Even for wheelchair users, some people actually do not realize that they need to give up their seats. I have had to be assertive and actually tell them what to do (no matter how obvious it may be).
  • I have tried going on public transit without a wheelchair before, wearing leg braces and using crutches. Not impossible but not something I ever want to do again.
  • If you're young and able-bodied, please do not fall asleep in the priority seats. How do you know if someone needs them if you're unconscious?
  • Know your bus: it makes things a lot smoother if you notice where the wheelchair seating spots are on the particular bus that you are on, so you know if you need to move.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bus Stop Hop 2011: Bring your best wheels. Wear comfortable shoes.

Yesterday was the 10th annual Bus Stop Hop. For those who don't know what it is, it is an event hosted by the British Columbia Paraplegic Association in partnership with TransLink. In short, it is similar to "The Amazing Race" where you try to hit certain locations and find certain objects/facts faster the teams competing against you.

The twist to this? You must use public transit to reach those places. This includes the bus, SkyTrain, SeaBus and Aquabus. There were fifteen teams and each team consisted of two able-bodied participants and two participants with mobility impairments. My team had one absentee, so we had someone from TransLink (who was originally there to shadow us and take photos) become our unofficial fourth member. The two rolling people on my team consisted of one manual wheelchair user (yours truly) and one power wheelchair user.

It was my first time at the event and it was cool to meet so many new people, and to come across those I've met before -- definitely one of the better networking events I've come across. This year's event was apparently the largest one ever in its ten years of existence.

The day started and ended at Performance Works on Granville Island, and the locations that were required were Vancouver International Airport, the bus cloverleaf on Granville Street at West 5th Avenue, Lonsdale Quay and Science World. At each location, you must obtain a fact and write it down, get a signature from a staff member there, or complete a task.

In addition, there was a trivia sheet that each group completes for points, as well as extra tasks for bonus points. This means that even if a team came in first in terms of time, they can still slip to second or third place because of points.

Each team had their own strategy. It seemed like the majority of them decided to start inward and move outward -- in other words, start at Granville Island and move farther and farther before reaching Vancouver International Airport (the furthest destination). After all, Granville Island had the most tasks and bonus points in the race so many seemed to decide to get them out of the way first.

...which probably meant chaos at the same locations. So our team decided to do almost the opposite -- start farthest away and move inwards to the final destination.

Our idea:
  • Go to the 5th Avenue bus loop: [first location]
  • From there, catch the 50 False Creek South bus to the Canada Line.
  • Take the Canada Line to Vancouver International Airport: [second location]
  • Take the Canada Line to Waterfront Station.
  • Take the SeaBus to Lonsdale Quay: [third location]
  • Take the SeaBus back to Waterfront Station.
  • Take the SkyTrain to Science World: [fourth location]
  • Take the Aquabus from Science World to Granville Island: [fifth location] *
  • Complete all the Granville Island bonus tasks.
* Remember this step. You'll see why later.

In short, our routing was planned to look like this:

View Bus Stop Hop route 1 in a larger map

We had it all planned out. So while everyone else tackled locations closer to home, we set out for the 5th Avenue bus stop.

And then my wheelchair decided to malfunction.

What happened was that my footplate's bolts were loosening up and the footplate slid to the point where it was scraping the ground. It was kind of dire for a few moments as we went up the hill adjacent and below the Granville Street Bridge. Somehow, we made it and as the task at the stop was bring handed off to my partner, I took the time to make a pit stop repair; thankfully my partner had a tool kit handy (lesson learned; I'm going to the hardware store tomorrow).

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EDIT: Access Eco BC blog has a photo of the wheelchair malfunction. My "greatest" moment captured on camera!
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We were the first team to that location and we had luck on our side at the start. We did not have to wait for more than a few minutes for any of the buses or SeaBuses until our return from Lonsdale Quay.

At the airport, we finally ran into some of the other teams. But we were confident; we were certain that nobody else had the 5th Avenue bus loop yet, so we were probably one stop "ahead" of the others. We completely blazed through all of the locations until after Lonsdale Quay, when we narrowly missed a SeaBus by a couple of minutes, resulting in a 15-minute wait for the next trip. Our momentum hit a snag.

Our next stop was Science World, which was conveniently under renovation. There was a bit of confusion as the lady at the information desk was not told about the Bus Stop Hop; this lapse allowed some of the other teams to catch up in the meantime.

After that, we thought we were home free -- one more Aquabus ride back to Granville Island to complete the final tasks, and that was it!

Or so we thought.

Because, you see, this is 2011. This is the digital age. That means unless something has "LOL" or "OMG" in it, we are not likely to read it.

We completely missed the tidbit in the instructions saying that the Aquabus was only running accessible services between Granville Island and... David Lam Park. From Science World, taking transit to David Lam Park was difficult if not nearly impossible on a Sunday schedule with two wheelchair users at the same time.

So we decided to hike it.

My partner kicked his power chair into high gear and I went into my wheelchair racing mindset. Our TransLink staff member had to leave after Science World, so our lone able-bodied team member had to jog it -- in her sandals/flip-flops.

It was no short trip by any means and she had to actually run to keep up with the team's high-speed power wheelchair user and rabid (though occasional) wheelchair racer. I have no idea how she did it, but she survived all the way to David Lam Park. (I had to hold on to my power wheelchair partner for a lift for about 10% of the way, so it was quite insane.)

So eventually THIS became our route (pay attention to the False Creek area):

View Bus Stop Hop route 2 in a larger map

After accomplishing the tasks there, we arrived back at base camp on Granville Island, answered the trivia questions and sent our stuff in. Third place! (We later slipped out of that position due to points, but anyways... THIRD PLACE!!! -- in our deluded little minds where leprechauns rule the Earth.)

All in all, it was pretty fun. Just waiting for the aches to kick in from yesterday's wheeling sprint from Science World to Yaletown. It hasn't happened yet but it probably will in a bit, which should be awesome.

Random post-blog thought:

(Next year, maybe have a friend stand by at Science World with a racing wheelchair. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wheelchairs don't affect hearing

A common phrase that parents say to their kids is, "If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all."

I have a new phrase I would like to propose: "If you want to say something bad about someone, don't pretend that person is deaf."

Today, I was waiting for a Vancouver-bound bus at Park Royal in West Vancouver. Since it is summertime, there were a lot of young people at the stop who were enjoying their freedom from school. There was a group of teen boys nearby; one of the boys had an injured ankle and was using crutches.

Since the Park Royal stop is a bit narrow and it is difficult for bus drivers to be able to see wheelchair-using passengers through the crowd, I decided to head towards the bus stop pole. I passed by this group. They didn't seem to notice me at first. But then they did, and what I heard next was simply astounding.

One of the teenagers said, "I hate it when a wheelchair has to get on the bus."

The teenager with the crutches said, "I know. They're a bunch of assholes. I've been in a wheelchair before. It's not that bad. They're just making it seem worse than it is."

And they did this about two metres from me, in plain earshot. They did not even try to hide what they were talking about -- no lowering their volumes or speaking in hushed voices. It was blunt and direct, and offensive in the worst way possible.

This reminds me so much of some of the tweets I see on Twitter over and over again, every single week:

Why wheelchair ppl only wanna get on da bus when im late son..wheel yaself to ya destinationless than a minute ago via twidroyd Favorite Retweet Reply



Idk why people in a wheelchair get on the bus I mean they can drive themselves wherever they need to goless than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry® Favorite Retweet Reply



Anytime I'm running late the person in the wheelchair want to get on my bus. Roll ya ass to where u need to go !less than a minute ago via Tweetlogix Favorite Retweet Reply



Every time I do a search on Twitter looking for content to re-tweet, I come across these all the time. Actually, I could care less about these people because they obviously do not have the reasoning skills to think about what wheelchair users go through. But if you have these kind of thoughts, keep them to yourself. Do not go around saying these things out loud, especially in front of the person you are talking about who has normal hearing.

That teenager has ZERO idea what it is like, yet he not only runs his mouth but also belittles people with disabilities. He obviously has no idea how to treat his fellow human beings. By the looks of it, he is nearing the final years of high school. It is time for him to grow up and be more mature.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Access Awareness Day, bus stop accessibility

This is almost a double-post; the first part will talk about Access Awareness Day, after which I will segway into accessibility of bus stops.

This past Saturday, June 4 was TransLink's Access Awareness Day. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the festivities on Saturday due to a sledge hockey lesson (in which I managed to destroy part of the ice by digging a 2-cm rut into it -- oops!) but on Wednesday there was an event at Metrotown that I was able to attend.

For those who missed it, it was basically an event that focused on accessibility awareness. It was a day that provided the opportunity to able-bodied people to experience what it is like to use a public transit vehicle with a mobility aid; a scooter and a manual wheelchair were available for those who wanted to try.

So naturally, I had to drag my friend to the event to torture him a little. He was lucky that the bus on hand was a NovaBus, which has a better layout than other buses like the New Flyers. Even so, it was interesting to see how long it took him to get on and off the bus, without hitting anything. TransLink also took along an empty baby stroller to use to demonstrate real life situations -- so not hitting anything is a major key here, unless you want to end up with an injured (albeit imaginary) baby!

While it was an informative day for those with no experience using a wheelchair, I learned something new as well -- trying to navigate on board using a scooter. I had tried power wheelchairs before but never a scooter. Surprisingly, I did not hit a single thing getting on or off the bus. Skills, dudes. Skills!

After meeting some TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company personnel such as Jim (from transition and quality assurance) and Andrea (a training instructor from Vancouver Transit Centre), I got to meet Robert, who currently runs The Buzzer Blog. He got a long jealous stare from me, as he currently has one of my dream jobs. (Sorry, Robert!)

One thing that I wish I had joined earlier was the Access Transit committee of TransLink. Why I never joined is beyond me, but it's interesting to see who is advocating for what in our public transit system as well as what kind of improvements (and "whoopsie"s) have been made or are in the works. For those who are interested in this sort of thing, it's definitely something that's worth looking into.

One of the things that entered the discussion is the fact that while the bus fleet and TransLink-owned infrastructure have been made more accessible in recent years, there are still some nagging issues such as accessible bus stops.

Some examples of bus stop problems are narrow sidewalks (without adequate room for deploying ramps) and locations of bus stops (it may be surrounded by hazards for those with mobility impairments). There are more examples but those are the biggest ones.

Having a committee of transit riders with mobility impairments helps drastically because there are things that nobody else would think about. Here are some real-life examples I've encountered:

West 49th Avenue [eastbound] at Montgomery Street, Vancouver
The bus stop is fine. It has tons of room, it is on a manageable slope, it is clear of a lot of hazards. However, it is "stranded" -- there are no curb cuts for the sidewalk leading to the stop itself. Thus, it remains inaccessible no matter what TransLink does.

King Edward Avenue [westbound] at Marguerite Street, Vancouver
The bus stop is deemed "accessible" but a tree blocks access to the bus shelter. The other end is clear but it requires that you wheel through the dirt. (This stop may have been fixed since then.)

West Broadway [eastbound] at Macdonald Street, Vancouver
This stop is a bit of a sore spot, especially since it serves the busy 99 B-Line. It is accessible but only if the driver knows the trick to it (and as a passenger, sometimes it is necessary to tell the driver what the trick is). For it to work, the driver must line up the front door so it doesn't result in the wheelchair user either crashing into the bus shelter or the nearby tree -- there is a small gap between the two that I usually squeeze through. That gap is not too big and I'd imagine for people with larger power wheelchairs or scooters, they'd need to get off a few metres ahead of the stop.

Railway Avenue [southbound], Richmond
This one baffles me. Northbound is fine because there is a sidewalk, but there is no sidewalk or anything of the sort going southbound. This is something the City of Richmond may need to figure out, because trying to get off the bus in a wheelchair along that stretch is a bit of a thrill ride.

West 49th Avenue [both ways] at West Boulevard, Vancouver
If you are heading to this stop from the east or the north, it's no big deal. But if you're heading in from the west or the south, then it's a chore because that's the only nearby accessible stop -- and it requires you to push your way uphill. Terrain, while not a big deal to most people, can be an obstacle to those who use manual wheelchairs (such as myself) or other manual mobility aids. Basically, you will need to exert a huge amount of energy to use one bus stop even if there's another one five feet away. A lot of this has to do with the sidewalks being too narrow; hopefully there's a solution to this.

I think I'm done ranting. Those are only several examples I've seen. Notice how none of these are rural examples but rather urban and suburban ones. I think when people start to look carefully at these little things, Vancouver can be made even more accessible than it is right now; this city has made huge strides but its job is far from being done and nobody should feel completely satisfied at the present situation just yet.

It's very likely that I'm going to look into getting involved with the Access Transit committee; let's see if we can get the ball rolling on making the system welcoming for everyone.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Priority" seating

The other day, Jen at TransLink Tales came up with some thoughts about "seat hierarchies" on public transit in Metro Vancouver.

It's very interesting how it works. There seems to be no clear unwritten universal rule; what I've noticed in Metro Vancouver may not be applicable in a place like, let's say, Hong Kong or even Los Angeles.

The only one that seems even remotely universal is... priority seating. (That may be the worst segway into using this blog's title, ever.) In all of the places I've been to throughout the world, wherever there is special designated priority seating for those in need such as people with disabilities, the rule seems to be the same -- get out of our way, b*tches. (Honestly, I'll stop with that now.)

However, one thing that makes the TransLink system so darned interesting is that there is a sort of seating hierarchy among those using the designated priority seating as well. Here, I will give several scenarios that I've encountered. Please note that these are only my own experiences and may not apply to others' experiences. Also, this is likely Rebecca Black's worst seating nightmare.

Scenario #1: Two wheelchair users (one manual wheelchair, one battery-powered wheelchair) getting on at the same stop.

There seems to be no real rule but for some reason, in every single situation I've been involved in, the person with the battery-powered chair gets on first. This may be because a) that chair can climb the ramp faster, b) it needs more space once on board anyway and c) driver assistance is usually needed for battery-powered chairs. While the driver is otherwise occupied, manual wheelchair users with good hand function (like me) can strap ourselves in.

I have never tried this on a 351/601 bus (with the hydraulic lifts) though. I'd imagine it would be similar.

Scenario #2: Two wheelchair users (both the same type of wheelchairs) getting on at the same stop.

Usually we figure out who goes first, one way or another. Or we fight to the death. Whichever works.

Scenario #3: Two wheelchair users (one manual wheelchair, one battery-powered wheelchair) getting on at the same stop -- on to a newer bus with rear-facing spots.

Usually, the battery-powered wheelchair tends to get the rear-facing spot mostly because the logistics of using straps on a manual wheelchair are less complicated and less time consuming (for both strapping and unstrapping).

Scenario #4: A wheelchair user gets on a newer bus with rear-facing spots.

Regardless of the types of wheelchairs, the "first come, first served" rule is the default here as far as I know. I guess this is because it's difficult enough maneuvering one wheelchair on board a bus, let alone two -- a simple shuffling of wheelchairs to match the results of Scenario #3 would be tough to do. (Also, standing crowds on buses can make such a shuffling impossible.)

Scenario #5: Two wheelchair users (one manual wheelchair, one battery-powered wheelchair) get off at the same stop.

The manual wheelchair user tends to get off first because he/she often gets unstrapped the fastest. But even when both people are unstrapped, I find that the manual wheelchair user gets off first regardless. Don't quote me on that; I've yet to encounter anything different but you never know.

Scenario #6: Two wheelchair users (same type of wheelchair) getting off at the same stop.

Fight to the death.

Scenario #7: A wheelchair user gets on, but both sides of the priority seating are occupied by the elderly or people with other disabilities.

Usually, the side with the fewest people in need will be asked to vacate the seats. It's rare that both sides would have the same number of such people. (Usually other people would offer their seats to those in need who had to vacate.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bus pass-ups

On Saturday's edition of the Vancouver Sun, the cover story was about how often buses pass up passengers in the TransLink system. For the most part, it was surprising to no one which routes were impacted the most. But for passengers with mobility impairments, it can be an even bigger challenge.

Us wheelchair users have the biggest challenge. Most people can "squeeze on" a bus as long as there is room but wheelchair users cannot do that for obvious reasons. Even if we could "fit" on the bus, the space needed to merely park ourselves is simply not there. This results in wheelchair users getting passed up at the same stops where able-bodied people (or people without wheeled mobility devices) are able to get on.

The most annoying corridor for me is the #99 B-Line one. That route is busy at the best of times, so unless you board at Broadway-Commercial Station or at UBC Loop, sometimes whether you get on or not depends solely on luck. The lucky thing with that corridor is that sometimes you can take the #9 bus instead but if you're in a hurry, that can be a problem.

However, not all routes are so lucky to have an alternate route servicing the same corridor (of which many people are painfully aware).

TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company launched a campaign a while ago promoting accessible transit. It's nice that they are aware of this growing need but sometimes I look at the problems they already have. Their infrastructure for passengers with disabilities has improved over the years but the crushing passenger demands are making this campaign rather difficult to implement to its full potential.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Staying safe

One of the biggest challenges of being a wheelchair user is safety. Something as simple as navigating through a parking lot can be a challenge because if you have to cut through some parking spots, some people can't see you because people are shorter when seated. Same for crossing the streets -- some drivers' instincts are tuned towards people walking, not people rolling.

Similarly, staying safe on public transit is also a challenge for wheelchair users. However, there are some cases I've come across in the TransLink system where safety is not taken into account and could result in serious consequences.

One of the things that happen the most often is bus drivers taking off before passengers in wheelchairs are secured. My most recent incident was last week on the 99 B-Line. I boarded the bus, but the driver was more concerned about his schedule than safety. There was certainly not enough time for me to secure myself before the bus took off; in addition, one of the belts turned out to be broken, leaving me in a precarious situation for my trip. Through the whole trip, the driver was in a mad rush.

Now, I understand drivers needing to stick to a schedule but the potential consequences of an injury or incident due to disregarding safety would dwarf any problems you would have from simply being late. I'm lucky enough to have full hand and arm function but some wheelchair users do not and if they were in my situation, something would have likely happened and the driver would have been in big trouble.

Another common situation I find is on community shuttles. Some shuttle drivers don't use any straps or restraints for wheelchair users, which is apparently a big no-no. I actually did not know this until recently because a) I don't take shuttles often and b) no driver offered restraints or straps. But a few weeks ago when I went to the Vancouver Ability Expo in Yaletown, the shuttle driver took them out and started putting them on.

According to him, shuttle drivers are required to use the straps and restraints. For both trips using shuttles that day, the restraints were used. They take slightly longer than belts and straps on a regular bus but for me, the delay was not by much at all. I wonder how much time was actually "saved" on my previous strapless and restraintless trips.

I don't know if this is a thing going on with the South Surrey shuttles (which my previous trips were on) or if the Vancouver shuttles are more strict about safety. But South Surrey and White Rock shuttle routes are a lot steeper and turbulent, and probably need the restraints more than the Vancouver shuttle routes I've taken.

In a way, I'm surprised more incidents haven't occurred. But I guess if I had an incident happen to me, I'd be hesitant or scared to take transit again. It makes me wonder how many have been scared off conventional transit as a result. So much for integrating people with disabilities into society.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PSA: Public transit accessibility study

Just a small announcement...

Our good friends over at Physical Issues have posted a link to a survey about public transit accessibility to benefit a research study at the University of Buffalo.

It is essentially a questionnaire asking about the various problems or obstacles you as a passenger with a disability routinely face. It covers a variety of conditions, including mobility impairments, vision loss, hearing loss and cognition impairments.

More information can be found at the Physical Issues site, and the questionnaire can be found here.

"A long time ago, we used to be friends"

(Yes, this blog post's title is taken from the theme song of "Veronica Mars.")

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This morning, I came across the following on Twitter:

Jeez, no matter how late I'm running, I'd never yell at someone in a wheelchair for "slowing down the bus". #shakesheadless than a minute ago via Twitter for Android



It seems like a nonchalant tweet that doesn't mean much. But there is much more to this tweet than meets the eye.

If you do a simple search on Twitter for "wheelchair" and "bus," you will find that there are a lot of angry commuters out there who find wheelchair users on public transit to be a nuisance. The general gist of it is, "I'm in a rush and now a wheelchair user needs to get on. Stupid wheelchair users, making me late for work/school/etc." There are other various complaints as well.

What's interesting is that some wheelchair users today might have been one of those people once.

The other day, I attended a wheelchair basketball clinic at Douglas College in New Westminster. If you know the location and its topography, you will recall that the campus is very close to the SkyTrain station -- but has a 33-degree incline between the station and campus. Obviously going up (or down) that hill in a wheelchair is not really something you want to do, especially when it is raining like it was that day.

So instead of risking life and limb, I decided to simply take a bus from the station, even though it is only a one-stop ride. I didn't feel good about taking up all that time boarding/de-boarding for a one-stop journey, but what other choice is there?

At the basketball clinic a few hours later, I was chatting with someone else who I had previously met at GF Strong Rehab Centre during another event and the steep hill entered the conversation, and subsequently the necessary bus ride.

When I mentioned how it was uncomfortable taking that much time for only one stop away, the person said, "You know... It's interesting because before I was in a wheelchair, I was one of those people who would HATE it when someone in a chair had to get on. So when I got in a chair, I would avoid the bus as much as possible because of that." She said she got over that after a while, though obviously both of us agreed that it was best to get on and off as quickly as possible.

I think there is a certain transition period when you first start using a wheelchair. One of the steps in the transition is going from someone relatively anonymous to a sort of "performer" who is being watched by the audience. The bus is one such stage, and when all eyes are on you, it feels rather scary that you are now the centre of attention.

Of course, when you watch something, time tends to slow down. ("A watched pot never boils" comes to mind here.) I have a theory that is the reason why there are so many upset commuters out there who direct their frustration at wheelchair users, because we are so visible. It's much less common that you would hear the same frustration at people who are slow at taking out their fares or who have to ask the bus driver questions.

There is a certain level of discomfort for us wheelchair users too because we are being watched and have no idea whether you're watching for curiosity or watching while thinking, "Stupid wheelchair user. Let's roll him/her off a cliff or feed him/her to a pack of wolves or something." It may be paranoia talking but I have always found this rather unnerving and it takes a while to get used to.

In short, being a "performer" rattles me and these negative comments I keep seeing don't help. If you feel angry or upset at wheelchair users on the bus, consider the fact that perhaps we once shared the same thoughts as you and we don't want to be in our present condition any more than you want us to delay your commute. I really hope that one day most people wouldn't get so upset about wheelchair users sharing the same need to commute by public transit.

(If you really need to be in a rush on most days, perhaps consider adopting the "30 Minute Rule" at the bottom of this previous blog entry.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Small potatoes

On Twitter tonight, I did something that I normally don't do -- search something on Twitter just for the hell of it. And since this blog needs some new material, I decided to try to find some ideas using this method.

There are some very interesting tweets out there, but one common theme struck me: people complaining about how buses loading wheelchair users are making them late or delaying their trip.

I can understand their frustration because I need to get to places too. Wheelchair users don't want to take forever in getting from point A to B either. Personally, I try to take no more than 90 seconds loading on to a bus, and even faster getting OFF the bus.

But those people need to remember one thing -- their complaints about being late and whatnot are small potatoes compared to what we have to go through. I don't want to sound like a whiner and would like to avoid that as much as possible, but it's true.

There are some very obvious things that come to mind, such as walking on board not being a viable option. (Who know?) However, if people knew about the OTHER everyday factors that arise in using public transit, their complaints would seem a bit laughable.

Here are some of the common obstacles in using public transit systems if you're in a wheelchair:

Accessibility of bus stops

In most public transit systems I've been to, not all bus stops are deemed "accessible." There are many reasons for this, but the most common one is because there is not enough space at the stop to deploy a ramp. The sidewalk may be too narrow. The house's fence may be too close to the road. Perhaps a bus stop shelter is in the way. Whatever the reason, it would be dangerous or impossible for the stop to be used by a wheelchair user, so we cannot use it.

When that happens, we have to find the next bus stop, which might be quite far away. It would take a much longer time for us to reach such a stop than an able-bodied person just using the inaccessible stop. For my area, had my nearest stop not been accessible, I would have had to use one that is over a half-kilometre away. That can make for tired and cramped arms.

Strangely enough, there are many stops deemed "accessible" even though they are on a significant slope. Oak Street southbound at Broadway in Vancouver is one such example. If I recall, the stop at Cambie Street northbound at Broadway is like that too. And Granville Street northbound at Broadway is also challenging.

Geographical factors

Some things are uncontrollable. Geographical factors such as terrain and slope grade can be an obstacle that cannot be fixed. Regarding the last point about accessible stops, sometimes the nearest accessible stop is uphill.

One example I found was near Arbutus Street in Vancouver, where the bus stop on even terrain was inaccessible and the closest one was uphill on a slope. (I can't explain the logic of that either.)

While I was going uphill towards that stop, I was passed by some people while going uphill since it was slow going. One of them ended up waiting at the same bus stop, but she got there three to five minutes before me.

Even in an area with accessible stops throughout, the simple problem of terrain can turn a seemingly short distance into a time-consuming challenge.

Mechanical factors

This is almost exclusive to SkyTrain. As the name suggests, elevators are a necessity on this elevated system. A lot of these elevators are slow as molasses. (It is probably for safety reasons -- we don't want any fragile senior citizens experiencing exhilarating G-forces, do we?)

As a result, the time it takes for an able-bodied person to go from the train platform to, let's say, the bus loop is much shorter than for a wheelchair user to go from the platform to the elevator, then from the elevator to the bus loop. Able-bodied people would likely have a five-minute time advantage.

Elevators also have a tendency to break down, which can sometimes mean that the wheelchair user must get back on the SkyTrain, continue to the next station, and go from there (whether it be by taking another bus or two... or three...).

Imagine if one of the able-bodied complainers had to do that. He/She would explode in rage, I bet.

Stupidity of humans

This is one that can be avoided. Some people just don't get it. They try to board as the driver is activating the wheelchair ramp (and get whacked in the face as a result) or they refuse to vacate the accessible space in a timely fashion. When human stupidity comes in, there is delay and sometimes chaos. You're unhappy about how long it takes for a wheelchair user to board? Perhaps it might be because some people don't bother to understand or follow procedures that can make the process smoother.

SkyTrain crowds

SkyTrain crowds getting off a train and towards the stairs or escalators can sometimes block the path between me and the elevator, and I have to patiently wait until someone frees up a gap to let me cross or, if nobody does so, wait until the crowd thins out. Especially an issue at Broadway-Commercial Station and Lougheed Station. Enough said.

Strangely enough, when everyone is going the same direction like on SeaBus, crowds are not a problem. Weird.

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These are the obstacles that apply to me, and are not representative of everyone. But the point still stands -- when you add up the delay that these obstacles create, the people who complain about being late because of a wheelchair user needing to board look rather ridiculous. Your delay is ten minutes; ours might be twenty. Your delay is caused by one situation; ours might be caused by five. And so forth.

Of course, if you are absolutely impatient and want to prepare yourself so you won't find yourself stressing over being delayed, here's a simple plan that someone I know came up with, called the "30 Minute Rule."

It's a simple plan that works great for transit. Basically, you plan your commute as if your event will start 30 minutes early. So for example, if you go to school and your class starts at 9:00am, pretend it starts at 8:30am and aim to arrive at 8:30am.

Not only will you be early, but you will have enough time to get settled in and relax. No more frantic rushes to get there on time. Also, if anything unexpected happens (such as a bus breakdown, missed bus connection or sudden weather changes), you can be "late" according to that rule but still be early or on time in actuality.

It's a common sense rule that has worked out in my favour too many times to count. So if you don't have a similar rule in effect, think about changing that so next time, you won't find yourself tweeting about "small potatoes" delays and instead tweeting about how you made it on time.