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


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.