Sunday, July 8, 2012

Improving safety on buses for wheelchair users

Warning: There is a lot of technical bus-speak (jargon) in this entry. If you don't know your bus manufacturers and models... well, good luck to you.


Recently there was a survey about wheelchair access on buses. In particular, it was asking about what can be done for buses to make them safer for wheelchair users. The results of the study are meant to guide bus manufacturers in future designs.

It is encouraging that wheelchair access is being taken seriously. I find that too often, people with disabilities are neglected in the public transportation industry and when studies like these are done, it is a good sign.

However, sometimes I wonder about how such studies are being done and how certain things can undermine their usefulness.

The survey I saw asked a lot about wheelchair ramps for buses. In particular, the people behind the survey wanted to know whether there were any issues with the steepness of the ramps, the width of the entrance, and so on. It did not seem to be very specific though, and did not take into account the different types of buses that are already in existence.

Near the end of the study, it asked for the participant's state. Being from Canada, "British Columbia" was not one of the choices on the list. I suggested to someone that perhaps selecting "Washington" might make sense, since their major city, Seattle, uses literally the same bus manufacturer as Vancouver (New Flyer Industries from Winnipeg, Manitoba).

That was when things got a bit testy. I was given a "lesson" about how surveys must be completely accurate and approximations such as these are not acceptable.

I understand that, but given the content of the survey (which deals mainly with the functions of the bus) and the fact that the two major cities share the same manufacturer AND make/model (New Flyer D40LF) and, in fact, the same wheelchair accessibility mechanisms, I wonder if it would have affected the survey's results.

In addition to that, though, I also question the validity of the location question itself.

Within the state of Washington and the province of British Columbia, I have taken public transit in more than a few cities under different transit agencies. Even when they are neighboring agencies, their vehicles can be quite different. It is actually more of a freak coincidence that Seattle and Vancouver use the same make/model.

An example is Washington state's Whatcom County. Their vehicles are very different from Seattle or Vancouver's. The procedures required to accommodate the vehicle are VERY different. In this case, if I was indeed living in Washington and in Whatcom County, my answer of "Washington" would not have been helpful at all because it is so different from Seattle, another city just down the highway in the same state.

Similarly, in British Columbia, Vancouver's transit agency has different vehicles compared to its neighbors in the Fraser Valley and Greater Victoria. If the survey had asked for a province, answering "British Columbia" would not have been helpful either due to the differences even though they're all geographically next to each other.

The problem with that survey is that it fails to ask what type of bus the participant tends to use. As a survey geared towards bus manufacturers, one might think that would be a helpful thing to know. The accessibility functions of a New Flyer D40LF bus are very different from a New Flyer D40LFR, Orion V, NovaBus LFS, Dennis Trident and so forth. Not every person knows the difference between those buses but knowing at least "high floor or low floor" or "single front door or double front door" would have made a big difference.

This is not to completely justify using a state/province approximation, but isn't this information a LOT more important than location? Shouldn't the focus be on that instead of something petty (and ultimately unhelpful) like location?

I like this survey. I really do.

...but the problem is that it still has a lot of wrinkles to work out, and I feel that the people behind the creation of the survey does not have a full understanding of how there is a lack of standard in public transit vehicles in North America.



I have also taken public transportation in a few other countries and paid attention to the vehicles there (since I am a bit of a transit geek). Other countries seem to have a standard for buses, even if the manufacturers are different.

The bus manufacturers I have seen abroad include: Gillig, Dennis, Neoplan, Hino, Volvo, Leyland, Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia and Toyota.

Many of the countries use a larger variation of these manufacturers than a state/province does in North America, yet they have managed to standardize things such as wheelchair access throughout the country. Thus, it is ironic that this survey would work PERFECTLY in those countries but not in North America. What gives?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Save the TaxiSavers

One news story that has been making the rounds recently is TransLink's cancellation of the TaxiSaver program.

For those who do not know what it is, the TaxiSaver program is designed for people with disabilities who are eligible for HandyDart, Metro Vancouver's para-transit service. TaxiSaver is supposed to complement that service for instances where HandyDart is not an option, such as for last-minute or unplanned trips, by subsidizing 50% of the cost of a cab fare.

Even though I do not use HandyDart or TaxiSaver myself, I know some people who do. It did not surprise me one bit when the news was met with outrage.

One of the biggest issues facing people with disabilities who take public transit is planning. Able-bodied people can "hop on" and "hop off" whenever they want, but people with disabilities have to consider multiple factors:

  • How accessible are the bus stops? (In the City of Vancouver, over 50% of the bus stops outside the downtown core are not designated as accessible.)
  • How accessible is the destination? Is there an accessible place to get off the bus?
  • Do the vehicles' accessibility features work for the destination? (ie. A ramp/lift may not work well for a rural road or roads without sidewalks.)
  • Are the bus stops on a slope? Can a wheelchair user handle that slope?
  • For people with other conditions (such as vision impairments), are there dangers around the bus stops that the person may not be aware of?
  • etc.

As you can see, it is not a simple procedure. This is where HandyDart would usually come in, because they would have specialized service that would drop off the passenger at a safe spot.

However, there are major shortcomings of HandyDart:

  • Trips must be booked well in advance: at least 24 hours and sometimes up to a week.*
  • Trips make multiple stops and detours throughout a city to pick up other passengers. It is not unheard of for a simple one-way trip to take hours.
  • Despite the duration, regular adult fares apply for the trip (while concession fares can be used for trips using conventional transit).
  • Trips operate on strict schedules. If you miss your outbound or return trip, you missed it. It is not as simple as "waiting for the next one."*

I italicized several points because those are the most important ones.

TaxiSaver's major advantage is countering HandyDart's required advanced booking. Unlike HandyDart, TaxiSaver does NOT require a booking well in advance. It allows for spontaneous last-minute trips. This is especially important for people who may be called in to work at the last minute, people whose doctor just opened up a last-minute appointment and younger people with disabilities who have active social lives. Without TaxiSaver, many of these people would not be able to make it to their workplace, doctor's offices or friends' gatherings.

The other major advantage is not having to adhere to a strict schedule. How many times have you gone to a mall and found something cool and need to spend some unexpected time to take a look at it? Or how many times has something happened (ie. you lost your wallet) and need to spend extra time to resolve the situation? HandyDart's strict schedule does not allow for this kind of flexibility, and once the ride is gone, it is gone. It is not like a bus, where you can wait for the next trip. TaxiSaver would allow for things like these, and allow someone to find his/her way home even if the HandyDart ride is gone.

One of TransLink's reasons for eliminating the TaxiSaver is that the fleet is now accessible, unlike a decade ago.

However, they are forgetting the very fact that HandyDart (and, in turn, TaxiSaver) exists. The service exists for those who cannot take conventional transit without assistance due to age or disability. Therefore, if a last-minute trip is needed, then you are effectively "throwing the person to the wolves," so to speak.

It is not a secret that many of TransLink's routes are overcrowded. For someone with a disability, that is a near insurmountable challenge. If a person with a disability is "thrown to the wolves," he/she may be jostled (especially startling if you are blind), there may not even be space for someone to get on (especially for wheelchair users who cannot "squeeze on" like able-bodied people), there may be too much noise around to pick out individual noises like stop announcements (bad for those who have hearing or visual impairments) and so on.

Imagine if you fit into one of those examples I just listed. How would YOU cope on conventional public transit, if you were forced to?

You probably would not cope well at all.

Over time, the bad experiences may pile up and you may decide to simply stay home instead of joining your friends.

You may decide to say "no" to your boss wanting you to come in for a last-minute shift. This may cost you your job.

You may not be able to go to a last-minute doctor's appointment, and continue to suffer from an illness, an injury or pain.

Is it not obvious, then, why getting rid of the TaxiSaver program would be catastrophically bad?

(Ironically enough, TaxiSaver costs TransLink less to run per trip than HandyDart; in other words, TaxiSaver is MORE cost-efficient than HandyDart!)

This is yet another situation where it is obvious that people without disabilities are automatically assuming that they know what is best for people with disabilities without any knowledge of the issues that they face. It makes me wonder why people without disabilities are often put in charge of many services for people with disabilities. The outcry in response to the TaxiSaver's proposed cancellation is proof of a situation where those without disabilities simply "don't get it" sometimes.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unhappy driver

As a person with a disability, there are often moments when something happens and it bugs you. You may not know why but that feeling usually does not go away. This is one of those times.

The other day, I was headed to the University of British Columbia's bus loop. I had a connecting community shuttle bus right before; because of the boarding procedures for wheelchair users on those vehicles, I was racing to catch my connecting bus.

The bus was still there and people were boarding. Several others were chasing the bus as well. The front doors were still open. I got there and some of the people chasing the bus cut in front of my and hopped on. The driver let them on, no questions asked. He then realized that I wanted to get on too, and lowered the ramp. He was visibly unhappy.

For the first minute or so after I got on, he kept mumbling about how he was about to leave and I'm making him late, and how I should've waited for the next bus (even though the front doors were still open and the bus did not pull away).

I usually would understand the frustration but he proceeded to let other "chasers" on to the bus, both at the bus loop and for the next few stops – none of them got the third degree like I did. And in fact, one of the "chasers" got to the bus AFTER the doors had closed and the bus was pulling out. The driver stopped and let him on without giving him any sort of comment or remark.

I am not sure if I have a case here but this situation bothered me a lot. He was letting able-bodied late-comers get on the bus but because I'm in a wheelchair, he thinks I should be denied the ride and forced on to the next bus. It felt as if everyone else has a higher priority to board than I do, even though the bus was quite empty at the time.

I think I would've been less bothered by this if all the other late-comers got the same treatment.

So... Should this situation even bug me?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chairs on a plane

This blog talks about public transportation. Many people don't think of air travel as public transportation but it meets the characteristics required: you share a vehicle and space with other people to get from one location to another. So here is the first ever air travel blog entry for Priority Seating!

One of the things that people might not see everyday is a wheelchair user getting on a plane. I find it fascinating that airports are places where you are likely to see a wheelchair but most of the time it's a rented/borrowed "hospital clunker" chair and not a permanent wheelchair that you usually see from a long-term user. Of course, those chairs are meant to be used for a few hours at a time and usually belong to the airport or airline, and they are left at the airport once the flight leaves.

The "hospital clunker": often seen at airports as rental wheelchairs.

But what about people who use their own wheelchairs? It occurred to me that this is something that able-bodied people and people with disabilities (who have never flown) often wonder about. Some people may not know the procedure. So for this entry, I will outline the general procedure using a recent flight I took from Vancouver to Victoria, British Columbia.

To start with, I don't use a "hospital clunker" but rather a "fancy sleek wheelchair," which obviously looks/performs a lot better since it is usually designed for those with long term or permanent disabilities.

The "fancy sleek wheelchair": similar to mine.

Of course, with a wheelchair like that, you want to make sure it is taken care of. As well, you want to use your own wheelchair as much as possible until you have to board the plane. At most North American airports, this should be fine.

One very important thing to ask for when you check in is a "gate tag," also sometimes called a "door tag"." Basically what it does is allow you to bring something (in this case, your wheelchair) right to the gate and have it stowed in the cargo hold once you board.

This is something that is commonly done for those with other mobility devices such as walkers as well. As standard practice, wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices do not count as another piece of checked-in luggage; airlines are supposed to take them for no extra charge.

The "gate tag" on my wheelchair at the airport.

One of the upsides of being in a wheelchair is that airlines sometimes bump you up a class when selecting your seating. This is mainly for practicality reasons, if economy class is far from the plane's entrance. For my particular flight, I had this happen, but it made little difference since the plane only seated thirty or so people.

One of the downsides, however, is that you are the first person to board the plane and last person to get off. That means that you should arrive earlier than most people and leave more time to get to where you want to go after you land.

For airport security, wheelchair users have to swallow their dignity in a way. Able-bodied people usually go through a metal detector. Guess what – wheelchair users are sitting on metal! In addition, wheelchair users often have metal rods in their spines from previous operations and whatnot, which can set off the machine. The solution? The good ol' pat-down.

You are allowed to ask to get the pat-down in a back room instead of out in the open. Usually it is not a big deal. They will ask if there are parts of your body that are sensitive to pain. The pat-down is usually thorough enough without being intrusive (and those that aren't usually end up on the news). The security person should have done this before, so things that you have such as leg-bags, colostomy pouches, etc. should be obvious enough; my security guy at Vancouver airport asked, for confirmation, but he already "knew." It was not a big deal (and it shouldn't be).

Now here is the real question from many people – how do you actually board the airplane? This will depend on two things. The first thing is the type of plane: for example, whether you board from the tarmac or from a jet way. The second thing is your ability level: whether you can walk well, or with difficulty, or not at all.

Jet ways are easy. However, my flight was on a small plane and boarding was from the tarmac. Usually for those planes, they have small flights of stairs that can be used. Obviously that is not an option for me, so they have a special foldable ramp that can replace the stairs when needed. At the end, what you basically have is a ten- or fifteen-meter ramp leading from the tarmac to the plane. (Of course, with jet ways, this doesn't apply.)

Your ability level then becomes the second factor. For jet ways, those who can walk with difficulty or short distances may be able to go from their wheelchair directly to their seats. However, I belong to the category that isn't able to do that. In that case, something called an "aisle chair" is needed.

An airplane aisle chair (my nickname for it: "Hannibal Lector chair").

To board the plane, I must transfer from my wheelchair to this aisle chair. At this point, it is best to grab any loose parts from my wheelchair (such as the cushion or side guards) because this is the time when they will take your wheelchair away to be stowed in the cargo hold. Also, if you have limited sensation in your lower body, sitting on your wheelchair cushion during the flight may be a good idea anyway. (For those who don't know, we sit on wheelchair cushions to distribute pressure and reduce chances of pressure sores.)

The aisle chair is designed to be narrow enough to fit through the aisles of the plane, which are much narrower than conventional aisles on trains and buses. The user is strapped in like Hannibal Lector, which is why I nicknamed it the "Hannibal Lector chair." Even those with good trunk balance may need it because assistance from airport crew is required to use the chair, and the ride can be a bit bumpy/rough: it is not possible to use it on your own. As someone who likes his independence, this was one of those times when you have to "suck it up" and accept assistance from others.

The plane I had was a regional plane so the aisles were narrower than larger international planes. Because of that, I had to tuck my arms in like a mummy. This is a good precaution to take regardless of which plane you get. The aisle chair will be rolled to your seat, where you can transfer onto it.

When you get off the plane, it is the opposite procedure.

With that said, air travel does tend to have drawbacks for wheelchair users. One big issue for some people I know is the potential for your wheelchair to get damaged. Some people recommend taking photos of your wheelchair before you travel in case something does happen.

Another issue is that if your ability level is a concern, you will need to communicate very directly to the airport crew, especially during the aisle chair process. Leave no room for mistakes.

Also, for longer flights, those who cannot walk independently may have to refrain from drinking too much. While some planes have aisle chairs on board, others may not. The bathroom itself may not be accessible (or not as accessible as you need it to be). Dehydration is not a good thing but in this case it may be slightly necessary.

That is more or less all I can think of for airplane travel as a wheelchair user. I am sure there are other points that I am missing but I will add those later as I come across them.


UPDATE: Here is an example of what can go wrong during this process.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Step back!

There is one thing that I always see at bus stops that drives me absolutely insane; I'm not sure, however, if there is anyone to blame for it. Sometimes there is, sometimes there is not. What annoys me so much? People who do not realize that the wheelchair ramp on a bus swings out.

Why is this such a big deal? I will give you a scenario. Imagine you are at a bus stop. A wheelchair user is waiting there and the bus arrives. The front door opens. The wheelchair moves back a few feet. You assume that means that the wheelchair user is not getting on, so you step forward to board...

...only to be staring at a half-deployed ramp. You are now caught in an awkward position between a ramp that is threatening to smush you and a wheelchair user who is wondering what exactly you are doing (and perhaps several other bystanders staring at you).

Remember to step back: the ramp swings OUT.
(Photo credit: US Department of Transportation)

I see this too often when taking the bus. The weird part is that there are plenty of warnings: the loud beeping noise coming from the bus, the fact that other passengers nearby are standing back as well, me calling "WATCH OUT" repeatedly, and so on. (Strangely enough, nobody ever heeds my warnings, either on or off the bus. It is quite frustrating sometimes.)

So for able-bodied passengers who see a wheelchair user waiting in front of a bus with its front doors open, that person might be getting on. Just remember that the ramp swings outwards. Listen for the beeping noises.