As a disabled person, navigating Toronto is stressful and dangerous -- not just because of potholes and construction-brutalized sidewalks, but because of transit. And people. Especially people operating or riding transit. This is largely due to the absence of inclusion of pedestrians in the Ministry of Transportation's Accessibility Permit Program, currently only issued for drivers/passengers of cars, which leaves the rest of us vulnerable to harassment and injury.
But You Don't Look Sick!
In 2012, 3.8 million Canadians (13.7%) reported having a disability, 1 in 4 of which are "severe," and predominantly due to pain or immobility. If America is any indication, up to 95% of people living with disabling chronic illnesses are categorized as "invisible."
My neuro and autoimmune diseases offer no visual cues that I might need assistance or deference. I don't wear a tell-tale chemo head scarf. I sometimes limp, but don't always use a cane. Outwardly, I might look fine, but I'm probably in pain, with little energy or stamina. Medications compromise my mobility, senses, response times, and depth perception. I injure easily, resulting in painful-to-live-with, expensive-to-treat, long-to-recover from, misaligned organs, joints and vertebrae.
I stopped asking for a priority seat on transit vehicles. Rather than invite an altercation, I would stand, endure pain and risk injury, arriving at my destination in no shape to be there. Because when you ask someone to give up a convenience, they want to see your headscarf or cane. Revealing you're medically disabled isn't enough. People want your diagnosis. Even with it, you'll be told you look "just fine," called "lazy" or "liar." In front of an audience. You might even be assaulted.
I can only travel safely with my husband. One look at my imposing partner and people give up their seat, but I shouldn't need his protection to use public transit. I should have access to the same rights as any visibly disabled person, with efficiency, pride and a relative degree of privacy.
"Special Parking and Sh*t!"
Surely you're familiar with handicapped parking spots. You can't use one without a permit, no matter how crowded the lot is. If you're caught, you get a hefty fine for breaking the law. Because those spots aren't for you. It's a system that works. My life is far more difficult as a pedestrian than a driver/passenger, so why does the Ministry of Transportation's Accessibility Permit program only service those with access to private vehicles, while priority seats are available to literally anyone?
It seems like a no-brainier. One application followed by one dashboard-sized and one wallet-sized permit issued to the recipient. Whether traveling in a car or on the subway, that person is better enabled to make a living and be an active member of their community.
Those working in transit or private companies would be better equipped to do their jobs, instead of having unqualified staffers arbitrarily decide if someone is entitled to their legal rights. It would help disabled people combat statistically higher risk of harassment and physical and sexual abuse.
Here are some experiences I could have been spared if I had a wallet-sized accessibility permit:
Cab drivers couldn't challenge the "Disabled" or "Silent ride" flags on my account, deciding I don't look sick before yelling about the money they lost while waiting for me. I wouldn't be accused of faking disability to avoid small talk when I'm actually just nauseated from treatment.
A driver might have allowed me adequate time to board a bus before stranding me at Allandale Waterfront GO Station. His colleague in customer service would never have had the opportunity to tell me it was my fault for being too slow, or make a choice not to initiate company policy of providing a taxi to my home in Toronto.
I may not have suffered multiple serious and ongoing injuries at the hand of a TTC operator who crushed me with a streetcar door despite having just seen me in a bright blue priority seat directly in his rear view. I wouldn't be kept awake by the lack of mortification, or even surprise, on his face when he re-opened the door to smugly stare at me, without saying a single word (no apology, no offer of assistance, no inquiry into my well-being) before driving off. I may not have been forced to leave Toronto--the city I was born in--as a result, leaving behind a painstakingly-curated medical team, my friends, support system and the last of my independence. My spouse, the sole breadwinner of our household, wouldn't have been forced to give up his client base and start over again in a new place.
In 2014, the TTC introduced a redundant policy of making the blue seats mentioned above "priority" seating for the disabled, elderly and pregnant, complete with a $235 dollar fine for refusal to give up a seat to a qualified person.
Moving past the fact priority seats have been clearly marked on TTC vehicles for as long as I can remember, here are the problems with this policy: a TTC bylaw officer must be present to issue the fine, making effectiveness on any vehicle basically non-existent. It doesn't factor in how quickly vehicles begin moving after passengers board, leaving absolutely no time for a disabled person to negotiate a seat they're legally entitled to, putting them and everyone else on the vehicle at risk.
It is a policy without teeth, relying on people "being kind." It makes the TTC look good in the media but it doesn't make lives easier. Without practical means to prove disability status, it's just lip service, and I have to imagine a violation of human rights for anyone who doesn't look disabled.
As the TTC reports it is looking at ways to improve the safety of women, including those with disabilities, I hope it includes working with Ontario's Ministry of Transportation to open the Accessible Permits program to pedestrians, enabling us to safely participate in our communities instead of fleeing them.
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