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Disabled Torontonian Calls on Mayoral Candidates for Pedestrian Accessibility Permits

by Tara Lee Reed on October 19, 2014

As a woman disabled by a fistful of chronic illnesses, navigating Toronto is stressful and dangerous – not just because of potholes and construction-brutalized sidewalks, but because of transit, and people. Especially people on transit.

 I don’t always “look” sick. In 2012, 3.8 million Canadians (13.7%) reported having a disability. And if America is any indication, up to 95% of those with disabling chronic illnesses are categorized as “invisible.” That includes me. There are no visual cues that I might need assistance, or deference, in particular situations. I don’t wear the tell-tale chemo head scarf. I sometimes limp, but I don’t use a cane, walker or wheelchair. I likely don’t match any of the images called to mind by the word “disabled.”

Until I actually joined the club, I had a very short-sighted, Hollywood-shaped view of what it meant to be disabled. Some might call it “healthy privilege.” If I could hang on to the ceiling rail of a crowded streetcar, so could everyone else—everyone not using a mobility device, over the age of 65, or sporting a baby bump.

For those people, I was a vigilant seat-offerer. I would shame seemingly able-bodied persons suddenly so engrossed in their books that they didn’t see the person in front of them for whom their seat was reserved.

 And then I became a minority amongst minorities. While I might look A-OK, I am probably in a lot of pain, with very little energy or stamina. Medications compromise my mobility, senses, response times and depth perception. I get injured incredibly easily, resulting in painful-to-live-with, expensive-to-treat, long-to-recover from, misaligned organs, and dislocated joints and vertebrae.

With a mayoral election looming in Toronto, I read non-stop about cutting edge, billion dollar plans for new transit initiatives. That’s great. It’s important. It’s necessary. But there’s an easy way to improve existing transit for the millions of disabled, sick and elderly (all exponentially growing groups) immediately.

“Special Parking and Sh*t!”

You were surely familiar with handicapped parking signs and permits even before Kanye West recently demanded a seated fan prove he was in a wheelchair and getting “special parking and shit.” You can’t park in one without a valid permit, no matter how crowded the lot is. And if you’re caught in the spot, you’ll get a hefty fine because you’re breaking the law. Because those spots aren’t for you. This is a good system. It works.

It’s a simple process to get an accessibility permit for a car, but my life is far more difficult as a pedestrian than a driver/passenger. So why isn’t there an Accessible Pedestrian Permit to make it easier for people like me to travel—and to protect us from thoughtless, inconsiderate people?

You know who I’m talking about: people who rush closing subway doors, refuse to wait for passengers to vacate a train before they board, who squeeze themselves past people paying for tokens because they’re running late. And—maybe the worst—people who make themselves comfortable in seats clearly designated for the disabled.

Selfish people can’t be helped. Most of those issues will always be real for me. Still, my quality of life would be much improved if I were afforded the same accessibility as disabled car drivers and passengers.

Currently during a commute, I have two options on a full transit vehicle: I can ask someone sitting in a Priority seat to please give it up, or I can stand and endure pain and risk injury. I used to choose the first option, but I don’t anymore.

When you ask someone to give up a convenience (which is what handicapped doors, elevators and choice seating are to most able-bodied people) you had better have that walker, that head scarf, that seeing eye dog, that seven month pregnant belly. And, if you don’t have those things, you’d better be over the age of 65.

If not, you’ll get an interrogation about why you need that seat. You’ll be told that you look “just fine.” You’ll be called lazy, a liar. You’ll be condemned. In front of an audience. Often by the operator of the vehicle.

Telling someone “I’m medically disabled” isn’t enough. People want a diagnosis. They believe it’s their business because they got to that choice seat first. And they are unapologetic for being the Kanye West of public transit.

So I don’t ask for a seat anymore. Which means I am body-checked, pushed, shoved (there is a difference), and by the time I reach my destination, I’m in no shape to be there.

The only time I can leave my house and feel safe is when I’m with my husband who has developed the practices of a bodyguard in crowds and on transit. When I ask for a seat, all it takes is one look at my imposing partner for people to quietly oblige. But I shouldn’t need his protection. I should be able to use the same amenities and policies as everyone else qualified. And I should be able to do so with efficiency, pride and a relative degree of privacy.

When I ask a cab operator to mark “Disabled. Please allow extra time” or “Silent ride” on my account, I shouldn’t have to then justify it to the assigned driver who deems me too “young” or “pretty” to be sick, yelling about the money lost by waiting for me. I shouldn’t have to explain that I’m not pulling an Elaine Benes and faking a disability to avoid smalltalk, rather I’m nauseated from treatment.

Elaine Fakes Deafness in "The Lip Reader" episode of Seinfeld.

The need for this permit extends to venues like shopping malls, concert halls and stadiums. These places are legally required to have systems and training in practice to accommodate people like me, but use of such services is usually decided by staff. I rarely look (or sound) disabled enough for them either. Here’s an example:

On August 21st, 2014, I traveled from Barrie to downtown Toronto. I arrived at Allandale Waterfront GO Station with about a half hour to wait for my bus. As I commonly do, I found a staff member to explain to me the procedures or systems in place to assist me.

I was guided to a designated waiting area with priority seating next to the platform for my bus and instructed to request the driver’s assistance with loading and offloading the bags my 64 year old mother had been handling for me up to that point.

With time to spare, my bus passed me (the only person there) on the way to its platform and I rose from my seat, but before I could cross the short distance, he readied to drive away. I called out, I waved, I walked as fast as I could without hurting myself… and he left.

A passenger who arrived minutes later to find me in tears recommended I call GO customer service. The representative essentially told me it wasn’t the driver’s fault for leaving me behind, it was my fault for being too slow.

I used the last of my phone’s power to tell my husband I’d be an hour late, which meant he could no longer meet me at Union Station, so I’d also have to get my luggage home, aggravating my condition, and at the expense of a taxi, eating into treatment money. That’s not me being dramatic, it’s my reality.

The next day, I spoke with GO—to the direct supervisor of the customer service representative I had spoken to—and she confirmed that the driver had no reason to leave the way he did. She reviewed the call recording and agreed I had been treated horribly and unprofessionally. I was told GO’s policy for such situations is the provision of a taxi to my home at GO’s expense. When asked why she didn’t offer this service to me, the CSR reportedly had no good answer.

I received and accepted GO’s apologies with assurance that the incident would be used to better train staff to prevent future occurrences. That’s all I can really ask. Except…

Why did I have to go through all of that? The humiliation and stress of that day, the expense, the pain afterwards, any of it? The answer is simply that I am not treated with the same deference as someone with a visible disability. I am unseen.

With a mayoral election on the horizon in Toronto, I call on all candidates to support, wallet-sized Pedestrian Accessible Permits to ensure all disabled persons have equal access to services already in place to support them.

If I had one in August, I could have held it up from my seat on that GO station bench, silently indicating to the driver to wait for me. Both he and the customer service representative would be better equipped to do their jobs.

To all candidates: I respect your plans to improve the city, especially those that are immediately actionable. And this millenial would be sincerely gratified to hear your positions on working with the Ministry of Transportation to expand the use of Accessible Parking Permits in the City of Toronto to include pedestrians, and improve their ability to meet the challenges of their lives while actively participating in our community.

Thanks to all who read this. I would appreciate if you’d share it with your friends and social networks. I also welcome people to email me at DisabiltyAccessTO [at] to share stories of mobility-based challenges, examples of how such an initiative might improve your life, or just to show your support.

Tara Lee Reed

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