Two weeks ago, Gabrielle Peters spent a rare day out in Vancouver with friends. They took in a cultural festival in the afternoon, then headed for dinner at a restaurant Peters had always wanted to try.
“As soon as we sat down, my anxiety started. In the back of my mind was, ‘I’m going to have to call a taxi,’ and that’s likely to be not a good experience,” she remembered.
Peters uses a wheelchair. It’s always a challenge to find a taxi that will take her, but she says the night of July 20 was the worst it’s ever been.
She and her friends say she was refused by multiple drivers with accessible vehicles who dropped off passengers while she was waiting in front of the restaurant.
Meanwhile, she was dealing with serious back pain from a day spent wheeling over uneven surfaces. The restaurant didn’t have a wheelchair-accessible bathroom, so she desperately needed a toilet.
“Drivers are giving me the, ‘No no no no no no’ and driving away,” Peters said.
This wonderful driver from Richmond Taxi helped me transfer into his regular taxi. <a href=”https://twitter.com/bambinoir?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@bambinoir</a> and the club staff started chasing taxis and he felt so bad for what we’ve been through he insisted my ride is free. Meet Mohit – the greatest cab driver in BC <a href=”https://t.co/0XKi7h9uZL”>pic.twitter.com/0XKi7h9uZL</a>
Mohit kept apologizing and we all told him it’s not his fault. <br><br>Mohit: I know but we’re a community and people shouldn’t be treated this way. <br><br>I started to cry. I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get home. Mohit is the hero we needed tonight.
But this isn’t a story about one horrible night in the life of a woman who uses a wheelchair. This is a story about all the frustrating nights, mornings and afternoons disabled people have trying to find reliable transportation in Vancouver.
Other wheelchair users who spoke to CBC for this story confirmed they’re frequently refused cab service, and said they believe drivers prefer to use the extra space in accessible taxis to carry tourists’ luggage.
They say the situation is even more desperate for wheelchair users who also happen to be poor or people of colour, and the situation isn’t likely to improve when Uber arrives in B.C.
“This is part of a larger problem, and all the solutions that they’re proposing are not solutions for this particular problem,” Peters said.
Urban planner Amina Yasin points out that Uber and Lyft have had their own issues with discrimination.
“We’re innovating on a cracked foundation, and we’re not really solving the root of a lot of these problems for a lot of people,” said Yasin, who is co-chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners’ social equity committee and speaks on inclusive infrastructure.
Ride-hailing is set to begin in B.C. in the fall, and companies like Uber and Lyft will have to pay a 30-cent fee for every trip in a non-accessible vehicle.
The revenue is meant to support more accessible transportation options, but officials at the transportation ministry say they haven’t yet determined how the funds will be allocated.
‘I’ve hidden behind the bushes’
Vancouver Taxi Association spokesperson Carolyn Bauer told CBC she’d like to speak with Peters about her experience, and find a way to make things right. That includes holding the drivers who passed her by accountable — Bauer said all taxi companies have penalties for discriminating against disabled passengers.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to provide timely transportation services to everyone, and will continue to work diligently to ensure we live up to this obligation,” Bauer wrote in an email.
The B.C. Transportation Ministry notes it’s strengthened penalties for businesses and drivers that fail to follow the Taxi Bill of Rights, which prohibit discriminating against people with disabilities. Fines of up to $50,000 can now be issued for anyone who does not comply, and licences can be suspended or cancelled.
So far this year, the Passenger Transportation Branch, which regulates taxis, has four complaints on file related to excessive wait times for people with wheelchairs that resulted in trip cancellations. Peters says the complaint process is difficult to navigate, a subject she’s written about in the past.
Peters is not alone in her experiences with cabs.
Bronwyn Berg lives in Chemainus, but has similar stories from her visits to Vancouver. She says she’s had taxis speed past her while the driver yells “no wheelchairs!” out the window.
That’s why Berg never lets the dispatcher know she has a wheelchair when she calls for a cab — something that wouldn’t be possible if she used a power chair.
When she’s hailing from the street, “if I’m with one of my adult children, they’ll say, ‘No one’s going to stop for us unless you hide.’ I’ve hidden behind the bushes and around the corner while they hail a cab.”
‘A really hopeless, desperate feeling’
The consequences for a person’s quality of life are hard to fathom for anyone who doesn’t have to deal with this on a daily basis.
The cost of a wheelchair-adapted vehicle is out of reach for many people, and public transit can be extremely uncomfortable, depending on the disability. HandyDART service, meanwhile, has to be booked a day in advance.
“You have a whole different metric for whether or not you’re going to go out,” Peters explained.
“I start off by being excited that I have this opportunity to go do something, and then I start thinking about all of the various barriers between getting there and being there and getting home … and suddenly start going, you know what, I’m not worth it.”
Berg points out that reliable transportation is also a crucial part of staying safe.
According to Statistics Canada, disabled Canadians are almost twice as likely to be victims of violent crime, and disabled women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted.
“There is a really hopeless, desperate feeling if you’re in a city and it’s dark and late and you cannot get home,” Berg said.
If the situation is going to improve, Peters believes wheelchair users need to be at the table when any sort of transportation policy is under discussion. Accessibility should be built into the system from the beginning, not padded on as an afterthought.
“You need to start with us,” she said.
Rather than the province’s current focus on increasing the supply of wheelchair-accessible cabs, Peters wants tougher rules to ensure drivers will actually pick up wheelchair users — and handle both people and their chairs with care, an issue worthy of its own story.
She’s especially skeptical about the introduction of ride-hailing in B.C. this fall.
Uber and Lyft depend on drivers using their own vehicles, which means wheelchair-accessible cars are few and far between. And ride-hailing companies generally don’t require hands-on training for dealing with wheelchairs.
“What we need is more regulation, not less,” Peters said. “What we need is more training, not less. We need rules.”