Accessible transit services are a key factor in assisting people to participate fully in the community – getting out and about, getting to work, conducting business, reaching health care, participating in events, being with friends and combating loneliness and isolation. -Canadian Pensioners Concerned
Barriers to public transit services raise important human rights issues. For persons with disabilities, older persons, and families with young children, the lack of adequate, dignified, and accessible transportation can pose major barriers to participation in employment, education, and community activities. Many of the most vulnerable citizens of Ontario cannot assume access to public transportation, even though the Ontario Human Rights Code guarantees the right to equal treatment in services, including public transportation services, without discrimination because of age, handicap, or family status.
Despite the importance of this issue to the daily lives of many Ontarians, it has been the subject of relatively little public discussion. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (“OHRC”) therefore undertook a major initiative to promote public discussion and facilitate improvements in accessible public transportation.
This initiative was particularly appropriate in light of the OHRC’s release of its new Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate in March 2001. This Policy, the result of one of the largest consultations in the OHRC’s history, outlines the OHRC’s approach to issues surrounding disability and the duty to accommodate, including an emphasis on the right to full participation and integration, respect for dignity, the importance of inclusion by design, and the responsibility of all parties to an accommodation to work cooperatively. The Policy reaffirms the high standard for assessing undue hardship. This Policy provides the theoretical framework for the OHRC’s work in the area of accessible public transportation.
As well, the OHRC’s public consultations and report on age discrimination in Ontario highlighted the scope and importance of issues facing older Ontarians. There is an urgent need for action to eliminate ageism and age discrimination, so that older persons can fully participate in our communities, enjoy the same rights afforded to others, and can live their later years with dignity. Several submissions to the OHRC’s consultations on age discrimination highlighted issues around transportation, noting that, for older persons, particularly those with mobility impairments, transportation is extremely limited, and this can lead to isolation from family, community and from the general activities of daily living.
Demographic trends indicate that this issue will only become larger over time. Currently, it is estimated that 1.6 million Ontarians have a disability. As the population continues to age, it is estimated that in 20 years, one in five Ontarians could have a disability. A recent study for the Quebec department of transportation on the projected demand for paratransit from 1993 to 2006, based on data from the Health and Activity Limitations Survey found that even in the short term, aging may have a substantial impact on demand for these services.
There has recently been some renewed public interest in issues surrounding public transit. For example, in September 2001, the provincial government announced that it would invest $3 billion in public transit, spread out over 10 years. The Ministry of Transportation committed to provide operational and base capital funding for GO transit, as well as to consult with stakeholders to coordinate transit planning and services throughout the Golden Horseshoe region. The recent passage of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (“ODA”) will also have a major impact on transit services, given that it explicitly requires providers of public transit to develop and make public plans for accessibility. Given the opportunities presented by these government initiatives, it is particularly urgent that new investments and projects in the area of public transit take into account human rights issues and principles.
The OHRC’s first step in the area of public transportation was a survey of Ontario’s public transit providers, launched in July 1999. The purpose of the survey was to obtain information about the status of accessible transit in Ontario, and to identify key issues. Twenty-five transit service providers were contacted, of whom 19 replied. The survey revealed that, while significant efforts had been made to improve the accessibility of transit services across the province, much remains to be done. There are several gaps in the accessibility of conventional transit systems in Ontario. As well, people using paratransit services experience major discrepancies in service levels across the province, including eligibility criteria, fees, and geographic limitations. In some cases, persons with certain types of disabilities, such as persons with mental disabilities, or with ambulatory or temporary disabilities, are unable to access either the conventional or the paratransit system.
The OHRC’s Discussion Paper on Accessible Transit Services in Ontario (“Discussion Paper”) was released in February 2001. It identified a number of key issues, and requested written submissions from interested parties. This information was sent to more than 400 stakeholders, as well as posted on the OHRC’s Web site. Over thirty submissions were received from transit providers, seniors’ organizations, disability consumer groups, labour organizations, advocacy groups, and individuals. A list of contributing organizations is included as an appendix to this Report. We are grateful to all who took the time to share their knowledge and experience with us.
The transit consultation has made clear both the urgency of the human rights issues surrounding public transportation services in Ontario, and the many opportunities for advancement. The issues outlined in this Report will not be resolved without concerted effort by all parties. However, the costs of failing to address the issue of accessible public transportation make action in this area a priority.
 Please see the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate (March 2001) at section 3.1.1 available online at www.ohrc.on.ca. The Policy defines what “dignity” means in the human rights context: “Human dignity encompasses individual self-respect and self-worth. It is concerned with physical and psychological integrity and empowerment. It is harmed when individuals are marginalized, stigmatized, ignored or devalued. Privacy, confidentiality, comfort, autonomy, individuality and self-esteem are important factors as well as whether an accommodation maximizes integration and promotes full participation in society.” (This definition draws from the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Law v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration),  1 S.C.R. 497, online: Supreme Court of Canada http://www.lexum.umontreal.ca/csc-scc/en/index.html (date accessed: 4 August 2000)).
 Ontario Human Rights Commission, A Time for Action: Advancing Human Rights for Older Ontarians (June 2001) available online at www.ohrc.on.ca at 58-60.
 According to information available on the Statistics Canada Web Site (http://www.statscan.ca), 12.5 percent of Ontario’s population was age 65 or older in 1999. It is estimated that the number of Ontarians aged 65 or older will double over the next four decades.
 Yves Bussière, “Aging of the Populations and Paratransit Demand in Quebec” (2001) Horizons, Vol. 4, No. 2, at 20.
Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001, S.O. 2001, c. 32, Royal Assent December 14, 2001, ss. 1, 2, 3, subsections 8(1), (2), (5), (6), ss. 19, 20, 27, 33, 34 and Schedule proclaimed in force February 7, 2002.