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Parastransit systems and comparable service

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The establishment of truly accessible public transit and paratransit systems will enhance the opportunity for people with disabilities to participate fully in their communities. Lack of accessibility in public transit systems creates barriers for people who are disabled that do not exist for the able-bodied population. While able-bodied people have the right to decide at the last minute to participate in a community activity or be on-call for work, this option does not exist for people who are disabled who must rely on paratransit as it currently exists. Changes should and must be made to allow all people to participate on an equal basis. - Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, Ontario Division

Paratransit Systems and Human Rights Law

Where individuals are unable, because of their disabilities or because of the non-inclusive design of many older transit systems, to access conventional transit systems, transit service providers have a duty to accommodate these needs, up to the point of undue hardship. While some transit providers argue that paratransit is a type of voluntary special program under human rights law[11], it is the position of the OHRC that paratransit is a form of accommodation that can be required to meet the duty to accommodate under the Code[12].

The OHRC’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate emphasizes the importance of inclusive design and barrier removal in ensuring the right of persons with disabilities to integration and full participation. The Policy states that:

[E]mployment, housing, services and facilities must be built or adapted to accommodate individuals with disabilities in a way that promotes their integration and full participation. Segregated treatment in services, employment, or housing for individuals with disabilities is less dignified and is unacceptable, unless it can be shown that integrated treatment would pose undue hardship or that segregation is the only way to achieve equality.

The Policy goes on to recognize that even up-front inclusive design and systematic removal of existing barriers may not always result in full participation for persons with disabilities, and at this point, differential treatment may be required in order to provide equal opportunity to full participation.

This applies to transit services. There will always be individuals who will be unable to use even the most accessible conventional transit system. Certainly, at this point in the evolution of conventional transit, there are many individuals in these circumstances. A segregated paratransit system is therefore a necessity to achieve equality for persons with disabilities, and this will most likely always continue to be the case, although the need may diminish as the accessibility of the conventional system increases.

The right to equal treatment in services means that paratransit systems should be comparable to conventional transit services in terms of the types and level of services they provide, unless the provision of comparable services will cause undue hardship for the transit service provider.

Further, as with any type of accommodation, paratransit services must be provided in a manner that most respects the dignity of persons with disabilities. Respect for dignity includes individual self-respect and self-worth, as well as the privacy, confidentiality, comfort, autonomy, individuality and self-esteem of persons with disabilities.

Paratransit Services in Ontario

According to OCTA, there are 72 paratransit services currently operating in Ontario. The Canadian Urban Transit Association’s statistics indicate that Canada’s urban paratransit systems provide rides to almost 11 million riders per year. In Toronto alone, Wheel-Trans has over 18,000 registrants, and in 1999, it provided almost 1.5 million rides.

The public subsidy per rider tends to be much higher for paratransit services than it is for conventional transit. For example, again in Toronto, the public subsidy for each passenger trip on Wheel-Trans was $25.98, as compared to $.35 for each passenger trip on the conventional system.

Paratransit services are provided through a variety of institutions. In some cases, services are provided directly by a municipality, or by a municipal transit commission. In others, paratransit services are contracted out to specialized providers. Community agencies, such as Community Care Access Centres, often provide some form of paratransit service. As well, there are many volunteer-operated paratransit-type services across the province. Concerns have been raised about the heavy involvement of volunteer organizations in providing paratransit services. As one Community Care Access Centre noted: “Our agency does its best to give service to this client group but volunteers cannot be expected to shoulder this responsibility, but can augment municipal and county services. Governments are shifting the responsibility for core services more and more to the voluntary sector” (Community Care Peterborough).

The nature of paratransit services varies widely across the province, as outlined in Part V, section 4 of this Report, the Transit Survey Update. Some areas provide a combined family of services, including wheelchair accessible vans, contracted taxi services, and taxi scrips, while others provide only wheelchair accessible vans. Some services provide community bus services on routes heavily populated by seniors and persons with disabilities. Some provide services only for restricted purposes, such as employment, education, and medical appointments, while others have no such restrictions. Eligibility requirements also vary widely, as do fares and fare structures, and booking requirements.

Impact of Limitations in Paratransit Services

Submissions received by the OHRC spoke very strongly to the powerful negative impact on persons with disabilities and senior citizens of insufficient or inadequate paratransit services. Difficulties in accessing paratransit services restrict access to employment, education, and services. An employment counsellor who works with persons with disabilities pointed out the major barriers that lack of transit creates for job seekers with disabilities. For example, employers will frequently call and offer interviews on the same day or the next day, while paratransit services require patrons to book substantially ahead of time. Because some paratransit services often run behind schedule, job-seekers may frequently find themselves late for job interviews, or unable to guarantee fixed start times for a job (CILT). The Kidney Foundation indicated that limitations in paratransit services may actually have serious health implications for some. Access to comprehensive medical treatment is not simply a function of adequate medical facilities, but also of the existence of the necessary supports to complement these centres. For example, the Kidney Foundation states, “When transit is not available, delayed or long waiting periods are encountered, they [renal patients] experience stress reactions that can be very detrimental to their already compromised health status”.

Seniors’ organizations also raised concerns about the social isolation that can result from lack of access to paratransit services. This is particularly the case where paratransit systems priorize, or exclusively provide, trips for employment, educational, or medical services.

As well, limitations in paratransit services raise larger issues of respect for dignity.

What is even more pernicious is the complete lack of control that people with disabilities experience in their lives as a result of the capricious, under-funded paratransit service. People with disabilities are individuals, members of our society and tax-payers. And yet, they are deprived of one of the most fundamental qualities of individuality – agency. They cannot plan ahead. They cannot change their minds at the last minute. Often they cannot access the paratransit phones for hours at a time, or must book 4-5 days in advance. They are penalized for being late like naughty school children. They are often abandoned in out of the way places, or stranded in the cold waiting for a pick-up. A taxi driver is rude – there is no penalty.... People with disabilities are treated as less than human by some paratransit authorities and the governments that fund the service.
-Transportation Action Now

It should be emphasized that several submissions also highlighted how highly valued and appreciated the available services are, the professionalism and courtesy of many of the drivers, and the willingness of administrators to engage in ongoing dialogue about improvements to the system.

Summarized below are some recurring themes from submissions. In reviewing the issues below, the wide variance in paratransit services across the province must be kept in mind.

Key Concerns

Eligibility Requirements

All paratransit services have eligibility criteria of one form or another, although the criteria, and the method of assessing eligibility, vary widely. Some paratransit services limit eligibility to persons with permanent disabilities, while others permit persons with temporary disabilities to access the system. In general, most systems have eligibility requirements that focus heavily on persons with mobility restrictions, for example, the inability to climb stairs or to walk 175 metres unassisted.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which sets standards for accessible transit in the United States, the criteria for eligibility for paratransit services is simply whether or not an individual can use the transportation provider’s fixed route system – for example, because the person is unable, because of his or her disability to use accessible conventional transit services; because accessible conventional transit services are not available at that time on that route; or because the person is unable, by reason of his or her disability, to travel to or from the boarding or deboarding location. Eligibility is therefore a functional determination of whether the person can use the regular transit system as it currently exists, and not simply a medical or physical diagnosis.[13] This approach appears to be more in keeping with the broad definition of disability in the Ontario Human Rights Code[14], as well as with the requirement that persons with disabilities be considered, assessed, and accommodated individually.

Concerns were repeatedly raised that restrictive eligibility criteria are leaving some individuals with access to neither the conventional system, nor the paratransit system in their communities. For example, the Kidney Foundation indicated that persons with kidney-related disabilities may experience changes in their mobility, and therefore may not be eligible for paratransit. The Environmental Illness Society of Canada reported that attitudinal barriers to the validity of invisible disabilities, such as environmental illnesses, have led to evaluation procedures that deny services to passengers who need the service.

As noted in the Discussion Paper, persons with mental disabilities are generally only eligible for paratransit services if they also have a mobility restriction. This leaves many persons with mental disabilities with no access to transit services.

One individual submission raised concerns about the combined effect of disability and family status. As a blind person, he is generally able to access the conventional transit system. However, as a parent with a small child, the combined effect of his disability and his family status present him with serious transportation difficulties.

I recently became a father and began to face new challenges and barriers in taking my baby with me on public transportation. Where and what are my choices? I can’t drive, I can’t stop a cab on the street when I am in a hurry. I won’t be taking the stroller, and my wife does not feel it is safe for me to take the baby in a back pack or chest-sack style bag with my white cane. What can I do? Is there a provision in the Wheel Trans admission criteria to admit blind parents at least? Or, is one of the governments ready to subsidize my cab expenses?
-Individual submission

The Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped (“ARCH”) states that, in the case of Toronto’s Wheel-Trans system, the criteria are not designed to individually assess a person’s need for accessible transportation: only persons with mobility disabilities who use the “right” assistive devices are accepted on to the program. According to ARCH, Wheel-Trans does not accommodate persons with disabilities such as cognitive disabilities, respiratory disabilities, or visual disabilities, for example. There are as a result many people who have no access to public transportation.

The categorical denial of a service based on the nature of a disability constitutes prima facie discrimination. Further, the duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship extends to all persons with disabilities who require accommodation to use public transportation, not only those captured by the restrictive criteria applied by transit service providers.

Scheduling Practices

For some paratransit systems, bookings must be made up to two weeks in advance, which can severely restrict patrons’ ability to attend appointments, or access services. Even where services provide for much shorter booking requirements (in some systems, only 24 hours in advance), it may be very difficult to actually get a booking. Many patrons mentioned having to start trying to call the system at 5:30 a.m. in order to book a ride, and spending up to 45 minutes trying to get through on the telephone.

As well, some submissions mentioned services that are routinely 30 minutes or more late, causing difficulties for persons trying to reach medical appointments, or employment. Particular concerns were raised about situations where rides have been several hours late or have not arrived at all, and patrons were left waiting outside, sometimes in inclement weather, with no idea of when or whether their ride would arrive. It was pointed out that this raises real safety concerns for persons with disabilities or frail seniors.

Ride Cancellations

Some paratransit systems have policies penalizing patrons who cancel rides on the day of service. Penalties can include suspensions from the service of up to 30 days. As several submissions pointed out, these policies seem particularly unfair when they are applied regardless of the reason for the cancellation, especially since paratransit systems are dealing with persons whose health status may be fragile and fluctuating.

Fares and Fare Structures

Fare structures for paratransit services vary widely, especially when one considers the effect of taxi scrip services. Some services charge the same fares as those charged to riders on the conventional system, while others charge higher fees per trip. Some paratransit systems levy one-time registration fees. Few paratransit systems permit patrons to purchase monthly passes, or bulk tickets, as is common on the conventional system.

Priorizing of trips

Some paratransit systems will only carry riders on trips for employment, educational, or medical services. Others priorize such trips, and allow patrons to ride for other purposes on an availability basis. Some do not priorize trips at all. A number of submissions pointed out the isolating effects of priorization policies, as they cut people off from social, recreational, and other services.


Several submissions raised concerns about the lack of reciprocity arrangements between Ontario paratransit systems, which would allow those eligible for paratransit services in one system to use the equivalent service when visiting another area. This is especially the case given the rigorousness and length of the eligibility screening procedures for some systems. This lack of reciprocity, some patrons felt, posed a real barrier to travel for persons dependent on paratransit services. As one individual submission said “Blindness and its subsequent dilemmas do not recognize ... boundaries. Needing a ‘ride’ somewhere is needing a ‘ride’ somewhere whether you are in Moncton, N.B., or Sechelt, B.C. “. A short-term visitor may have to wait a week or more to be accepted as eligible for paratransit service.

Cross Boundary Travel

Travel across the many boundaries in the Greater Toronto Area (“GTA”) is a major issue. As the GTA continues to expand and develop, residents more frequently have need to cross various municipal boundaries in order to work, obtain an education, access community programs, or receive medical services. However, the paratransit systems in the GTA have been unable to come up with a formula to permit persons who are dependent on paratransit to cross a municipal boundary.

For able-bodied people crossing a boundary is a matter of jumping in your car; even some public transit accommodation is made. In the GTA, there is talk of “seamless” transportation for the general public but none for people with disabilities. Getting into and out of Toronto is a nightmare for those who are dependent on paratransit.
-Transportation Action Now

According to the Kidney Foundation, cross boundary trips can be quite physically onerous, creating significant difficulties for patrons who are attempting to travel home after arduous medical treatments, such as dialysis.

Authorities should be required to put the rider first and agree upon a way to deliver the customers safely to their destination. Crossing boundaries may mean being discharged on the side of a busy road and left to cross on their own or be taken off a van and left to be picked up by a van of an adjoining municipality. This should not be allowed. Those involved must seek out other municipalities who have resolved similar situations and implement that formula before a rider is hurt or killed.
-Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada


The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada emphasized the importance of amenities such as functioning shock absorbent systems and air conditioning for persons with certain disabilities. For example, persons who have acquired osteoporosis from being in a wheelchair for many years can actually suffer stress fractures from a rough vehicle ride, while persons with heart and lung disease, multiple sclerosis, and in some cases muscular dystrophy would benefit from having a cool environment during a ride. CILT submitted the story of a patron who was actually physically injured because of the poor suspension on a paratransit vehicle, and the carelessness of the driver. The rider, who was a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, and paralysed from the neck down, with limited range of movement in her neck, stated, “I was devastated. The only part of me that was working and that gave me a measure of independence was now damaged.”


Many paratransit services in Ontario supplement their bus and van operations with taxis, either sedan or accessible. Some use taxi services as a supplement only when their accessible vans are overbooked or suffer breakdowns, while others make taxi services a regular component of their family of services. Some also provide taxi scrip services, where eligible persons can take taxis at a reduced rate. Taxis tend to be a much cheaper and more flexible mode of providing accessible or door-to-door service than are vans, especially in small towns and rural areas, although they are not appropriate for all persons with disabilities.

However, because taxis are operated by private, for-profit companies and independent drivers, it is very difficult to set standards for courtesy, dignity, and assistance. For example, concerns were raised in submissions that taxis contracted by paratransit services, especially in the Toronto area, are frequently extremely late, and at times do not even show up, and yet there are few or no repercussions. The Kidney Foundation’s submission stated that, in Toronto, while the Wheel-Trans buses are fairly reliable, there is a severe problem with the taxi services, to the point where some patients refuse to use certain taxi companies, as the stress of the delays they experience has an extremely negative impact on their health status. One case was cited where a patient waited five hours for a pick-up from dialysis. Transportation Action Now suggested in its submission that this is perhaps because the rates of return are low, so there is always a temptation to grab another fare off the street and let the client wait. This submission further suggested that the Metro Licensing Commission does not take this type of behaviour seriously, and as a result there are no penalties.

Other Concerns

The Kidney Foundation stated that it is important to ensure that there are effective and timely complaint and appeal systems for paratransit systems. As well, the Foundation recommended that regular “rider satisfaction surveys” be administered, with key concerns followed up in a timely fashion.

[11] Section 14 of the Ontario Human Rights Code allows special programs to be implemented that might otherwise be considered to be discriminatory under the Code. Section 14 defines a special program as a program that is 1) designed to relieve hardship or economic disadvantage; or 2) designed to assist disadvantaged persons or groups to achieve equal opportunity; or 3) likely to contribute to the elimination of the infringement of rights protected under the Code.
[12] This issue is currently before a Human Rights Board of Inquiry in Neusch and Davey v. Disabled and Aged Regional Transit System, Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth, and Ministry of Transportation.
[13] Transportation Research Board, ADA Paratransit Eligibility Certification Practices: A Synthesis of Transit Practice, (1998).
[14] Section 10(1) of the Code provides the following definition of disability:

  • (a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
  • (b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
  • (c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
  • (d) a mental disorder, or
  • (e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.

Section 10(3) states that “The right to equal treatment without discrimination because of disability includes the right to equal treatment without discrimination because a person has or has had a disability or is believed to have or to have had a disability”.

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