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Accessibility issues

LEWISPORTE, NL – St. John’s resident Jeremy Lawrence is risking his safety and security to travel to central Newfoundland, and has little choice but to do so for years.

The wheelchair accessible bus owned and operated by Newfoundland’s provincial bus line DRL is out of service.  


Lawrence says he knows it means having to crawl up and over the steps and across the floor to his seat. Once there, he says it also means having to pull himself up and into his seat. Lawrence has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) otherwise known as brittle bone disease. Moving away from his family in central was hard, and not coming to see them often is difficult Lawrence says. Not coming out at all is incomprehensible. 

However a fall for Lawrence means painfully debilitating and devastating results.

“I’m an eggshell, I shatter.” said Lawrence. “I just break everything, I’ve done it before.”

Lawrence says he makes approximately six trips, including return passage, to central every year to visit his family.”

DRL general manager Jason Roberts does not shy away from the issue. The bus line is under no legal or legislative obligation to provide a wheelchair accessible service, according to Roberts. Federal regulations only apply to operators that have 10 or more buses on one route. DRL is smaller, so the regulation does not apply. Roberts says the province has no regulations in this regard. Nonetheless, the company purchased the accessible bus currently in their stable 14 years ago. Roberts insists the company has tried.

“I try to look at stuff realistically,” Roberts told the Pilot. “I don’t look at it and say well we don’t have 10, so have a good friggin day. I look at Jeremy and whoever that’s trying to get around the island, they should (be able) to get on the bus with everybody else.”

Roberts says there is no tiptoeing around it, the issue is financial. The service is a “dead loss,” and Roberts says the company needs assistance. The cost of a standalone bus is prohibitive and a combined service would be preferred, but it will require the participation of government to be feasible. A plan to purchase new coaches has been put on hold, awaiting new federal regulations Roberts says are expected in January 2018.

“It is getting close to the time to make the move,” said Roberts. “So soon I have to make the decision if I am going to take another one or not.”

Roberts says he has applied to government in the past for funding, but has been denied. He says while taxis across St. Johns are retrofitted to accommodate passengers, his 14-year-old bus continues to languish and struggle.

“I feel obliged to do whatever I can for him when the other bus is not available,” said Roberts. “When the new coaches come, we need a new wheelchair accessible coach, and realistically, you almost want two of them.”

The Pilot contacted the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development for comment and was issued an emailed statement from Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh.

"Our Government recognizes that transportation is essential to participation and inclusion. 
We know that accessible transportation is challenging in many areas of the province and for this reason we continue to offer programs that remove the barriers.

While there are no specific requirements placed on service providers to offer accessible transportation, we have to reiterate that accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. Services available to the public should be available to all citizens. 
The Provincial Government is intent on changing decades of systemic discrimination and influencing a cultural shift in how people understand disability.  We believe that barriers lie in the environment, not the person. 
We have an opportunity to address discrimination and barriers to inclusion through the development of a provincial, inclusion-based disabilities act. Development of a new act will also give us an opportunity to review existing laws and potential amendments. 
The Accessible Taxi Funding Program is actively addressing some of the barriers by helping taxi companies add or retrofit their taxis for accessibility so that individuals using mobility devices, such as wheelchairs or scooters can avail of taxi services. 
The Program provides grants of $25,000 to individuals, companies or agencies that are able to commit to delivering an accessible, 24-7 taxi service in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Accessible Taxi Program has provided seven grants to taxi companies helping companies in St. John’s, Dildo, Grand Falls-Windsor, Norris Point and Corner Brook add accessible vehicles to their fleet. The program addresses commitments of the 2015-2018 Action Plan for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities: increase accessible and affordable transportation options throughout the province. Whether for education, work, health care or leisure, transportation is an essential key to participation and full inclusion in the community. The department will be accepting proposals for two more grants this year and I encourage taxi companies to consider submitting a proposal, particularly in areas where no accessible taxi services exist. 
Please note, DRL does not meet the requirements needed to apply to the Accessible Taxi Funding Program. Eligibility criteria for this program include the commitment and ability to offer an on-call, 24-7 taxi service. The focus on a program for taxi service provides people the option to use the service at a moment’s notice, allowing them flexibility to attend events, appointments or meetings, for example. The program is limited to two grants per year. The Accessible Vehicle Program is also available to persons with disabilities and is making a real difference in people’s lives by helping individuals and their families retrofit personal vehicles to be accessible. The program accepts applications on an on-going basis until funding is expended each year.  Eighty individuals throughout the province now have accessible transportation because of this program.  
The Provincial Government is committed to the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Government has committed to develop a new Inclusion Based Disabilities Act. This process will include consulting with community and stakeholders on issues that affect the participation of persons with disabilities in society.  This process will provide an opportunity for issues such as accessible transportation to be considered. 
We will continue to work closely with stakeholders, including the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, and the Provincial Advisory Council for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, to advance inclusion and remove barriers to access. 
There is still much work to be done. Barriers continue to exist throughout our communities, in the built environment, and through policies and attitudes and we will continue to work collaboratively with community to remove and prevent such barriers."

Jeremy Lawrence finally settled at his uncle’s home in Stanhope, NL.


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