Not very long ago, people with disabilities and older seniors were routinely isolated in their homes or in institutions. Even sidewalks designs excluded people using wheelchairs. We have come a long way, with the right to move and participate in society now being widely recognized. But there is a danger that we will slip backwards towards that dark past, just as the first baby boomers enter their 70s and the population of people over 80s soars.
Denying mobility and access based on ability can be compared to sentencing someone who has committed no crime to permanent house arrest. And the person whose rights are denied may be you or someone in your immediate family.
Creating age friendly communities is now a stated goal for every level of government, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms supposedly guarantees people with disabilities equal benefit and protection. But the fact that the B.C. provincial government has forced a transit referendum shows that these words on paper are not enough.
Words don't fund services, numbers in government budgets do.
While there are people with disabilities in every age group including young children, the probability of living with a disability increases with age. Only about eight per cent of Canadians 25-44 years old live with disabilities while about a third of people between 65 and 74 do, and this increases to more than half for those over 75.
Not everyone living with a disability needs services such as HandyDART, but the probability of needing specialized services to live independently with a high quality of life increases greatly for those over 70 years old.
The Vancouver transit referendum is sometimes framed as being just about a few major rapid transit projects. But the Mayors' Council included a 30 per cent increase in HandyDART service in the plan -- adding 100 HandyDART vans to the present fleet of about 300, along with major bus service improvements for the whole region. HandyDART is a door-to-door transit service for people with disabilities and older seniors who cannot use the regular transit system for at least some trips.
HandyDART service hours have been frozen in Metro Vancouver since 2009, and as a result trip denials went up over 600 per cent before the contractor changed procedures to disguise the crisis. A similar freeze on bus service has led to overcrowding, and made riding conventional transit less convenient and safe for seniors and people with disabilities.
You may be able to jam on a crowded bus or SkyTrain car, but many people with even fairly mild 'invisible' disabilities can't do so safely. People using wheelchairs and walkers just get left behind at the curb.
If the 'No' side wins it will be a tough fight to get any increase in HandyDART service, and cutbacks are a real possibility.
Over the past few months the B.C. government has announced cancellations of planned bus and HandyDART service improvements in communities across the province. Despite Premier Christy Clark's new found interest in reducing climate pollution, things are not looking good for public transit in B.C. outside of Metro Vancouver. With a 'No' vote we will likely have lots of company in cutting planned bus and HandyDART service improvements.
The HandyDART Riders' Alliance is going to keep on campaigning for more and better HandyDART service no matter what way the vote goes. But we can't do it all; we need people and organizations to step up and make better transit their priority. And we need your vote today.
It is now too late to mail ballots and have them received before deadline. But ballots can be dropped off at Elections BC storefront offices until Friday May 29 at 8 pm. See http://elections.bc.ca/plebiscite/where.html
For more information please contact Beth McKellar 604 444 9289
This piece originally appeared on The Straight and is reprinted with permission.
Photo: flickr/ Paul Kimo McGregor
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