Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wheelchair users in Canada say they can't find assistance at the gas pump

From The Toronto Star in Canada:

They’ve been disappearing for years, and today there isn’t a single full-service gas station left in Whitby.

And that means Mark Woitzik (pictured) is in trouble.

Self-service stations present an insurmountable challenge for the quadriplegic, who drives a specially-adapted vehicle, since he can’t pump his own gas.

So, he either gets his wife, father or a friend to go get gas with him, or he drives farther afield trying to find a full-service station. They’re disappearing all over, as costs get cut in a competitive price war.

This is a serious setback for a person who savours independence and has fought for the past 20 years to overcome the devastation of a frosh week accident as an 18-year-old. Woitzik has completed university, earned his law degree and established a small legal practice in Whitby since his spinal injury.

“You overcome obstacles to achieve independence and then you see things, beyond your control, take it away,” says Woitzik, 37. “It’s frustrating for me. But it must be devastating to those without a support system. This is not just about me.”

Whitby Mayor Pat Perkins tried to fight for full service in her town’s gas stations only to find the municipality doesn’t have the power to force this issue under Planning Act or Building Code rules. She’s asked the province to consider empowering the municipalities on this matter.

As Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor, David Onley now has a driver — he had polio as a child — but is sympathetic to Woitzik’s cause.

“I drove a specially adapted vehicle with hand controls, and I always looked for a full-service gas station,” says Onley. “Over time, there were fewer and fewer.”

Getting in and out of a vehicle, operating the pump controls and holding the handle of a gas hose for minutes is a challenge for people with mobility issues, says Onley, adding that 15.5 per cent of the population has a disability.

As Ontario’s population ages, the numbers of people with mobility issues will continue to increase, he says, and smart companies will include service for these customers.

Disability rights activist David Lepofsky points out that providing service doesn’t just help those with disabilities.

“We have an aging population and there are going to be more and more people who have difficulty getting into and out of a car.

“There is also the issue of winter with the risk of slipping and falling.”

The lawyer, who is blind, adds that there are people who, in the dark of night, don’t feel comfortable getting out of their car to pump gas.

“Accommodation works for everybody,” says Lepofsky, adding that “it’s bad business” to cut out service. Self-serve doesn’t suit everyone, and many are content to pay a more for service, he says.

He pooh-poohed “help” buttons that summon an attendant — if one is available. “What do you do if no one comes and you are running out of gas?”

Suncor spokesman Michael Southern says “it is true that in many communities across our network the number of full-service stations is decreasing.”

He suggests drivers go to Petro-Canada’s website to find stations that offer both self service and full service. While there are none in Whitby, he says the company runs full-service Sunoco stations in Bowmanville and Oshawa, and another full-service Petro-Canada station in Scarborough.

He also suggests drivers with physical needs call their local station directly to arrange a time when they can get their tank filled. They need to do this in advance because an attendant is not allowed to leave the cash register if they are working alone, and there must be arrangements made for a second attendant.

Jeff Gabert, spokesman for Shell Canada, also directed drivers with disabilities to to locate full-service stations (there are 20 in the GTA), as well as find the phone numbers of local stations. He also suggested phoning ahead to make arrangements.

“The fuel market is competitive. People are looking for price and not looking for service,” he says.

But an angry Woitzik isn’t convinced. “It’s all about profitability,” he says.

He recently had the humiliating experience of getting glares from other motorists when his wife, dressed in fancy party clothes, filled the tank.

“I could see them thinking, ‘look at that idiot,’” says Woitzik, who stayed behind the wheel.

But now he doesn’t even have his wife to help out anymore. She recently broke her leg while playing baseball.