Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Canada, disabled Montrealers fight for full access to Metro network

From The Gazette in Canada. (Thanks to Laurence Parent for sending me this story.):

MONTREAL - Laurence Parent advances her motorized wheelchair to the top of the escalator at Beaubien métro station and gazes down at the platform far below.

The PhD student at Concordia University longs to be able to use the rapid transit system most Montrealers take for granted. But in 90 per cent of the métro system, the closest she can get is here, to the top of an inaccessible escalator or flight of stairs.

“You’re so close but so far from the goal,” says Parent, 26. “You can see the end of the escalator, but it’s really like Mount Everest.”

For disabled Montrealers, full access to public transit is still an unattainable dream. In 2008, Montreal vowed to catch up with cities around the world by making its subway system accessible by 2028.

But the speed of improvements has been slower than expected. Just seven stations out of 68 – 10 per cent – are wheelchair-accessible today. At that rate, it will be 2085 before people in wheelchairs can use the entire network, disabled users say.

In contrast, 43 per cent of Toronto’s 69 subway stations are accessible, with that city on track to make its entire network accessible by 2025.

That’s why Parent, vice-president of the Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec

(RAPLIQ), is among 11 disabled commuters who have lodged complaints with the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, charging the Société de Transport de Montréal with discrimination under the province’s human rights charter.

The case – the first of its kind in Quebec – seeks $20,000 in damages for each complainant.

On Monday, the group will hold a session to explain to other disabled transit users how to join the campaign. An organization representing blind and partially sighted people, the Regroupement des aveugles et amblyopes du Montréal métropolitain (RAAMM), will be on hand to explain obstacles facing visually impaired travellers.

Time was when the complaints over transportation for people with disabilities focused on problems with adapted-transit minibus service.

But in recent years, users like Parent have stepped forward to demand access to regular transit service.

“We have to get back to basics and remember that accessibility to public transit is a right. It is recognized by the Charter of Rights. It is technically recognized by the law on the integration of disabled people,” Parent says.

She knows what she’s talking about. A native of Lemieux, a village of 300 in central Quebec, Parent holds a master’s degree from York University, where her thesis was on lack of accessibility in the Montreal métro. Her doctoral research is on the history of the exclusion of disabled people.

Until moving to Montreal in 2002, Parent, who is wheelchair-bound due to a form of dwarfism, assumed the transit system would be accessible.

On her first day in the city, she discovered the métro was off-limits for wheelchairs. The next day, she tried to take a bus but the ramp didn’t lower properly.

“The big problem is that the STM is not doing the maintenance,” Parent said.

In September, RAPLIQ members surveyed 64 buses across the city and found almost two-thirds were unable to take disabled people on board because of various mechanical problems, like wheelchair ramps that did not deploy properly.

Parent says her local bus, the No. 30 on St. Hubert St., only comes twice an hour. “If it isn’t working, I have to wait another half-hour. It could be cold. It could be nighttime,” she says.

Critics of Montreal’s commitment to accessibility argue the cost of installing elevators – at $15 million per station, according to the city – is prohibitive.

But Parent points out the Montreal métro lags far behind the rest of the world. A 2002 Quebec study said the city ranked last among 30 subway systems internationally, of which 89 per cent were fully or partly accessible. The aging of Montreal’s population means demand for accessible transportation will only rise in the coming years, the study noted.

Montreal had no wheelchair accessible stations until 2007, when three new stations opened in Laval. Since then, Côte Vertu, Lionel Groulx, Berri-UQÀM and Henri Bourassa stations have been retrofitted with elevators.

But Parent said the slow pace of investment to make other stations accessible shows the city isn’t really serious about fulfilling its commitment.

“They want to increase ridership by 40 per cent,” she says. “What we’ve realized is we aren’t part of the 40 per cent.”

STM spokesperson Isabelle Tremblay refused to comment.