Back off charging the blind for transit

Tue. Aug 11 – 4:46 AM

SHOULD Halifax public transit services stiff the blind?

That’s what regional council is supposed to grapple with tonight, as councillors discuss a staff recommendation to do away with free Metro Transit passes for passengers who are visually impaired.

The motive? Staff are worried the city may face human rights complaints from other disabled groups whose members have to pay full fares.

The solution, say HRM staff, is to make everyone pay full fare — regardless of circumstances.

I’ve got a better idea. Give everyone with a disability a break on transit.

The staff report on the issue compared eight jurisdictions, including Halifax, on the types of fares now charged passengers who are blind. HRM and two others provide free passes. Three give discounts. One didn’t answer. Only one, Laval, indicated the blind were charged full fare.

My own quick search Monday on Google showed that many municipalities in Canada and the United States give people with disabilities a discount on transit fares — or, in some places, waive all fees.

So why should Halifax take the cold-hearted route?

People who are blind, as well as others with many types of disabilities, are unable to drive themselves from place to place. Short of the expensive (often unaffordable) option of taking taxis, or relying on friends or family to transport them, they must use public transit.

Many are also in difficult financial positions, a situation in which their disability often plays some role.

One would think a compassionate society would want to help these people be mobile, to take part in their community. The alternative is disinterest in their well-being. Surely the answer in Halifax isn’t — while hiding behind the fig leaf of being “fair” — to withdraw entirely local government’s helping hand.

Meanwhile, an accompanying report to Halifax councillors from the city’s advisory committee for persons with disabilities argues compellingly that the free bus passes for the blind should not be ended until Metro Transit provides equal services to those with visual impairments.

As an attached letter from Patrick Harrington, chair of the visually impaired safe travel advisory committee, points out, there are no accommodations now made to help the blind identify buses, access bus stop numbers, route or schedule information, or to know when they have arrived at their stop.

Visually impaired transit users must now “rely on the charity of strangers” to identify buses and disembark at their intended destination, wrote Harrington.

To be fair, Metro Transit has plans to improve accessibility for the disabled. Fine. When that occurs, then review fare structures. Though I think that discounting transit passes for people with disabilities would still make sense.

Speaking of human rights complaints, it’s worth noting that in Ontario, the government-backed human rights tribunal two years ago told public transit authorities across the province that stops on bus and streetcar routes must be announced, to remove barriers for the visually impaired.

Such a practice would help here, too. I bet hearing the words “Barrington and Duke” called out, for example, could be useful for dozy riders, as well.

The head of the city’s advisory committee for people with disabilities has raised the spectre of a human rights complaint here if the passes end.

The HRM staff report says the cost of the 500 free bus passes given to the blind is $420,000 a year, but acknowledges that assumes full usage; actual use is unknown. “Expanding the eligibility for free passes or reduced fares would have a negative budget impact, but it is impossible to quantify that impact at this time,” the report states.

Clearly, council needs to have some idea of what a discount program could cost. That could be done by checking with some of the various jurisdictions that offer such passes for people with disabilities, to find out what their experience has been in terms of the financial impact on the budget.

The current program, run via the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s local office, should end Sept. 30, according to HRM staff.

Council should ignore that advice and, instead, gather more information.


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