Complaints About Accessibility Prompt Orangeville Transit to Make Service Changes

By Serena Austin
Orangeville Banner
Monday, July 8, 2024

Despite Orangeville Transit just announcing plans to make the service more accessible, one local family who has struggled to use it with their service dog maintains more changes are needed.

David Vahey and his wife, Vivian Petho, have made numerous complaints to Orangeville’s Mayor, Lisa Post, council and staff about Orangeville Transit’s use of school buses to replace transit buses when they need servicing, and about ableist and disrespectful encounters they said they’ve had with drivers.

Ironically, when Orangeville Transit was first launched in 1991 it was designed to be a fully accessible service, and was the first transit service in Ontario to do so.

Vahey and Petho got a service dog, Major, for their son, Solomon, who is autistic, early this year.

On three separate occasions over January and February, Petho said she was questioned about the dog’s status as she boarded Orangeville Transit buses with him, despite having no issues bringing him other places like Town Hall and the Alder Street Recreation Centre.

Petho wrote to the Town on the day of all three encounters, detailing her experience and how humiliated and singled out she and her son felt by the bus drivers.

“I was singled out multiple times when all we were doing was trying to ride the bus,” said Petho. “I felt humiliated, like I was a second-rate citizen each time we got on the bus.”

In one of her emails, Petho explained that as a member of the Town’s age-friendly committee, she wouldn’t be able to go to her next meeting in-person because she needed to take the bus to get there, but no longer felt comfortable doing so.

She also called for accessibility training for the bus drivers.

Then, in early February, Tony Dulisse, Orangeville’s manager of transportation and development, provided an update on a policy for service dogs on public transportation to the Access Orangeville committee, which is focused on making the town more accessible to those with disabilities.

The committee was in support of the policy, and Dulisse said he would provide an update to council at the end of the month, but the topic didn’t come up in the meetings that followed.

When asked why there is no record of the policy being presented to council, communications staff said that the use of the term “policy” in this case wasn’t accurate, and that what was presented to Access Orangeville was an “operational procedure,” or “code,” which allows for immediate implementation.

The town said that Orangeville Transit has been operating under the procedure since January 2024, which is before it was presented to Access Orangeville, and that since then no more complaints have been received.

First Student Canada, which operates Orangeville Transit, confirmed for the Orangeville Banner that it has received direction from the Town on its process for assisting riders with service animals, and has been training drivers on it.

In that same committee meeting in February, attendees also learned that Dulisse and a member of Access Orangeville had been speaking about neurodiversity and neuro-inclusivity training and that an update about that would be provided soon.

Vahey, Petho’s husband, raised concerns about First Student, and by extension, Orangeville Transit’s compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) when it comes to its use of yellow school buses on public transit routes.

“When my wife goes to get my son, she takes the service dog, but if it’s a school bus then he’s sitting up on the seat,” instead of underneath it because there’s no accessible seating, Vahey explained. “He can’t do what he’s trained to do.”

Vahey said school buses that have been in use are not accessible to people in wheelchairs, those using walkers or pushing strollers, nor are they appropriate for the visually or hearing impaired because they don’t have audio or visual indicators to let passengers know which stop they’re approaching.

Vahey said the Orangeville Transit app is not reliable for tracking the location of buses and knowing when they’ll arrive at which stops, nor does it update users when a regular low-floor accessible bus is out of service.

When he raised some of these concerns in a council meeting on Feb. 5, Mayor Post and CAO David Smith acknowledged the barriers Vahey and his family were facing.

Smith assured him that Dulisse and the rest of staff were committed to finding a solution. “We’re working really hard to make sure we meet the bar, and exceed the bar,” he told Vahey in the meeting, but shortly after that, Vahey said communication with Smith and Dulisse slowed to a stop.

The AODA’s Transportation Standard requires that public transportation companies and providers must make their vehicles and routes accessible to riders with disabilities by using lifting devices and ramps, storing mobility aids, giving passengers enough time to safely board and deboard the bus, among other things.

When accessible equipment is not working, providers must find other ways to accommodate riders and ensure the equipment is fixed as soon as possible.

Transit workers also need to be trained to use accessible equipment and features safely, and to find solutions for riders if they stop working of if there are barriers on the route.

“Our transit buses are fully accessible and meet the standards as outlined in AODA,” the Town said in a statement when asked to speak on Vahey’s concerns at the end of May.

“Currently, when one of our buses requires maintenance, our only option is to fill the gap with a school bus or cancel all service on that route.”

Service disruptions can happen on short notice, the statement said, and when they do, the Town often relies on drivers to share updates with riders verbally and offer alternate options if the school bus won’t work for them.

“Residents requiring accessibility accommodations when we are forced to use a school bus on a route can contact the Town and we will do our best to accommodate their needs,” said Post in an email statement to the Guelph Mercury.

Post also said that the Town has purchased two new buses, which are accessible and will be put on the road “as soon as they arrive.”

Most recently, on Tuesday, July 2, the Town of Orangeville announced that it would be taking steps to make information about Orangeville Transit’s service more readily available to the public, especially when it comes to accessible options and service disruptions.

The Town was previously communicating that information over social media and on its advertising page in the Orangeville Citizen, and “it recognizes access to these methods of communication may be limited,” the release said.

“This will be an ongoing process, with continual improvements made as we identify communication gaps and new ways to keep our riders informed on anything that might impact their trip,” said Dulisse in the release.

To improve communication, Orangeville Transit’s website will be overhauled to make information more prominent and make the site easier to navigate, including prioritized messaging for mobility and rider services and a service disruption section.

Mobility and rider services information is now broken down to include information on accessible buses, alternatives and plans for situations when an accessible bus isn’t available on a route. It also includes information on the service animal policy and procedure.

Service disruptions will also be announced on a banner on the website, which will redirect users to a page with more information when clicked on.

“We have heard our riders who have been asking for more regular communication, and Town staff are working hard to implement more communication procedures,” said Post in the release.

After learning about what the Town of Orangeville is doing to make Orangeville Transit more accessible, Petho and Vahey both said the changes are a step in the right direction, but fail to get to the root of the issue.

“I am happy to hear that new buses have been purchased, but I do not feel that upgrading infrastructure will fix the underlying problem for Orangeville Transit,” said Petho. “People who ride transit should, like everyone else, be afforded dignity,” and that has not been her experience.

“Various members of Town staff took accountability for the treatment that I received, but I never heard anything from First Student,” the company that operates Orangeville Transit, she said.

First Student, in a statement when asked to speak on Vahey and Petho’s concerns and experiences, said: “We recognize accessibility and mobility services are an ever-changing and ever-evolving process.”

The company also confirmed that its staff are scheduled for accessibility training later this summer.

“We are committed to working in partnership with Orangeville Transit to learn, educate and grow,” the statement said.

Moving forward, Vahey encourages other residents of Orangeville who may have faced barriers accessing transit – older adults, people with disabilities, support workers, service animal trainers and users – to let the Town know about their experiences.

Serena Austin is a reporter with the Guelph Mercury Tribune and the Orangeville Banner.

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