A change to Hamilton's transit policy will force riders with disabilities to pay full fare starting in the new year, the city announced Tuesday.

The transit division says the Voluntary Pay Program on HSR must be eliminated starting in January because of new provincial regulations. But the city’s reasoning — that it’s simply complying with Ontario’s Transportation Standard made under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) 2005 — may be flawed.

Under the current system, the blind as well as those who use canes, walkers, scooters and wheelchairs are allowed to ride HSR free of charge. They may choose to pay, but they’re not obligated to pay the standard $2.55 fare.

Come Jan. 1, 2013, however, the blind and disabled will be asked to pay the standard rate as part of HSR’s Fare Parity Policy.

Council’s position

The city explained its decision in a release: "The new HSR Fare Parity Policy is being implemented in conjunction with the new Eligibility Policy and in accordance with the Transportation Standards regulations made under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005."

'Staff’s argument is that [in accordance with] the AODA, we can’t have a two-tiered system.' —Sam Merulla, Hamilton Councilor

"Staff’s argument is that [in accordance with] the AODA, we can’t have a two-tiered system," said Ward 4 councilor, Sam Merulla.

Echoing the concerns of many on the council, Merulla made the argument that a two-tiered system could be seen as favouring one disabled group over another. For example, the cognitively disabled could argue that they should be included in the Voluntary Pay Policy. 

"If you’re providing a service to one you have to provide it to another," said Merulla.

Different interpretations

City council’s understanding of the AODA legislation is incorrect, however, said Sandi Mangat, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, which oversees the legislation.

"That’s not the intent of the standard. The whole intent is to ensure that service providers don’t charge the disabled more," she said.

Section 46 of the act states: "No conventional transportation service provider shall charge a higher fare to a person with a disability than the fare that is charged to a person without a disability where the person with a disability uses conventional transportation services, but a conventional transportation service provider may charge a lesser fare for a person with a disability."

The Act also asks that transportation service providers which don’t offer specialized services make "alternative fare payment options" available to people with a disability.

Council may have gotten its fare parity interpretation from section 66 of the legislation, which asks that there be "fare parity" between conventional transportation services and specialized services.

City council has every right to make a local decision about whether or not to continue the voluntary pay policy, said Mangat. But the change should not be attributed to the AODA, which she said is solely motivated by the idea that people with disabilities not be charged more.

Cathie Mason, regional manager of services and operations for the Hamilton chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), is also confused by council’s interpretation of the Act.

"There’s nowhere in [section 66, which deals with Fare Parity] that says free travel has to be eliminated," she said.

"Our point is that we really want them to help with the fostering of independence for someone that is blind or partially sighted through that essential program. It’s been in place for many years and the risk of cutting it off just brings up so many implications."

Financial burden

Mason cites the fact that less than one-third of those with vision impairment in Canada are employed and that many live on ODSP. More than half live on less than $20,000 a year, she said.

"Their only flexible income is in their grocery line. Now we’re looking at an $87-a-month pass that has to come out of that line. That’s a concern for everyone I talk to."

'If there’s been any misinterpretation of the legislation then clearly we need to reopen the debate and potentially subject it to a reconsideration motion.' —Sam Merulla, Hamilton Councilor

She added that any concerns about potential abuse should be assuaged by the fact that CNIB cards are only given to people after a doctor’s assessment confirming that they are visually impaired.

Additionally, the reasoning behind the voluntary pay policy is fairly sound, she says. "Anyone whose disability precludes them from getting a driver’s licence should have access to free transit."

She also makes the argument that by taking away the voluntary fare program council may be creating a situation in which the blind are even further segregated from society, making them more susceptible to depression.

"They do not have to take away what’s in existence," she said, citing the AODA legislation. "They just can’t charge someone more."

Merulla conceded that there has been some confusion about how council has interpreted the legislation — so much so, in fact, that during a recent council meeting he passed a motion to have council’s position made clear.

"The intent of council was to comply with the AODA legislation and not to conflict with it. And that’s clearly what our position is," said Merulla.

If council has misunderstood the legislation there may be cause for a reconsideration, he added.

"If there’s been any misinterpretation of the legislation then clearly we need to reopen the debate and potentially subject it to a reconsideration motion," said Merulla.

At the moment, however, the Fare Parity Policy has been approved and will be in effect starting January 1.