A new ombudsman complaint launched against the City of Winnipeg for its Handi-Transit system contains shocking allegations – including that "a person who is blind was intentionally dropped off at a random location" after a disagreement with a driver.

Winnipeg's Independent Living Resource Centre filed the complaint after an overwhelming number of issues were raised by riders.

 "Our individual advocacy co-ordinator has been very busy getting complaints from the users and trying to go through a complaint mechanism through Handi-Transit, and we just had enough," said ILRC's Terry McIntosh, who added they've brought their concerns to the city multiple times. "We just said, 'That's it. We're done."

The complaint says Handi-Transit is failing users and that its policies are not only "unfair and biased," but "unjust, oppressive and unreasonable." It details broad-level policy issues and specific incidents gathered from users and Access to Information Requests.

Debbie VanEttinger

Debbie VanEttinger, a Handi-Transit user for about 25 years, said the service is the worst it has ever been. (CBC)

"In one instance, a person who is blind was intentionally dropped off at a random location due to a disagreement between the passenger and the driver," the complaint reads.

Other specific cases include a Handi-Transit user missing a family member's funeral, a driver allegedly insisting on hugs from clients and a client soiling themselves "due to not being able to return to their home in time for their peri-care call."

Debbie VanEttinger, a Handi-Transit user for about 25 years, said the service is the worst it has ever been. Wait times have ballooned and safety is also an issue, she said.

"If I wanted to go to a gym, because it's not a priority and I do that on a regular basis, a 45-minute gym class might mean I would be away from the house for five hours," she said. "It's not a priority trip."

Handi-Transit requires users to book trips by 11 a.m. the previous day and ranks them based on importance – work and medical trips get priority.

Things like groceries, going to the gym and socializing are the lowest on the list, meaning sometimes they don't happen – and users say spontaneous trips are an absolute no-go.

"It's kind of a barrier in terms of how many places I can go in one day and make sure I'm there on time," said VanEttinger. "I don't think the administration of Handi-Transit understands how my life is like anyone else's life."

Terry McIntosh

Terry McIntosh waits for a Handi-Transit vehicle outside her office in downtown Winnipeg. (CBC)

Handi-Transit also limits users to two shopping bags, and passengers are expected to carry them on their own as well as keep them in their lap.

If they have more than two bags, Handi-Transit policy says the ride will be refused and the rider will be forced to pay a no-show fee.

"For some folks, Handi-Transit is their only way of transporting their groceries, just like people on the regular transit system do – there's certainly no limit for that system, but for me, there's a two-bag limit and certainly you're reminded about that on a regular basis," said VanEttinger.

She said the vehicles are often in disrepair, and drivers don't have adequate training.

Handi-Transit driver hits motorcyclist, rider says

In July, VanEttinger was in a Handi-Transit vehicle when the driver ran into a motorcyclist stopped at a red light.

She said she tried to get the driver's attention to avoid the crash, but he had earbuds in.

Terry McIntosh and Natalie Pirson

Terry McIntosh and Natalie Pirson both work at the Independent Living Resource Centre. The organization has filed a complaint against the City of Winnipeg regarding their Handi-Transit system on behalf of users. (CBC)

"It wasn't till I grabbed him that he actually stopped, but by then, it was too late. We had already hit her," she said. "I didn't feel that I was heard, and I certainly felt that safety is becoming a huge issue for all passengers riding Handi-Transit."

She was encouraged to and did file a complaint, but she said she didn't feel like it was taken seriously.

"We want Handi-Transit to look at their system and realize that, 'No. It's not parallel to the bus system,'" said Natalie Pirson, who works as an independent living consultant with ILRC. "We're huge contributors to the community – a big population … We want to be considered."

Manitoba has about 210,000 people with disabilities, and in Winnipeg, anyone who wants to use Handi-Transit has to fill out an application and go through a functional assessment, regardless of recommendations from a doctor.

McIntosh points out other major cities don't have similar policies in place.

Video footage catches drivers lying, complaint alleges

Another big issue in the complaint: no-show fees can be charged to users on the Handi-Transit system, unlike Winnipeg Transit.

Policies posted on the Handi-Transit website say no-show fees can be charged if a passenger has too many bags or even if their walkway isn't shoveled. If fees add up to more than $30, service can be suspended.

"What if you weren't a no-show? It's your word against theirs," said Pirson.

The ombudsman complaint cites examples of video footage revealing a driver had lied about showing up at a location at all.

According to the ombudsman complaint, Handi-Transit took in $18,245 in no-show fees in 2011. In 2010, that number was $23,364.

'It would be premature to comment,' city says

City officials said in an email they were aware of the complaint, but it would be "premature to comment."

"Presently, we are waiting for formal notification and direction from the Ombudsman's Office on how they wish to proceed with their investigation of the complaint," officials said. "In the meantime we look forward to continuing our dialogue with the ILRC to hear their concerns and attempt to work with them towards the resolution of any issues."

ILRC, meanwhile, is working on a human rights complaint.

VanEttinger hopes things will change as a result.

"You're not driving packages around. You're driving people around. These people are living lives, so it does matter," she said.


This story is part of Access Denied, a CBC Manitoba series exploring accessibility for people with disabilities in Winnipeg.