Disability advocates call on DATS to reverse 'discriminatory' changes to service
Online booking tool closed and recurring rides suspended during pandemic
Disability advocates are calling on Edmonton's accessible transit system to reverse what they say are discriminatory changes introduced during the pandemic.
DATS, the door-to-door, pre-booked transit service for people with physical and cognitive challenges, introduced a number of changes at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic intended to manage ridership levels and prevent the spread of the virus.
Among the changes, DATS users have to schedule rides over the phone after the online booking system was suspended. This allows staff to assess users for COVID-19 risks before confirming a ride, said a spokesperson for the Edmonton Transit Service, which operates DATS.
"Screening questions are meant to ensure everyone's safety, and to arrange extra precautions if the trip is for life-sustaining purposes such as dialysis," spokesperson Rowan Anderson said in an emailed statement to CBC News.
But the logic is paternalistic, according to Amy Park, a regular rider and a member of the Self Advocacy Federation. It assumes people with mobility issues can't self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms in the same way that's expected of people who ride Edmonton Transit.
"It really is discriminatory and it says to people with disabilities that you aren't smart enough or aren't capable enough to do the online assessment and make sure you're okay before you ride," she said.
Not only that, it also poses an elevated barrier to people with hearing impairments who rely on online bookings, said Keri McEachern, a co-ordinator with the federation.
DATS staff have access to technology which allows them to use a keyboard to communicate over the phone. But McEachern said the technology is dated and infrequently used by younger people with hearing impairments.
Even when one member of the federation recently made a call using that technology, McEachern said DATS didn't answer.
The change means people with hearing impairments often have to enlist the support of friends and family to make the call, chipping away at their autonomy.
"It takes away the ability of people to be impactful in their own lives and that's not right," said McEachern. "We just want to make sure people have access to transportation the same way anyone else does."
Parks and McEachern said even if DATS insisted on screening riders for COVID-19 risks, those questions should have been added to the online booking system to ensure ease of access for all users.
"Instead they get rid of that completely and put in a further barrier for somebody," McEachern said.
'It gets a bit tiring and ridiculous'
DATS has seen ridership fall by 80 per cent during the pandemic as people limit public outings. With occupancy limited to one person per van and two people per mini-bus, ride times have also been cut in half.
While it can be difficult for riders to reserve their pick-up time of choice, with bookings typically made one to three days in advance, DATS said its accommodation rates are above 99 per cent during the pandemic.
But it's time for the service to rethink other changes made under COVID-19, advocates say. DATS suspended its subscription bookings, which riders use to schedule recurring trips to work or regular appointments. Only recurring trips for medically necessary appointments were permitted to continue.
We just want to make sure people have access to transportation the same way anyone else does.- Keri McEachern, co-ordinator with the Self Advocacy Federation
Now, as more people return to work and some public health orders are eased, Parks wants to see the subscription model reintroduced.
"It's very frustrating and I can only imagine how stressful it is for people who have to go to work," said Park. "It gets a bit tiring and ridiculous when you have to book every day."
The Self Advocacy Federation is set to discuss its concerns with DATS staff on Wednesday after outlining their points in an email last week.
Coun. Andrew Knack said he understands why DATS made changes at the outset of the pandemic in an effort to keep the service operating safely. But given the concerns raised by the federation and recent changes to public health orders, he is keen to see how management responds to the meeting.
"I think many of the things raised in that letter were very fair critiques and very valid concerns. I also appreciate that I'm sure the decisions being made were done with the best of intent in mind," Knack said.