New COVID-19 HSR rule forces people on mobility devices to travel with a friend

Disability advocates say new HSR rules around COVID-19 will make it harder for people with mobility devices to get to work and move freely around the city. The city says if need be, it will make special arrangements

People can make special arrangements, but barring that, riders with disabilities will need to bring a friend

More stringent physical distancing rules will take effect for HSR on Friday. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Some Hamilton disability advocates say new HSR rules around COVID-19 will make it harder for people with mobility devices to get to work and other essential places, and sets a dangerous precedent that their needs can be sacrificed in a crisis.

The city unveiled new rules Wednesday saying people with mobility devices must ride HSR with a companion. The goal, the city said, is to keep a two-metre distance between drivers and riders, and between riders and each other.

That means everyone has to enter through the rear doors, where drivers don't deploy the ramps. Instead, the companion will.

Sarah Jama, co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, says she wants drivers and transit users to be safe. But not everyone can find a willing and timely companion for bus rides.

That means people with disabilities won't be able to take essential trips, which is "deeply discriminatory," she said. 

Sarah Jama says she wants everyone to be safe too, but the change "strips away bodily autonomy in the midst of a crisis."

"Personal attendant care is expensive, and a lot of people either don't have family or won't want to burden friends or family every time they need to run an errand or pick up a prescription," she said.

"This decision is one that strips away bodily autonomy in the midst of a crisis, and is setting a precedent that people with disabilities, and how we move in public spaces, will be policed so long as it benefits what is deemed as the public good."

The new rules restrict buses to one wheelchair or scooter at a time. That makes sense, says Sophie Geffros, a McMaster University research assistant who uses a wheelchair. Requiring a companion, though, "seems a bit strange."

"As someone who lives alone, what am I supposed to do if I need to go to a doctor, for example?" Geffros said. "I would need to get a friend to meet me — presumably taking public transit to do so — and then they would have to accompany me. At a time when we are supposed to be avoiding non-essential travel, that seems counterintuitive."

The new HSR rules take effect April 3. Riders will be limited to 10 per bus, or 15 per articulated bus. Paul Johnson, director of the city's emergency operations centre, said it's a hard cap, and riders should expect drivers to pass them by.

Meeting up with a friend who will ride the bus with you "seems counterintuitive," says Sophie Geffros.

People should only use transit for essential reasons, like work and medical appointments, he said. And employers should be flexible with workers who take the bus.

"With these changes, there will be increased wait times," the city said in a media release. "We encourage customers to plan to give yourself more time to get to your destination, as you may need to wait for a second, possibly third, or even fourth bus."

Johnson said Thursday that if there are people with mobility devices who need HSR for essential travel, but can't do it with a companion, they can call HSR to make alternate arrangements. 

"If there really isn't a way to work within this new system, I would encourage these individuals to call HSR customer service representatives."

The city says between 1 and 5 p.m. each day, these routes will be the most impacted:

  • 2 Barton.
  • 1 King.
  • 5 Delaware.
  • 10 B line.


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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