New Brunswick

Blind New Brunswickers hopeful bill will lead to free transit fares

We Are Passengers, a New Brunswick advocacy group for people who are blind, along with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, is advocating what they're calling an affirmative action bill.

Blind, partly blind depend on transit for employment, socializing

Linda Nickerson, a member of We Are Passengers, is a volunteer and activist. (Submitted by Linda Nickerson)

Rita Meehan loves to walk.

She's good with children and worked at Saint John's first south-end daycare. She volunteers, has sat with the dying, and has done Run for the Cure, which raises money for the fight against breast cancer. Being born blind in her right eye didn't stop Meehan from doing those things.

But something that's enabled Meehan, along with many other blind and partly blind New Brunswickers, to be active members of their communities, is the transit system.

Unable to legally drive in the province, they depend on buses to go to appointments, get to work, meet friends, shop and volunteer.

They also face significant challenges finding employment, and many live in poverty.

That's why We Are Passengers, a New Brunswick advocacy group for people who are blind, along with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, is advocating for what they're calling an affirmative action bill, which is being introduced by PC MLA Greg Turner.

Rita Meehan is a member of We Are Passengers, an advocacy group fighting for free transit fare in New Brunswick. (Submitted by Rita Meehan)

If passed, the private member's bill would offer free free transit fares for people who are blind and partly blind in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi.

Now 73, Meehan said while others may have the patience to stay home, she doesn't, and loves to go out and be among people.

"I would go out a lot more, if it didn't cost me as much," she said.

Linda Nickerson, volunteer executive director of Saint John's Seniors' Resource Centre, said she believes free bus passes for people who are blind and partly blind would make them go out more.

"A free bus pass would mean that people would be more active in their life. They would be more apt to…volunteer, to go to medical appointments," she said.

She's worked in cities like Toronto and Halifax where she's used transit, and called it a great help.

Abby Bourque-Coyle, who's advocated for accessible transit in the past, said Moncton's free transit accommodation has been a great help. (CBC)

Abby Bourque-Coyle lives in Dieppe in the Moncton area. She said it's great Moncton offers free transit to people like herself, but she said it's needed across the province.

"This is a means of transportation that blind people, they count on this," she said. "They count on it to go to work, to go to school, to go to doctor's appointments. You know, go to activities, get groceries, bring your kids to appointments or activities.

"You can't count on people to do that for you or pick you up all the time."

Bourque-Coyle said it would be wonderful if the bill passed, because it would mean New Brunswick takes the needs of blind people seriously, that they're citizens like everybody else.

If the bill gets passed, it would also mean she wouldn't have to worry about the service being taken away, like it was in Saint John in 2014.

Bourque-Coyle added, too, that free bus fare would give people who are blind and partly blind more independence. 

"They can go look for work from place to place," she said. "It's hard for blind people, you know. A lot of them do live in poverty, because it's harder for them to find employment, and keep employment."

Marisa Hersey-Misner is the chairperson of We Are Passengers. (Submitted)

Marisa Hersey-Misner moved to Saint John in 1998, where, college degree in hand, she went knocking on doors, seeking employment.

"I was very determined and persistent, trying to gain employment. And it was so disheartening and disappointing to receive rejection letters, or 'We're not hiring' comments after learning that I was legally blind," she said.

Not wanting to lose her skills and knowing she had the ability to work, Hersey-Misner started volunteering instead. 

But she wouldn't have been able to do so without free transit, she said.

Eventually finding employment at Xerox, Misner worked there for six years. Finally, she said, she was able to enjoy the financial freedom she desired.

When Saint John stopped offering free transit to people who are blind in 2014, she made do.

But she said she was disheartened and alarmed for others impacted by this.

Seeking support for the bill

She said she heard people say they had to stop taking their medication, diabetic strips, stopped eating fruits and vegetables, and couldn't see their friends as much.

Now, the chairperson of We Are Passengers, she said she believes free transit for people like herself is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that's why she's fighting for the bill to be passed.

"I just hope that people will rally around and support this," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raechel Huizinga

Writer and social media presenter

Raechel Huizinga is a CBC writer and acting Social Media Presenter based in Moncton, New Brunswick. You can reach her at raechel.huizinga@cbc.ca.

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