Nova Scotia

Couple's 'nightmare' shows what's wrong with Halifax's accessible-taxi system

Wendy and Guy White, who both use wheelchairs, were unable to get an accessible taxi twice in less than a week — both times dealing with hospital visits. Their ordeal comes as the number of accessible taxis in the city plummets.

Wendy and Guy White's ordeal come as number of accessible taxis in city plummets

Wendy and Guy White both use power wheelchairs and rely on accessible cabs and buses to get around. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Guy White was forced to sleep on a fold-out chair in a Halifax hospital room when he couldn't get a ride home, scrambling to scrounge up the medication he takes every two hours for the Parkinson's disease that makes walking difficult.

His wife, Wendy, was forced to manoeuvre her wheelchair for blocks with an oozing, infected wound simply to catch a bus, and had to dodge sidewalk construction so she could be checked out by a doctor.

The Halifax couple faced the two ordeals less than a week apart in late October, highlighting the challenges people with physical disabilities can face in the city when there aren't accessible taxis available.

"It was a nightmare for my husband and I to go through what we have just gone through from a medical point of view," Wendy, who has multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, said last week from their apartment in Halifax's west end.

There are now just 18 wheelchair-accessible cabs in Halifax, a municipality of just over 400,000 people. In 2015, there were 47. Their ranks are shrinking as some drivers quit or are let go by taxi companies for poor performance.

Terry Morier is one of only 18 accessible-cab drivers left in the city. He said the work is gratifying, but the accessible cab system needs to be fixed. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

The problem boils down to supply and demand, dollars and cents, and a few unwilling drivers, according to veteran driver Terry Morier, who still gets behind the wheel of one of the few remaining accessible taxis.

He said the accessible-taxi system is "not working." Wheelchair-accessible vans are more expensive to buy, must be modified to CSA taxi standard and cost more to operate.

The calls from passengers with disabilities are sporadic and come from across the municipality — for fares that are sometimes just a few dollars. The result, Morier said, is some drivers don't bother with those calls.

On Oct. 24, Wendy had catheter surgery at the Victoria General hospital site. It took much longer than expected, and she wasn't settled in her hospital bed until around 8:30 p.m.

Her husband, who also uses a wheelchair, made a promise that left him in a predicament.

"I can't leave until I find out what's going on with my wife, and the other part is how I'm going to get home," said Guy.

When he called for an accessible cab, there weren't any, and he was running out of medication. Fortunately, a nurse turned a chair into a makeshift bed for Guy, and a doctor wrote him a prescription he filled at the pharmacy in the hospital.

The day after the surgery, Wendy was well enough to go home. The couple went by Access-A-Bus, the city's paratransit service, because she had correctly guessed her discharge time when she booked it the previous week. The service requires seven-day advance booking.

Wendy White shows her log of calls attempting to get a cab or bus to take her to the hospital. She called 311 to complain when she was unsuccessful. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Taxi woes cropped up again several days later. Wendy's VON nurse discovered pus seeping from her wound, and her doctor wanted her back at the hospital the next morning.

Wendy called the city's two main cab companies, two drivers directly and a private transportation service. But none were available. She also phoned Access-A-Bus. She was told 45 people were ahead of her.

Guy urged Wendy to call 911 for an ambulance, but she refused. Cost was a factor for a couple living on a disability pension. Plus, Wendy said she didn't want to take paramedics from more critical calls.

So, she motored 300 metres to the bus stop, caught a Halifax Transit bus equipped to lower to curb height, and then navigated around a construction zone near the hospital to have her infected wound checked.

She wanted to take a cab back home, but her go-to driver had a broken transmission. So, she got herself on another bus.

"I was extra cautious over any bumps, anything that might dislodge my tubing or my drainage or my catheter or undo stitches," she said.

Morier has logged nearly 570,000 kilometres in six years on his wheelchair-accessible taxi. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Morier said the couple's situation is "pretty desperate." He's one of the dwindling number of accessible taxi drivers sticking it out. Six years ago, one of his regular clients became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and asked him to consider accessible-taxi work.

Morier answered the call and invested $70,000 in a van that can accommodate up to two small-power wheelchairs. He works 12 hours a day, or longer, and his van has logged nearly 570,000 kilometres in six years. 

He must accept dispatched calls from Dartmouth, Lower Sackville, Bedford or even further for potentially only a $5 fare.

He said he would "go broke" serving only accessible clients because the calls are infrequent, are from passengers who can take longer to serve, and are spread out over the large municipality — using more gas and time.

So, Morier works on a system of pre-booked calls from his 1,500 clients — 114 are in wheelchairs — while also accepting dispatched calls and fares off the street.

He said his clients with disabilities are satisfied even though they know "there are times they just cannot get me, even my regulars."

Calling out cabbies

Brian Herman, a co-owner of Casino Taxi, the city's largest taxi dispatch company, said it had 35 accessible taxi drivers at its peak in 2015-16. But now there are only five.

He said about 20 drivers have quit, while the company "parted ways" with about 10 who repeatedly refused calls from people with disabilities — a violation of Casino's policy.

Herman said the problem is that accessible calls are more costly than conventional fares and cabbies wind up losing money. There are higher expenses, it takes longer to load and unload passengers, and the fares are often smaller.

He said to increase on-demand availability, the solution lies with the government to provide a subsidy of about $10 or $15 to taxi drivers to compensate for fares that are otherwise money-losing.

Morier believes there are enough accessible-taxi drivers to serve the city's disabled community — if all of them were doing their jobs properly. The availability issues, he said, won't be easily fixed without incentives to drivers to fulfil their duties.

He recalls when the province used to offer a grant to modify taxis into accessible vehicles. The province spent nearly $200,000 converting 11 cabs. But in 2013, funding was shifted to not-for-profit community transit groups.

Despite all the challenges, Morier said the gratitude from customers with disabilities keeps him behind the wheel.

"It makes it worthwhile for me," he said.

Gerry Post is the executive director of the Nova Scotia's Accessibility Directorate. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Gerry Post, the executive director of Nova Scotia's Accessibility Directorate, which is charged with implementing the Accessibility Act, said the story of Wendy and Guy White is sad, unfair and raises a health issue. He regularly hears from people in similar predicaments.

Based on 2014 data, Post calculates the cost to the Halifax Regional Municipality for an Access-A-Bus trip is $37, compared to $14.50 for the same trip by accessible taxi.

He said if the municipality were to supplement Access-A-Bus with accessible taxis, it would double the number of paratransit trips under the same budget and get more accessible taxis on the road by outsourcing to the taxi industry. Post said similar models exist in other Canadian cities such as Toronto.

The municipality is spending $3.9 million to add 10 new accessible buses and replace 21 in its Access-A-Bus fleet of 40 vehicles over the next three years.

It has also tried to increase the number of accessible cabs by not limiting their numbers — unlike conventional cabs, which are capped at 1,000.

A consultant hired by the city has reviewed the city's taxi industry — including accessibility. A survey was also conducted to gather thoughts from residents, however none of the questions specifically pertained to accessibility. The report and survey results are expected in the coming months.

In the last two years, the municipality has received 15 accessible-taxi complaints, three regarding availability.

Wendy White lodged one, and she also wrote about her experience to the mayor, her MLA, and her councillor.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

now