It’s almost midnight and I’m struggling to keep my eyes open, it’s been an extremely long day, so I’ll try and keep this short. Having said that, I’ve got a pile of stuff to talk about so I’ll try and do my best!
This morning we had a meeting with Deb Matthews, however the transportation gods were not shining on us. We attempted to subway in for the meeting, hoping to avoid rush hour traffic, but unfortunately the subway line was having huge delays due to a broken switch light or some such business. I’m not really sure what it meant, technically, but for us it meant a subway going slower than I can drive my wheelchair. Instead of arriving at Queens Park around 8:30am, as planned, we pulled into the station close to 9:20am…a full 20 minutes after our meeting with Deb Matthews. Luckily, I managed to squeek out a text message to Sam to let her know we were trapped in a tin can below the city and she managed to transmit the message to Deb and reschedule for tomorrow. Getting out of the train, I was excited to see sunshine again but it was not meant to be. The one and only elevator that gets people out of Queens Park station was broken, meaning our only option was to go to the next accessible stop down the line–a full two stops in either direction. Even if we had been on time, we likely would have been late for our meeting anyway because of this broken elevator. What’s even more surprising is that no one in the subway station seemed to know the elevator was broken and no one seemed to be really interested in fixing the problem. After a few strong and carefully chosen words, we were assured the elevator would be looked after immediately. In the meantime, we had to get back on the subway and head down a few stations to escape the underworld that is the Toronto Subway system.
After popping out a few blocks down and walking back, grabbing and bite to eat on the way, it was almost time to meet up with Carol Mitchell, the MPP from my other home Grey-Bruce County, so we decided to duck into Queens Park a bit early and grab a seat. You know you’re spending a little too much time somewhere when the guards begin to recognize you. While there we had several guards recognize us from the other day, all of whom were interested to hear what we’re up to and help us out in any way possible. It’s kind of weird, but I think Queens Park is becoming a bit of a “hang out” for me in Toronto. My goal for the end of this trip is for Queens Park to become like my own personal Cheers, so whenever I enter the building all the guards and employees are like “Noooorm!” with a big smile and wave…except they would say my name…in fact, no, it would be even better if they called me Norm.
Anyway, Carol and I had a really good chat about initiatives she has been involved in and about how to work toward equitable and functional solutions for accessible transportation in rural communities. This was a very productive meeting and I feel like Carol really took a lot of my advice to heart. Our conversation ended up getting a little sidetracked part-way through and we got talking about poverty and disability, an issue directly related to the transportation problem, and I have been asked to put together a letter explaining how the disabled population is affected by programs like the Ontario Disability Support Program and how the lack of transportation is increasing risk of poverty in the disabled population. This is a really important step forward, as the Ontario government is currently focusing heavily on the poverty task force, lead by Deb Matthews ironically enough. The group is currently in the collecting information phase, looking to hear from the public about what is happening in their communities. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to share some of my experiences and some of my ideas on how to overcome these barriers.
In my opinion, transportation is one of the keys to disability and poverty. On top of other barriers, like financial barriers to education, the lack of sustainable and reliable transportation is only compounding the barriers to achieving gainful employment that will allow us to live independent and free lives. By implementing change to the transportation system, in my opinion, we will be able to transition more people off ODSP and into functional and profitable jobs in the community, which will only improve their quality of life while also providing more room to support individuals who cannot get jobs (for a variety of reasons). This way the program is helping those who it is designed to help, rather than being forced to assist people who could be working and living independently, provided they could get to their jobs!
After our meeting with Carol we headed down the street to meet with David Miller, Mayor of Toronto. Albeit a quick meeting, he’s a very busy man…so much so I think I heard he missed his lunch break today, this was an excellent chat. Mayor Miller was brutally honest with us about the transportation system, admitting that there are some serious flaws with the Wheeltrans system. While he would love to see more accessible cabs, that is an area of accessibility that he is not too optimistic about seeing change–there is just too much resistance from the industry, in his opinion. One really interesting piece of information that came out of this meeting, however, was that the accessibility advisory committee in Toronto actually made recommendations on how to design the new Wheeltrans busses, which explains why they look nothing like any Paratransit van I’ve ever seen in my life. This is a really cool idea and I’d recommend City Councils strongly consider this concept. At first, Mayor Miller said the people building the vans were reluctant to take the advice, questioning some of it’s validity, but they drove forward with the plan and couldn’t be happier with the results. In fact, they can’t wait to go into production of the next model, which will replace this fleet eventually–apparently they’re already cooking up some new ideas! Another thing that made me really excited about my meeting with Mayor Miller is that he said his goal is to produce accessible systems that work seamlessly with the current transportation systems–he didn’t like the idea of “segregating” the population and forcing the disabled to do things differently than everyone else. This is a truly enlightened perspective and I think Mayor Miller’s leadership, along with several key councilors and disability advocates in the community, has been critical in breaking down barriers in Toronto.
From my meeting with Mayor Miller, it was back to Queens Park to meet with the Minister of Natural Resources, Donna Cansfield. When we arrived for this meeting there was a lot of confusion, no one really knew why we were there and I couldn’t remember who we had talked to in the office to set up the meeting. For a moment there I thought I was about to become very good friends with the security guards–I swear, I’m not just some weirdo off the street! Apparently their computer systems had gone down, which lead to some scheduling problems, however after a bit of phone calling (and a spot of good luck) we got in and had a great meeting. Once again this was a tremendously informative meeting. As it turns out, before taking on the Ministry of Natural Resources, Donna Cansfield spent some time in the Ministry of Transportation and was able to shed a bit of light on provincial funding of transportation. Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to understand the complicated and intricate dance occurring between the provincial and municipal government to put together and operate transportation in our communities–a weaving web of service and support that is crucial to comprehend in order to work our way through finding solutions.
After dinner I got to meet up with a close friend from Bruce County, the legendary Josh Cassidy. Josh is a professional wheelchair racer who is working his way to a spot on the Canadian National wheelchair racing team. He’s a phenomenal athlete and he will do our country proud if he makes the team for Beijing. It was great catching up with him on old times and hearing about some of his adventures traveling with the wheelchair racing teams–he has logged a LOT of travel miles over the past few years competing around the globe, breaking records, and generally showing people that Canada means business at the ‘08 Paralympics in Beijing. If you get a chance this summer, flip on CBC during the Paralympic day and keep an eye out for Josh–this kid is a real dynamo and he’s going to really turn some heads this summer. Best of luck Josh, we’re all pulling for you!
Anyway, it’s late and I have a bright-and-early coffee meeting with the Minister of Community and Social Services, followed by a big meeting with the Directorate of Disability. Tomorrow is going to be yet another crazy day and I’m totally psyched.
This is coming together! I couldn’t be happier right now.
Oh as a side note, I received several emails from the people of Halton Hills last night and this morning and it sounds like they are committing to moving forward with an even more aggressive accessible transportation plan. I’m excited to see what they are capable of creating with the help of several key community partners who I don’t believe were involved until now.
Good on you Halton Hills and thank you so much for all of your support.
And now…to bed!