Dear Mayor Gregor Robertson and Members of Translink Board and Council:
Something happened to me today in a Yellow Cab that should never happen to anyone and you must take immediate steps to ensure it never happens again.
I am still very shaken by this incident so I will do my best to relay this information as clearly, succinctly and accurately as possible but ask your understanding if emotion creeps in.
I want you to understand while this situation – which very nearly became a matter for the Vancouver Police Department – may be rather extreme; I do not believe incidents like this are nearly as isolated as they should be.
I am a Vancouver resident with an autoimmune disorder that has weakened my muscles to the point that I can no longer stand or walk and thus use a manual wheelchair.
As a result I am a sometimes user of Handydart.
I say sometimes because whenever possible I use regular public transport.
I am glad to live in a city that has accessible transit.
Unfortunately, of late, due to some complications from my illness, I suffer from rather significant motion sickness, a condition that seems particularly exacerbated by riding backwards, as is required on buses.
Today I needed transportation to attend a committee meeting at St. Paul’s Hospital. I recently joined the committee because that hospital, and in particular one doctor, saved my life in all the ways that phrase can mean. Volunteering is my paltry attempt at repayment and is no doubt far more meaningful to me than the hospital.
This was to be my first meeting.
Near the end of the pick-up window (as you may be aware HandyDART rides are scheduled to come within a 30 minute time frame), I called dispatch to check the status and was informed that it would be a taxi instead of a HandyDART bus.
You would think this would be good news – direct to your destination instead of a sometimes long, meandering series of pick-ups and drop-offs – but, in my experience using taxis both through HandyDART and on my own, it often isn’t.
The dispatcher informed me the taxi company was having trouble finding a wheelchair van but one should be there around ten minutes after the end of my pick-up window. This was not a problem, as I would still arrive in time for the meeting.
The taxi actually arrived earlier. I was relieved.
Once in the van, the driver, as has happened on multiple occasions with multiple taxi drivers, suggested that he did not need to secure my wheelchair.
He asked me where I was going and then announced that since it was relatively short trip, one strap instead of four, would suffice.
Once, in the past, tired and feeling ill, I gave into a driver who only wanted to put one strap on my wheelchair – actually he didn’t want to put on any but I managed to work him up to one. When we turned the first corner the wheelchair tipped – it was a power chair – the only thing that prevented me from failing completely was that my head wedged into the side of the van. I had a sore neck for about a week after that.
Since then I have insisted drivers secure the chair as they are trained and, I believe, regulation requires them to.
Thus I told this driver that I needed him to use all the straps – ‘please’- and to secure the wheelchair properly.
He was not happy. He handed me a seatbelt strap from the backseat and suggested I hang onto that instead – as if I were riding a bull in a rodeo.
I said I did not find that to be an appropriate substitute.
He then put the front straps onto the wheelchair but hooked them to the spokes of my wheels instead of to the frame of the chair. I asked him to move them to the frame of the chair. He refused to listen. He insisted they would be fine there. At that point I looked behind me and noticed that the back straps – the ones I actually believed were already secured to the frame of my wheelchair – were not attached to at all and were simply lying on the floor.
Now I want to be very clear about this – I have negotiated with many drivers reluctant to do their job properly so this is not a novel event. I have also walked several through the process of properly securing a wheelchair and not permanently damaging my wheels. What made this situation different was this driver’s refusal to listen to me or in any way respect my wishes.
At this point I said, ‘You know what, I don’t think this is going to work out. I will call for a different ride. Please let me out.’
And this is when things escalated out of control. He ignored my direct and explicit request to be let out of the taxi – over and over again.
In turn I transitioned from being exasperated and annoyed to being angry and fearful.
I was now literally trapped. I was a disabled woman trapped in a vehicle at the mercy of a man who had demonstrated complete disrespect and disregard for my safety and my wishes.
It was only after I pulled out my cell phone and told him that I was going to call the police if he did not let me out of the taxi that he finally relented.
I would estimate that I first asked – then demanded – to be let out of the taxi at least 10 times before that.
By that point I was in full fight or flight mode. I did not swear or become abusive but the volume of my voice did escalate. My sole focus became getting out of that van as quickly and as safely as possible.
I think this experience would be unsettling to anyone but I don’t know for sure because I am not anyone.
I am a woman with a disability. I am also a woman who has experienced violence.
It has been more than 5 hours since this happened and I am left dealing with all the feelings it resurrected.
By the time he finally let me out of the taxi I was shaking.
A few minutes later a taxi driver from a different company (Black Top) happened to pull up and overheard me talking on the telephone to HandyDART about what had just happened. He offered to drive me without charge to my meeting.
I am sure I did not present, as I would have liked to, at my first meeting with the committee.
At the end of the meeting I found myself unwilling to risk getting into another vehicle with a stranger. I did not want any more arguments about whether my safety was worth the 30 seconds of effort it takes to secure my chair. And I did not want to feel that awful sense of utter helplessness I felt trapped in the back of that van.
So I cancelled the ride and wheeled home.
I have a ride booked for tomorrow. I am still not sure if I will cancel that ride. I cannot wheel there and for the moment at least, the bus is not an option for me. So that means I will have no transportation options and thus will have to remain at home.
I don’t think the current options are acceptable and thus I turn to you.
I try very hard not to complain without offering solutions so here are some preliminary thoughts on what needs to happen – NOW – not sometime in the future. I am willing to help make them happen:
- I would like to volunteer to help develop new training models and standards for taxi drivers. Whatever training they are getting, it isn’t working. It may be the content or it may be the delivery, but clearly there is a problem. And it is a problem that may cost you in lawsuits if it is not addressed.
- Taxis are not a substitute for Handydart and should not be used as such. Users of Handydart deserve to know they will deal with properly trained drivers and I do not believe the training and screening for a taxi driver to be in any way comparable to that of a Handydart driver, nor will it ever truly be. If I call Handydart for a ride I want and need a Handydart driver. Taxi drivers need better training but they will never be substitutes.
- There needs to be a very clear, well-advertised public process for reporting and dealing with complaints around taxi drivers. This data needs to be fully documented and bi-monthly reports including all recorded incidents must be reviewed by council and made available to media and members of the public (with private identifying information redacted of course). Dealing with these situations as isolated events and within the companies themselves, almost certainly guarantees they will be repeated.
Doing nothing is not an option.
Here is a small sample of some of my experiences:
- Taxi driver dropped me off at VGH, the Centennial Building entrance. I am adjusting myself and without warning – he was very impatient and I assume wanted me out of the way faster – began pushing my wheelchair up the sidewalk cut. This cut has a small lip and if I do not properly adjust my weight, the chair will – and did – tip. I did a full faceplant onto the sidewalk. I was pretty badly bruised on my hands and legs for a few weeks after. I called Vancouver Taxi and spoke to the manager but no action was taken that I am aware of.
- Pushing me without asking first is an ongoing problem. While I am a full human outside of the chair, when I am in it, the chair becomes something of an extension of me. You would not go up and push someone who was standing without speaking to them – nor would you grab their bag out of their hand without asking, even if your intent is to be helpful. I have had several near faceplants since.
- Recently I attended a conference at the Vancouver Club. I asked to be dropped off at the back. The driver stopped on the opposite side of the road in the middle of the block and told me to get out there and make my way across lanes of rush hour traffic. This is particularly dangerous in a wheelchair. When I asked him to go around the block he slammed the door and used various obscenities – including the one that starts with F.
- When the meter is put on is different with different drivers and as a result one day I called the manager of Vancouver Taxi to check on the policy. I was told the meter is supposed to be put on once I am in the taxi. On one occasion the taxi drove up, the driver spent some time in his van talking on the phone then rearranging papers. He then got out, opened the back of the van and began moving things from the back of the van to the back seat. By the time I got in the van the meter was already over $5.00 so I mentioned this to him. He became very belligerent and turned the meter off entirely and told me to just pay him $8.00 – and said the former mayor of Vancouver never minded when they started the meter early and that it was ‘the law.’
Here’s what I have not objected to ever –
- The loud conversations most drivers have on their cell phones while driving and the fact that they react like I am intruding on their private time when I have to give them directions.
- Their choice of music – whatever it is, I don’t mind. Often I enjoy it – but it would be nice to be asked once in a while.
- The fact that none of them seem to know their way around UBC campus or a host of other places.
- The tremendous resentment some drivers harbour to ‘having’ to deal with people with disabilities.
I would really like to have taxi drivers who don’t act like they doing me a favour picking me up, but that may never happen.
I am sure I am not a perfect customer but I think I am a decent one. I almost always give a tip – if I don’t it is a statement and I can count the number of times I made that statement on one hand. (One being the faceplant.) I cut them some slack – it’s a tough job with few rewards and we all know Vancouver is not the friendliest place so I can imagine they spend a lot of time being treated unfairly. I can empathize with that and I try not to do it. And, a good number of taxi drivers are very professional and courteous. The other night I had one play some of his favourite songs for me. It was nice.
Today I felt backed into a corner. I felt frightened.
I don’t want this to happen to me or anyone else again.
Let’s make sure it doesn’t.