Take a moment to imagine your teenage years: Imagine if every time you wanted to leave the house you needed your parents’ help to do so. If you wanted to go to a movie or hang out with friends at the mall, you needed your parents to drive you. If you ever wanted to march out of the house in a typical teenage hormone-infused, temperamental huff, you weren’t going anywhere without somebody’s help.
This is the life I led as a person with a disability.
My life changed when I graduated from high school and started my first semester of university.
As Translink only had a few routes with wheelchair accessible buses on them at that point, Simon Fraser University acknowledged the need for disabled students to be able to live on campus. I moved into SFU residences and it was my first delicious taste of true independence. Not only was I living on my own, but I could at last go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted—and it was truly addictive.
I went to pick up my groceries at Lougheed Mall. I went to movies at Metrotown with my new university friends. I rode the bus to downtown Vancouver to attend classes at the SFU Harbour Centre campus and, sometimes, just for the experience of heading into the city all on my own. Every so often I’d miss the accessible bus and I’d have to wait for the next one to come along, which in some cases could be a couple hours later. This didn’t deter me in the slightest. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free.
As of 2010, Greater Vancouver’s public transit system is entirely wheelchair accessible and my continued independence today is heavily tied to our transit system. Ever since my university days, I have lived within a stone’s throw of a transit hub. Every volunteer opportunity, internship, part-time contract and full-time job I’ve ever had I’ve commuted to via transit. Every social gathering, every doctor’s appointment, every time I need to go to the hardware store to buy that particular light bulb I can’t seem to find anywhere else, I get there by transit.
One of the reasons I love the neighbourhood I live in now is because it’s such a large transit hub; there are people in wheelchairs everywhere. We have become part of the visual landscape and almost unremarkable in our presence.
Access to public transit isn’t just about empowerment and independence for people with disabilities, it is also about how that access creates a shift in society.
In BC right now there is an outcry over the Government’s decision to increase disability benefits, but then effectively claw-back that increase for transit users by cancelling their annual bus pass program. A great deal has already been written about this decision with the media tossing around words like “mean-spirited” and “heartless”.
I would add that the decision is utterly backward.
It was somewhere in the early 1990s when I saw my first wheelchair accessible city bus. I was around fifteen at the time. I’d never seen the inside of a bus before. It was at a convention for people with disabilities in downtown Vancouver and there was all sorts of cutting-edge assistive technology on display. The BC Transit folk—they hadn’t changed their name to Translink yet—put me on the motorized lift that raised me up so that I could get inside the bus. There were seats in the front part of the bus that lifted up and a place where the wheelchair could be tied down by the driver.
They told me that in fifteen years the entire Greater Vancouver transit system would be wheelchair accessible. I shook my head in amazement. I could not comprehend such a thing.
What today’s government is really doing is punishing those who are striving for greater independence and opportunities by choosing to live in cities that have better public transit options. Given how far many people with disabilities have slipped below the poverty line and how rapidly cost of living is rising in places like Vancouver, the choice is now between food, rent and being able to get out into the world at all.
Once these changes take effect this fall, I suspect that there are going to be a lot more people choosing an increasingly shut-in existence in order to keep a roof over their head.
And society as a whole will suffer for it.