Via Rail Pushes Back on CTA Ruling on Tie-Down Spots in Passenger Trains

So I was puttering around  on Twitter on Sunday, trying to get an account that I’ve let go shamefully neglected up and functional again…and a long-time colleague (from the US) tweeted a Canadian story about inaccessibility that just made my blood boil. So I abandoned Twitter to rant a bit about Canada’s national passenger train carrier, Via Rail.

With many thanks to Deb. 🙂

Content Note: Accessibility issues, ableism, transportation

Via Rail train, locomotive the most visible (blue, yellow and gray with VIA in yellow block letters across the front) sits in the train yard.

Image Description: Via Rail train, locomotive the most visible (blue, yellow and gray with VIA in yellow letters across the front) sits in the train yard.

I’ve traveled with Via Rail many times, both as a non-disabled passenger and a passenger using a wheelchair, and found them lovely to deal with. However, when I was using a wheelchair, it was a manual chair that could fold up, I could easily transfer in and out of it, and I could walk for short distances using my cane. I was not in anywhere near the same position that married couple Marie Murphy and Martin Anderson are in: They both use electric scooters because of mobility difficulties caused by cerebral palsy. And the fact that VIA trains have only one tie-down space for an electric wheelchair or scooter per train really impacted the amount of traveling they could do together, unless they were willing to have one person’s scooter’s dismantled and treated as luggage. Given that scooters are very expensive (and that airlines that dismantle wheelchairs and scooters  have a bad reputation for damaging them), I understand why handing one’s pricey mobility device over to strangers to be taken apart doesn’t sound like the most attractive of options.  Both Murphy and Anderson have had their scooters damaged because of being put in storage on Via Rail trains.

And the Canadian Transportation Agency agreed with Murphy and Anderson when they formally complained that VIA’s policy of providing only one tie-down spot per train was discriminatory.  The CTA ruled that “all trains coast to coast must double their capacity to accommodate mobility aids and create two tie-down spots.”

Via Rail countered with a policy change:

  • They’d make it possible for two mobility aids to use the one tie-down area, provided that both passengers could safely transfer in and out of a standard seat for the trip.
  • A customer needing the tie-down area who couldn’t transfer to a standard seat could “bump” another mobility aid user from that area, even if they’d previously reserved it.

However, on further questioning, the CTA discovered that Via Rail’s policy change came with some caveats:

  • Via Rail only intended to implement this policy on trains on trains on the Quebec-Windsor corridor (the corridor along which Murphy and Anderson
  • It would be implemented only on three specific models of train.

Not good enough. On Nov 1, the CTA “ordered the company to either add tie-downs for all trains across the country or present clear arguments as to why doing so would create undue hardship.”

At this time, Via is “analyzing” the situation.

Meet Me at Camera Three, Via Rail

I’ll make this really simple for you.

Marie Murphy and Marin Anderson want to be able to use your trains together with reasonable assurance that their mobility aids – which they rely on to get around; these are not a luxury item –  will come out undamaged at the end of the train ride. They want to do so because they’re married and enjoy traveling together; right now they’re taking separate trains to the same destination when they travel.

They decided to do something about this. They went through the proper channels, like we’re all told to. They made a complaint, they waited for a decision – they followed all the rules. And the CTA agreed that they were right, and put some rules in place for you. But you didn’t like the new rules, so you decided you just wouldn’t follow them, and made a “policy change” that you hoped made it look like you were doing something, but was only designed (badly, I might add) to make the complainants shut up. So the CTA had tell you, “Hey, you’re not following the rules we laid out, and unless you can come up with a pretty convincing reason why you shouldn’t have to, you’re gonna have to start.”

You know what all this makes you look like, Via Rail? A mopey toddler on the brink of throwing a tantrum because the grown-ups at the CTA aren’t letting you have your way.

I really thought you were smarter than that.

I thought you were more committed to Canadians – all Canadians, not just the non-disabled ones.

I’ve always liked you, Via, Rail, but this stinks. Grow up.

 

SunRise B&B Refuses Service to Visually Impaired Man Because of his Service Dog

My dad let me know about a story I missed last week, about a Toronto couple being turned away from a bed and breakfast in Prince Edward County, Ontario because of the service dog traveling with them. The owners of the Sunrise B&B in Bloomfield, Ontario are, according to CBC.ca, “upset about what happened,” but stand by their decision to insist that Jill Greenwood, her husband David (who is visually impaired), and his guide dog Romy, find alternate accommodation.

I have thoughts.

Content Note: Ableism, human rights violation, expectation of accommodation

Golden labrador guide dog lies on the grass, alert with head up. Dog's black harness is visible. Just off to the side, we see the ower's legs in blue jeans, and their white cane. Keyword: SunRise B&B

Image Description: Golden labrador guide dog lies on the grass, alert with head up. Dog’s black harness is visible. Just off to the side, we see the ower’s legs in blue jeans, and their white cane.

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Legally Speaking

John and Joan Stenning, the proprietors of the Sunrise B&B, say that the Greenwoods didn’t tell them them that they’d be coming with a service dog. They say that had they been told, they would have informed the Greenwoods that their “no pets” policy includes service animals.

That set off alarm bells in my head (as I’m sure it does for many readers) because most businesses know better than to try and bar a service animal.  However, in Ontario, a number of factors have collided to make the bed and breakfast industry a strange little pocket of the hospitality industry where lawyers can apparently argue that the Stennings didn’t break the law by denying service on the basis of a service animal:

However, the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario did confirm that denying service to some because of their service animal violates the Ontario Bill of Rights, so I can’t see how how the Stennings or their lawyer can argue that they’re in the right.

Let’s unpack this a little more.

Public vs Private Space

I don’t know what the law has to say the status of your house as private space once you decide to rent rooms in it. But it seems to me that once you decide to open a business that lets the public into your life like that, you give up some of the right that you have to pull the “private space” card. I presume that no one held the Stennings at  gunpoint and demanded that they open a B&B. Anyone going into that business has to know that while they definitely have the right to set boundaries (within reason) about what guests can do, they also can no longer do exactly as they want in their home, all the time.

They may have to change behaviour to reflect that other people are in the house (keeping music and TV volume low, shorter showers, ensuring public gathering areas are always tidy.)

They may have to meet safety standards that they didn’t before.

Human rights standards need to be met. The Greenwoods aren’t interested in taking this to court, but maybe the next people with service dogs will be. The Stennings were just a step from violating the law under the AODA, and, if I understand the pending legislation correctly, would be in the wrong were it currently law:

(2)  No person, directly or indirectly, alone or with another, by himself, herself or itself or by the interposition of another, shall,

  (a)  deny to any person occupancy of any self-contained dwelling unit; or

  (b)  discriminate against any person with respect to any term or condition of occupancy of any self-contained dwelling unit,

for the reason that he or she is a person with a disability who is keeping or is customarily accompanied by a service dog, or who requires the accompaniment of a support person or the use of an assistive device to assist them with their service dog.

(Lawyers can feel free to tell me how I’m wrong, because the Stennings’ lawyer thinks I am…and Lord knows I’m no lawyer…)

And let’s not forget, they apparently violated the Ontario Human Rights Code.

If you don’t want to keep your home space private and not have business law affect it, don’t choose to run a business in your home.

And even if they weren’t in the wrong, or their behaviour had little chance in the near future of putting them in the wrong if repeated…what has refusing the Greenwoods service at the SunRise B&B got them? A bunch of negative publicity all over the internet – at least four different news articles, not including my blog post, plus the bad reviews on Facebook and the B&B listing sites.

I wonder if it was worth it.

Best for the Stennings and all other B&B owners who’d prefer to discriminate against those that use service animals to start thinking about how they’re going to deal with this issue, because mark my words…it won’t quietly go away.

Business Needs to be Business at the SunRise B&B

And if the Stennings and other B&B proprietors don’t like that idea…well, it’s really too bad.

People who rely on service animals aren’t doing so to be difficult. They have the animals because they’re disabled and the service animal helps them to function in society. Guide dogs in particular (like Romy) are expensive, highly trained, and they have papers to show they’ve been trained.

Denying someone service because of their guide dog is as bad as denying service (in an accessible building) to someone who uses a wheelchair, over concerns about the dirt that the chair will track in or that other guests will be disturbed by the sound of the elevator or find the electronic doors to be too slow to open and close, etc.

I admit that I don’t know what it takes to clean up a B&B thoroughly after a service animal has stayed there for a night or two.  But obviously other B&Bs manage it , because there are plenty of them in the US, and its Americans with Disabilities Act *does* require many B&Bs (there are exceptions, based on number of rooms to rent and whether the proprietor lives on premises) to accommodate people with service animals.    If a proprietor can’t manage whatever cleaning needs to be done, or can’t afford to hire help or someone to do it for them, then instead of painting disabled people and their service animals as a burden they shouldn’t be expected to shoulder, perhaps they shouldn’t be in the B&B business.

No other business owners in Ontario gets to pick and choose which pieces of accessibility legislation they feel like following – they have to accommodate disabled people. If added cost is involved, it’s a cost of doing business in Ontario.

Expectation of Accommodation

David Greenwood says he can’t remember whether he told the Stennings that he’d be traveling with Romy. Over and over again in the comments sections on media accounts of this story, I saw people saying that he should have made sure the the Stennings knew, in part because the “No Pet” policy for the SunRise B&B was posted on their website. To them I say:

And, as Kim Sauder said over at her blog, “Crippled Scholar”:

“It’s bad enough that systems aren’t in place to accommodate disabled people without advance warning (thus giving people an excuse to fall back on when a space isn’t accessible) but to suggest that we should have to announce our presence in situations we weren’t even expecting to require accommodations is absurd.”

Perhaps (and I realize I’m only speculating) that’s why David Greenwood can’t remember whether he mentioned he had a service animal when he made a reservation at the Sunrise B&B: it’s relatively difficult in 2017 to find a business that won’t accommodate a guide dog like Romy, that provides support because of a documented disability and has all the papers to prove it.

Perhaps he wasn’t thinking that much about it because he assumed that the Stennings, like most business owners in Ontario, know that you can’t deny service based on use of a service animal, and didn’t expect to have to identify himself in advance as disabled in order to receive accommodation.  After all, it’s also just a bad business decision to get embroiled in this sort of thing. When business owners try to bar people on the basis of needing a service animal – surprise! – it often makes the news.

As blatant ableism sometimes does.

Bottom Line

This was an unfortunate situation all around. Here are the takeaways as I see them:

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