Jill Weiss, chair of the city's Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, told me this week she's been hearing from many women in their late 80s and 90s devastated that TransLink's TaxiSaver program is being phased out.
"That means their only measure of independent transportation will now be taken away," says Weiss. "Many cannot use HandyDART because their health needs vary so much that they can't pre-book HandyDART rides."
There's also the important issue of allowing seniors and persons with disabilities to maintain some dignity. Weiss notes some TaxiSaver users have bladder issues and can't use HandyDART due to the length of the rides. That's an issue that didn't even occur to me when TransLink announced in May it's cancelling the program.
For more than 20 years, residents of Metro Vancouver who qualify for HandyDART could purchases $100 worth of TaxiSaver fares for $50 each month. But now TransLink says there's no need for the program and money can be saved by eliminating it.
TransLink argues the cost savings in the first year alone, $1.1 million, will fill an additional 19,900 HandyDART requests, based on the amount of TaxiSaver usage in 2011. According to TransLink, there were 18,100 cases in which a trip request could not be filled in 2011 because a vehicle was not available.
That list would include my partner, who had major knee surgery last year and tried to book HandyDART for his physiotherapy sessions on days I couldn't drive him. He was out of luck for his first two visits because, not knowing the ropes, he booked too late. And there was certainly no wiggle room to allow for a schedule change. Depending on the trip, HandyDART must be booked up to five days in advance.
But according to Heather McCain, chair of TransLink's Access Transit User's Advisory Committee, it will now be easier to book spontaneous trips rather than scheduling well in advance.
In a news release following the announcement in May, McCain said TransLink's conventional transit system is better equipped to allow people with mobility devices like scooters and wheelchairs to board compared to when the TaxiSaver program was introduced. Today, HandyDART also offers service until midnight, allowing for evening travel.
But Weiss says statistics from the 2010 Canadian Urban Transport Association reports trips from vans and buses dedicated to people with disabilities cost $32 for an average one-way trip, whereas taxi trips cost $16. TaxiSaver us-ers pay half the cost of each taxi trip, so the cost to TransLink is $8, which Weiss says is a lot less expensive than using HandyDART.
She notes an 87-year-old woman recently called her to say TaxiSavers is her only transportation as she's had increasing trips to the doctor.
Weiss says the woman asked her, "After all this time and how hard I have worked all my life, what will I do now to get to the doctor? How can I live my life without some transportation?"
With TaxiSaver coupons being phased out beginning in August, I'm sure it won't take long for that senior to discover if the new and improved HandyDART system lives up to its promises.
But Weiss is skeptical. "The impact of disability on my life and my ability to be independent and still have a life has been so hard, the thought of some of my hard fought independence being taken away is heartbreaking," she says.
There are three community forums scheduled in the next month to provide information about the change, beginning with June 19 from 1 to 3: 30 p.m. at city hall, 453 West 12th Ave.; July 3 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the West End Community Centre, 870 Denman St.; and July 12 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at city hall. The forums are co-sponsored by the City of Vancouver's Seniors Advisory Committee and Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee.
TransLink will be on hand to hear concerns, so now is the time to speak up. City hall is wheelchair accessible and sign language interpreters will be available.
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