At one time, people accused me of picking on Halifax’s Metro Transit and their bus drivers too much….they don’t announce bus stops despite the undeniable swath of pan-Canadian litigation and Human Rights rulings which has forced other cities to do so…they have inaccessible route and schedule information, AND they have yanked the “free pass” which allows the blind to travel free, a minor concession for inadequate Accommodation.
It seems that I don’t have to complain about Metro Transit drivers anymore. Why? They are behaving like a big bunch of goofs with EVERYONE these days; Recently, one driver rammed a courier’s vehicle on Barrington street and held up a busload of passengers for 20 minutes while he ranted. Then, last week, a driver refused to allow a veiled Muslim woman on his bus…a definite no-no (a bystander complained, not the woman), this on top of recent accusations of racial profiling and finally, this weekend, one particularly goofy driver got out of his bus in front of the spring Garden Road Library to whack a mock bloody seal with a stick; the toy seal was being used by anti-seal hunt demonstrators. I guess he was just trying to express his opinion? The driver was picked up by the cops and eventually returned to his bus. It seems he’s been invited to join Metro Transit big cheeses in a discussion today (Oh, to be a fly on the wall!). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; give these drivers a refresher course…no, not ‘sensitivity training’…they need a course on how to locate their brains…the one’s stashed away in their back pockets…the pockets attached to the lard asses they sit on as they drive their buses (a job for which they are over paid, if you ask me), confident with the knowledge that the money they shell out in monthly union dues will cover the cost of lawsuits and other damage control expenditures for these ‘special’ (and increasingly often) times when they behave like the big bunch of goofs they really are.
Sometimes, it pays to persevere. For years, I and other individuals have requested, pleaded with, and even demanded that the Halifax Shopping Center branch of RBC (formerly known as Royal Bank of Canada) install an audible banking machine. This branch has gone through several managers over the years, and all were less than responsive to the suggestion that accessibility in banking would be “a good thing” (to borrow a line from Martha Stewart). The branch went through a major retrofit last year, (INCLUDING INSTALLATION OF A NEW BANKING MACHINE), and despite reminders to the deadheads in charge of the dough (AKA the last manager) to order and include an audible machine, the branch ended up putting in a new, regular INACCESSIBLE machine. People who can’t see the keypad and display, cannot use it for quick, everyday banking, like other bank patrons. Instead, our options included going to the stand-up tellers while trying to juggle papers, guide dogs and privacy, or the grim death march-like wait with the ‘seniors’ at the sit-down service. The latter is the default choice of most blind people who bank alone. Many a time, I have sat…and sat, and waited for my turn to come. It irritated me beyond belief to wait endlessly for the privilege of depositing money into the coffers of an already obscenely profitable bank. Tic-toc! My time is valuable too! And to boot, any blind person in need of cash or depositing funds to cover bills etc after banking hours? was screwed! So one day, as I sat vacantly at the ‘sit down’ service, eavesdropping on some old geek’s long winded financial and personal history (in excruciating minutia) , the new branch manager came over to introduce herself. A big sigh went off in my head, but a cordial greeting coming out my mouth…and within two minutes, I redirected the conversation. I asked her if we might open the dialogue about accessibility problems with this RBC branch one more time. Result? Darlene, the new manager, just telephoned to announce (a mere three weeks or so after I sent her a detailed e-mail about accessibility, Accommodation, rights and obligations blah, blah, blah), that the RBC Halifax Shopping Center branch will, by April, install AT LEAST THREE AUDIBLE BANKING MACHINES AT THE BRANCH ITSELF AND WITHIN THE MALL!
Now, I can look forward to cruising over to the mall at any time, and being able to go the bank machine (the audible ones) , slip on my headphones, plug in, and listen to ‘bank guy’s’ voice croon his instructions to me, thereby allowing me to conduct transactions quickly….such as depositing my money…. into the coffers of an obscenely profitable bank. Nice going, though, RBC.
It doesn’t take much to excite me. My compadre , Troy (a blind guy) made the mother of all discoveries this week, after much finagling and phoning to the Yellow Pages folks in search of a free, searchable, information phone service for the Yellow Pages. He found a wonderful, little known tool and shared it with me. Now, we are sharing it with EVERYONE. This is free!!! What makes it particularly exciting, is that, now I can ‘browse’ the Yellow Pages, just like the sighted folk. It’s accessed through a toll free number here in Nova Scotia. You call the number, (you can opt for a short tutorial), and say, for example, “Halifax, Nova Scotia”. Then say, “pizza”, if you are hankering for a pie. The ‘automated attendant’ or voice menu will ask you if you want, “Pizza Restaurant, delivery, or any pizzeria”. I chose “delivery”. Then, the clever interactive voice offered me 10 choices. I didn’t really want a pizza, but hey, if I had… Then, I tried “photographers”, “shoes”, “plumbers”, “banks” and more. When searching for shoe store options, I was asked if I wanted to “search by neighbourhood, near a landmark, near an intersection or city wide “….and so on. I listened to a list, and could choose to “connect, get the address, or get the number”.
This is a minor miracle for me and other blind people who spend many an hour fritzzing around with the regular 411 service in search of numbers for stores or businesses. The only business or store umbers we can get from 411, are ones WHICH WE KNOW THE NAME AND LOCATION OF!!! So, for Nova Scotians, the toll free number is: 1-877-310-9356. Blind people! Program it onto your speed dial!! Let your fingers do the walking. For most of the rest of Canada, the number is even simpler: 310-0411. This works for land lines or mobile phones. The web site, is there too, of course for the computer geeks (www.yellowpages.ca). My only caution is, to speak clearly, ’cause sometimes the ‘automated attendant’ says, “I don’t understand you”…story of my life.
January 4th 2009 will mark the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth. Louis is the guy who poked himself in the eye with an awl at age three, then lost sight in the other eye, just to make things symmetrical (actually it was caused by sympathetic ophalmia). He went to the Royal Institution for the Blind Youth in Paris which turned out to be a major hell-hole kinda place with the usual bad food, tyranny and general beatings and abuse that gives residential schools a bad name. The kid had smarts, no doubt about it. He fiddled with the cello and played organ all over gay Paris. In school, he got bummed out about the raised letters they taught him to use for reading, so he improvised a bit with Barbier’s (French soldier dude) 12 dot and dash code used for passing tippy-top military secrets in the field. Louis came up with a 6- raised dot cell system to represent letters of the alphabet. Voila! Braille was born and would later become the revolutionary method of communication for the blind. Louis later dreamed up Braille music notation (being a music buff and all) and years later, a guy named, Nemeth would create a code for mathematics . The really sad thing about this great achievement, is that Louis died of Tuberculosis at age 43 BEFORE BRAILLE CAUGHT ON!
Look for Braille 200 events in your community. Regardless of whether you have vision or you are blind, if you use Braille or not, support Braille 200 Day activities! Buy that lame demo bookmark! Pretend you understand the explanations given by the volunteer at the mall display of Uncontracted (grade 1) and Contracted (grade 2) Braille and how they differ. Ooo and ahh when you are asked to ‘read’ sample Braille sentences and say, “This is so hard to do” in genuine amazement. Make like it matters! ‘Cause it does. It is critical to promote and maintain the teaching of Braille to blind children and adults all over the world. Why? It’s a neat method of communication. Example; You can write obscene Braille messages all over your boss’s memo’s and he’ll never know what you said…PLUS you can read in bed without waking your sweetie (no audio, and no lights)…AND maybe someday, it’ll come in handy when there’s a global power shortage and all the talking book machines and computers will grind to a halt…like now!
This just in from Halifax:
Wise Advice chief, HRM (AKA Lablady) and her staff canine, Opal, were rescued on Mumford Road by Bionic Lady late yesterday afternoon. Ms. ‘S’, better know as Bionic Lady because of her nifty titanium prosthetic leg, noticed Wise Advice and her trusty pooch trying to navigate home from the Mumford bus terminal. Realizing that there was no way that the self-proclaimed queen of advice-giving would be able to navigate the narrow, windy, and perilously slippery snow tract which pedestrians had created to replace the sidewalk, Bionic Lady cleverly guided the guide dog and Wise Advice (who tucked in behind the dog) through the rough terrain to safety. Their victorious survival story was recorded by CBC TV crews who happened by on their way to film other snowstorm cleanup and disaster stories all over Halifax. It seems that Saturday’s storm hit HRM by surprise. The official line from the city is that they had not contracted the snow-clearance teams to work before November 30th and “were caught by surprise” (this despite the statistics which show that Halifax has recorded snow in November almost every year in its history). Bionic Lady said to CBC reporter, Mindy Ming, “It’s a bitch out there, ya know? They haven’t even cleared out the bus stops at major intersections yet. The curbs downtown are like, gone”. Wise Advice said she had serendipitously been traveling on the same bus as her neighbour, Bionic Lady. “Yeah, I was standing next to the driver all the way to Mumford terminal with Opal ’cause there was no way those young kids were going to give up their seats for me or anyone else. It gave me a chance to have a nice chat with the driver, though. The driver told me (when he wasn’t stopping to dig snow from his bus’s doors at bus stops, so they could close properly), that 48 hours after the snow storm, not one street in HRM is plowed properly and even bus stops at busy, main intersections are inaccessible, and that there is no way the ALF buses could deploy their ramps for the wheelchair users anywhere”.
“Guess they’re (wheelchair users) screwed for getting to work this winter” the driver announced grimly as he drove his bus around a string of cars stuck in a mid-road snowbank. “I feel like Superman and MacGyver all rolled into one” he announced with pride. “Yeah, I had to pull two people out from UNDER my bus who had slipped off the snowbanks as they tried to get on board at a couple of un-cleared stops. AND I made a nifty shovel out of my lunch pail so that I can dig the doors out when they get stuck!” he added excitedly. Wise Advice told Mindy Ming that she should take the film crew over to city hall and film the undoubtedly well-cleared parking lot there, and interview the mayor and council as they emerge from ‘work’. “Maybe shove a camera in their face and ask them if any of them have time to do double duty as chauffeurs to the thousands of elderly and persons with disabilities in Halifax who are at risk of not accessing medical appointments, employment and necessary travel because of the dumb asses’ decision that it’s OK to gamble and allow un-contracted snow crews to get caught with their ski-doo pants down. Environment Canada is forecasting rain in the HRM area for the next couple of days. Prediction? Ice slicks where sidewalk snow paths exist, and ice mounds at curbs. This equals lawsuits and liability. It would have been cheaper just to clean up the snow in the first place, rather than pay for all those broken bones and physiotherapy.” She left for home with Bionic Lady to have a cup of tea.
The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected an application by Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, and Westjet for permission to appeal the new policy imposed by the Canadian Transportation Agency in January of this year. The CTA had issued an order to the airlines to adopt a policy of ‘one person, one fare’. In the past, passengers with disabilities and those that are deemed disabled because of obesity, could sometimes be charged two fares if they required extra space to accommodate their wheelchair, stretcher, or if they required two seats because of their size or if someone required an attendant. The airlines argued that the CTA order would cause “undue hardship” (implementing this directive would be too costly…the CTA did not buy it and suggested that costs would be recouped by charging an additional 79 cents per ticket). The airlines will no longer be allowed to charge a second fare to accommodate anyone who requires two seats because of a disability or obesity. This only applies to flights within Canada.
Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians president, Robin East, won a victory complimentary to the “one seat, one fare” decision in a CTA ruling against Air Canada and Air Canada Jazz in June of 2008. I know this man. He stands over 6 feet 2 inches tall. He travels a great deal…with his guide dog. He explained to me that sometimes, the airlines (Specifically Air Canada and Air Canada Jazz) would not provide him with adequate space for his guide dog when he traveled. (Airlines would provide an extra seat (or bulkhead seating on Westjet) as a courtesy, only when the flight was not sold out. (I have flown at least once on all three airlines with Opal. Twice I got the extra seat, once I did not. The time I did not? Not too comfy for us…and I’m 5’2″) Often, Robin would end up scrunched into a center section seat with his dog wedged between his legs, sometimes for hours. This is a horrendous hardship on the dog, the handler and the adjacent passengers don’t care for it much either). As a result of the ruling, these airlines must now provide sufficient floor space for registered service dogs who fly with their handlers (within Canada) on all aircraft that have over 30 seats.
I am fascinated with how things get done here in Halifax through Council. I am equally interested in what does NOT get done. Our transit system for example, just scored 1.2 million dollars from HRM City council. How so and what for, you ask? The money is for a ‘security camera system’ on transit buses and ferries. It arose after a number of drivers were ‘attacked’ while on the job and the subsequent outcry from their union, as well as the press around it. I think the media attention on this whole thing is what really propelled HRM Council to move the money through to Metro Transit like greased lightning. After all, the city does not want to appear negligent or uncaring about the safety of bus drivers. The teary radio interviews (I bet TV stuff was even more melodramatic) with the female compadres of the driver who was attacked, really cinched it. I don’t have any objection to driver- safety initiatives or union representation. The problem is, the idea of cameras on buses for protection, is silly. My informal survey of female drivers has found that they don’t think security cameras on buses will be effective in keeping them safe from the truly crazy, drunk and doped-up nuts who are the most likely to go spontaneously berserk and attack them. These types of live-wire attackers will not pause and reflect on the presence of a camera over their heads before they punch out a driver for not accepting their transfer or refusing to ‘make out’ with them. It could be that grainy images of an attack, after the fact, will be moderately helpful in getting a conviction in court or compensation from the maimed driver’s employer (HRM).
My complaint is that our transit system gets funded, under funded, or not funded at all, in a way that is a knee-jerk reaction to situations, trends or public pressure. Spending seems to be totally unprioritized. We STILL, after one year of testing, do not have a functioning ‘real time go-time’ service. I can’t recall the price tag on that, project, but whatever it was, it was huge. It should be given priority to get it WORKING at all costs, over some of other recent add-on expenditures, like security cameras. For example the city also purchased some hybrid diesel Transit buses last year because of the push from the HRM’s official environmental geeks (I am a non-official geek supporter). They moved so quickly to tender the purchase of the buses, that they scored vehicles which apparently have proven to be defective. I hear they are going back to the seller. We have no critically-needed voice enunciator system in Halifax, and apparently no plan to find money for it any time soon. The list goes on.