Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons

I’ve been a paratransit user for almost two years, and I don’t like to talk about it.
The reason I keep relatively quiet about my paratransit use is that I understand the stigma that comes with being a frequent rider of the short bus. Assumptions are made about my supposed lack of self-respect. Pity and scorn flow freely from disabled people, many of whom are former (and to their thinking, emancipated) paratransit riders. Horror stories are dredged up from decades past, often third or fourth-hand and seeming more dramatic with every telling. Potential employers cringe.
Whatever you might think of paratransit services, the reality is that they exist, many people depend upon them, and until we live in a utopia where public transit is perfectly accessible and adequate mobility training is available to everyone, it’s going to keep existing. I’d prefer to focus on the ways it needs to improve, rather than insisting it needs to be eliminated.
Here are some uncomfortable truths and tough life lessons I’ve learned since becoming a regular paratransit passenger. Sharing these will, I hope, make for interesting reading. Beyond that, I hope this post will be engaging for those who have had similar experiences, and instructive to those who want to educate themselves about paratransit and the people who use it.
Disclaimer: Paratransit services can vary widely from location to location. My personal experiences may not reflect those of all passengers.

Personal Space? What Personal Space?

Paratransit services are typically designed for a vast range of clients. Some clients, like me, require very little assistance, while other clients need help with basic tasks like climbing into the vehicle and fastening seatbelts. Like many one-size-fits-all solutions, paratransit drivers are given training that isn’t able to address every possible situation. Drivers are often trained to assume clients are completely incapable, because not all clients can communicate how much assistance they need.

This means drivers will lean across me to fasten my seatbelt. They will place their hands on me to steer me into a seat. Occasionally, they’ll try to guide me in unwieldy ways: by the hand, by the shoulder, even by the waist. Once I make it clear I don’t need or want this assistance, most drivers back down and apologize, though the odd driver will argue. Even so, I routinely find myself physically handled in ways most people would find invasive, despite repeated assertions that I don’t want to be touched without prior consent.

While I recognize that this pattern is mostly the fault of training that tries to do too much for too many, it’s indescribably wearing to flex your advocacy muscles day after day–muscles you’d normally reserve for the general public. More than once, a fellow client has violated my personal space in ways that are wildly inappropriate, only to have drivers shrug and assure me I’m in no real danger. I’m not in the habit of fearing fellow disabled people, but that’s not of much comfort when someone is stroking your arm and tugging repeatedly on your hair.

Even though paratransit is a service built specifically for disabled people, it doesn’t always feel like a very safe one.

Nine Rings of Scheduling Hell

Coordinating the schedules of thousands of people is no mean feat, and I admire the staff that somehow manages to make it all come together. Much as I respect the complexity of the job, I can’t help but notice that my time is treated as elastic and unlimited. I book in such a way that I’m far too early, just to avoid being far too late. Trip-booking is a logistical nightmare, because:

  • The pickup window isn’t always based on when you want to arrive at your destination. In my city, it is based on when you want to be picked up. So, you have to estimate your travel time within a half hour window, and hope that estimate is accurate.
  • The current policy for the service I use states that a client can be kept in the vehicle up to 90 minutes. Depending on scheduling, weather, and traffic, it can take over an hour for a commute that would normally take about 15 minutes. Good luck planning around that.
  • If a driver picks you up after the half hour window has ended, they are considered “late.” However, “late” is a pointless distinction because drivers arrive when they arrive. A driver missing the end of your window just means you’ll be waiting as long as it takes, regardless of how time-sensitive your personal schedule might be.

Many clients who use paratransit have jobs. That means we need a practical scheduling system that allows us to have a reasonable amount of control over when we’ll be picked up and dropped off. Employers don’t appreciate unpredictable employees, and who can blame them? In my city, my trip to work is considered no more important than a trip to the mall, or to church, or to Starbucks.

The worst bit is the apparent bafflement and annoyance booking agents and dispatchers express when I insist that my time does matter. Shocked as they are that I don’t only go to church and medical appointments, there isn’t much regard for my time–and that disregard extends to many disabled people I know. For a group that already struggles to find and maintain employment, a service that doesn’t prioritize a working person’s time is one more needless barrier in a line of others.

Change Ruins Everything

Besides my job, whose schedule is quite rigid, I tend to lead a rather spontaneous life. I’ve always been an agile gal who didn’t mind sudden changes–until, of course, paratransit became part of my life.

Since my trips usually have to be booked several days in advance, and must be cancelled with at least two hours’ notice, paratransit is not ideal for someone with a dynamic lifestyle that is subject to change without much warning. This isn’t so much a flaw in the system as it is an unavoidable consequence of trying to make one service work for thousands of busy people. It’s understandable that paratransit wouldn’t be able to accommodate sudden schedule changes, and I’ve made my peace with that, making other arrangements for those times when I’m left without a ride.

But there’s a darker side to this issue. You see, for a service that is tailored to the needs of disabled people, paratransit is surprisingly unresponsive to some of our most basic needs. I have migraines and chronic pain, neither of which are in the habit of giving me 24 hours’ notice before they strike. Since I can’t always travel when dealing with severe pain or nausea, I find myself cancelling trips at the last minute more often than I’d like. Agents sometimes grumble, but once I explain, they don’t penalize me.

At one time, though, this was not the case in my city. A friend and inveterate paratransit user remembers a time when cancelling at the last minute was always penalized, regardless of the reason. Missing too many trips could result in suspension, which is a scary thought for people who rely on paratransit to take them to important appointments. It took considerable advocacy from the disability community to make the city realize that an inflexible service for people with disabilities made no sense whatsoever. Our lives are complicated, and we can’t always bully our bodies into cooperating with us. A service that doesn’t bake this reality into its policies serves no one.

Welcome to the Margins

I’ve always identified as a marginalized person, simply because having multiple disabilities seemed to place me well within that category. Not until I took paratransit did I get a glimpse of what being marginalized could look like. Every day, I meet clients who are so far on the fringes that it feels as though we occupy two different worlds. Some can’t communicate verbally, and struggle to make themselves understood when a driver goes the wrong way, or drives right past their house. Others love to chat, but are ignored or grudgingly tolerated by drivers and clients alike, whose patience and compassion have either eroded over time, or were never present at all. Still others are struggling with sudden injuries and medical crises that have permanently altered their lives. I’ve listened as clients howled with pain, trying to maneuver themselves into high vans and buses. I’ve heard seniors apologize profusely as the driver buckles their seatbelts, humiliation colouring their voices. I’ve sat quietly by, helpless, as a client tried in vain to engage their escort in conversation, each overture rejected. I’ve cringed in my seat as a nonverbal client screamed in pain, or distress, or some other violent emotion I couldn’t decipher, while the driver focused on the traffic ahead.

No doubt these clients live happy, fulfilling lives, and I’ve chatted with enough of them to know they are just as interesting, warm, and spirited as the rest of us.

But, in the confines of those vehicles, it can be hard to forget about the margins that hold them in place. It can be hard to get over the fact that I’ve ignored people like this myself, when having a bad day or feeling irritated by something else. It’s impossible to pretend I haven’t played a part in the marginalization of at least one of these people, out of fear or ignorance or a desire to be left alone. It’s hard, in other words, to praise the progress we’ve made when confronted so frequently with how far we still have to go.


There are many things I appreciate about paratransit. Door-to-door service means I feel safe, even in dangerous neighbourhoods. I can avoid pitted sidewalks and inaccessible areas. If I don’t know the route to my job interview or my doctor’s office, I can still get there. My abysmal outdoor mobility skills don’t completely constrain my life.

By and large, paratransit services appear to be run by compassionate people who really do care about managing it well. They want you to get the times you asked for. They care if they pick you up outside your window. They show empathy when you’re in pain, and they’re happy to help where they can.

Still, we mustn’t get complacent. Paratransit has many deeply-rooted problems, and since it fills service gaps for so many people, we need to fix what we have rather than tearing it all down in a fit of cynicism, or dismissing those who still use it.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this post, I hope you’ve offloaded a few assumptions and re-evaluated some stereotypes. I hope you know that there is no archetypal paratransit user. There is no typical use case. There is no neat, tidy template into which you can shove those of us who, for one reason or another, need a special service to get around.

Whether you’re a paratransit user, an employer, an educator, a social worker, or a paratransit staff member, I hope you come away with plenty to think about.

Got some thoughts to share? I think this post calls for a lively comments section, don’t you?

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11 thoughts on “Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons

  1. I love how you say most women wouldn’t like being touched in those ways, like men are okay with people just grabbing them.

    • Hello, Alex. Thank you for reading. I used the word “women” there because A) I am a woman, and thus being physically manhandled carries extra meaning for me that it may not for most men; and B) because while the plural of anecdote is not data, I have heard many, many blind men say they do not get grabbed or touched nearly as often as blind women do, so it does appear to be a gendered issue. However, I have updated the wording to remove the implication that men enjoy being touched without consent. Thank you for bringing this clarity issue to my attention.

  2. I’ve experienced very similar experience with paratransit. For me who struggles with managing fatigue and cumulative sensory strain, the realities of paratransit make it highly inaccessible for me. The delays, the reality that any trip will take at min 3x the amount of time it would take in a direct route vehicle, the noise of the vehicles themselves rattling constantly, the stress that I’m going to be late, by the time I get where I’m going via paratransit my body is so shot that I can’t function. I’ve learned over the years if my only choice to get somewhere is paratransit, then it isn’t worth going and I need to figure out another solution. The inefficiencies and rigidity of the system drive me batty but for me those are an aside to the reality taking paratransit means 2 plus days of recovery and flare ups. That said last year or so here where I live they instituted a pilot program with lyft as part of paratransit and that pilot program has made my life so much easier and that form of paratransit is very workable for me. And I’m very appreciative that program was started. With this pilot program my only recurring stress is whether the driver is going to fuss about the guide dog, but if they do I feel I have functional recourse and that threat has been enough on the occasions for the driver to get their act together. 1 stressor vs 100 stressors of traditional paratransit, yes I am very thankful for the choice.

    • I can only imagine how awful paratransit must’ve been for you, considering the different challenges you have to deal with. I’m glad the partnership worked out though! Thanks for reading as always.

  3. Hi Meagan. Great article and one close to my heart. I’ve been using paratransit (DATS in my case) for over 30 years now… I know, I’m old! 🙂 Your article is quite timely as in the past 2 months I’ve arrived at work late 4 times, the last incident being this morning. Last week I called to complain about the previous 3 times I arrived late to work. Of course I was given the “you can be on the bus for 90 minutes” excuse. When I first began taking DATS the 90 minutes was to allow for bad weather. Now it’s to allow for bad scheduling, in my humble opinion. After a frustrating conversation with the DATS employee, she finally noticed that the most recent 3 late trips all happened on a Wednesday morning. She said she would write up a report and see what could be done about this. Fast forward to this Wednesday morning, and we find out that “nothing” can be done about it. Once again I was 15 minutes late getting to work. I called again to complain and a DATS employee called me back. He told me that the changes they made to my Wednesday morning trips didn’t seem to help. I asked what changes they made to the trip and was told that they took off one of the subscription trips that was on my run. What was happening is that my morning pickup time is between 7:00 – 7:30 am and they were putting my trip with 8:00 and 8:30 pickup times. When I said that it made absolutely no sense to put a 7:00 pickup time with an 8:00 or worse, and 8:30 pickup time, I was gently reminded about the 90 minutes that one could be on the bus! So, basically, with a 7:00 pickup time, DATS sees it as quite acceptable to book my trip with someone who has an 8:30 pickup time. Did I mention that I start work at 8:30? So, this morning I was told that there was nothing else they could do with my Wednesday morning trips. I was reminded that DATS is a “shared ride” system. I was told that if I wanted to make sure I’d get to work on time on Wednesday mornings I should book a 6:30 am pickup time. The only problem with booking a 6:30 pickup time is that there are times when I get to work at 7:30 as it is, and, while I really do like my job, I don’t wish to arrive an hour and a half early. When I asked the
    DATS person why my Wednesday trips were fine three months ago, he told me that DATS had 5000 new clients in the last three months. “5000 in the last three months?”, I questioned dubiously. “Well, 1000 to 5000”, he stammered back. “That’s quite a range”, I responded. Fake news, I say!
    Three weeks ago I was also told, by the same gentleman I spoke with this morning, that he was sorry I arrived 20 minutes late for work, but that I’d better get used to it because DATS has so many new clients, and they are up against the budget.
    I ended my conversation with the DATS employee this morning by saying that I will need to find somewhere else to lodge my complaints as they seem to fall on deaf ears with DATS. He told me to go ahead and do what made me comfortable.

    I really do feel like a second-class citezen when dealing with DATS. There seems to be an attitude, and it seems to come from the top, that we, as people with disabilities, are lucky to have a ride at all, and that we should just shut up and accept what we get.’

    I’m not doubting for a minute that DATS has a lot of clients, and are probably under funded, but that’s no reason to treat their clients the way they do.

    End of rant!

    Thanks for bringing up this important issue Meagan.

    Russell

    • Thank you so much for telling your story. I knew it was bad, but that’s a whole new level of bad. I’m surprised they’ve got so many new clients, seeing as from what I hear they’ve made the requirements even stricter than before, and are now using occupational therapists to determine whether people are sufficiently disabled, rather than taking a doctor’s word for it.
      From what I hear, going through the city was once a good way to get DatS to change policies, but the awful scheduling is such a systemic issue I’m not sure how anyone could fix it without a complete overhaul. You’re right: they use the 90-minute windows and half-hour pickup windows not as contingency plans, but as everyday wiggle room, to be used in all situations rather than to cover emergencies. I used to naively assume the goal was to pick you up as near to the beginning of your window as possible, but sometimes a driver will be given two or three trips in the same narrow window, to maximize what one driver can handle, and if that means everything is off track for the clients, well, tough.
      You’re absolutely right about the pervasive attitude–the one that insists that it’s essentially a charitable service, we should be grateful it exists at all, and anyway, if a few disabled people can’t get to work and are subsequently fired or written up for lateness, that’s an unavoidable and necessary evil.
      I have the same work issue as you: I often have to arrive ridiculously early if I want to avoid being late, but I’ve worked out an agreement with my employer where they tolerate my lateness because I often arrive so early the doors aren’t even unlocked yet. Since DaTS won’t leave you outside a locked door, I’d be driven straight home again (well, probably not straight–I’d probably have to wait an hour first), and nobody wins. I have taken cabs because DaTS was excessively late, or because they didn’t show up at all. They’ve cancelled trips without my knowledge and couldn’t explain how it happened. They’ve threatened, in a vague way, to penalize me if I refused to wait for a late ride, even though the building I was in was closing and someone had offered me a direct ride home. Worst of all, in my opinion, is the difficulty in figuring out how DATS policies actually work, especially in relation to rules versus norms. I’ve been told I’m not allowed to stand anywhere except right inside a doorway, even though that doorway was busy and crowded and had automatic doors so sensitive, I’d have to stand completely still for half an hour so as not to continually activate them. No exceptions. NO flexibility. No empathy for specific circumstances. (This come sfrom booking agents, not drivers; drivers are, on the whole, lovely and understanding and they think the system is broken, too). Yet DATS can pull all kinds of strangeness without accountability.
      We need to keep telling our stories. We need to be loud and insistent. We need to prove that users of DATS aren’t just idle people going shopping. We are professionals, students, and/or people with complex medical needs. We need to find a way to be heard, because DAtS hasn’t listened in a very long time.

      • Hey Meagan,

        Yes, that’s about all we can do is keep telling our stories, because if you read the DATS newsletters, you’ll be surprised to learn that 97% of the DATS clients are happy with the service. My question is, who the heck are they surveying. I’ve heard from someone who actually had a chance to read the survey questions that there are no questions about timely service, no questions about scheduling issues, no questions about the 2 hour cancellation policy, no questions about rude booking agents. One of the questions was “How would you compare the DATS service to regular ETS service?” Wow, what a revealing question, considering most DATS clients probably rarely take regular ETS, and, if they do, they probably wouldn’t wish to admit it to DATS for fear of losing their DATS eligibility!

        Keep up the good fight Meagan!

        Russell

    • I’m at least thankful that I live in a country area in Australia where we have access to taxis and the taxi drivers treat us with respect whether we have a disability or we don’t. If I call a taxi to go somewhere there are times where they are busy and I can be left waiting a little longer than usual and provided I have a contact phone number for where I might be going at the time, I will call them ahead to let them know I’m running a little late as the taxi drivers were busy. there were only a couple of times I got a taxi to the job I had for 12 months and had no problems as the drivers will go above and beyond to help anybody should they need it. I suppose in some ways I’m lucky in that respect and depending where you are in the world things like public transport vary from country to country state to state as I’m somewhat clueless as to what paratranset is we here have wheelchair taxis plus there is the bus (town bus) where in Melbourne Victoria Australia they’ve got taxis trains and trams where you never know who you’re going to get when you get a taxi in the city but in the country you know exactly who you’ll get there was a time I was using taxis every day and having an account with the taxi company made a huge difference and booking up trips certainly takes the strain off trying to find money or borrowing.

  4. Linked to this blog by a mutual friend. This is such an important post; thank you for making it! I started using DATS last year, and I really sympathize with your frustrations re: booking, spontaneity, and scheduling hell.

    My personal experience — I have pretty severe chronic pain and fatigue issues, so I can’t drive or take public transit, but a DATS trip that extends my half-hour appointment into a two-and-a-half hour journey is also pretty brutal; it uses up all my energy for the day. It’s frustrating that there are no other affordable options, and that DATS’ response is to just sort of shrug and say, “Hey, this is what you get.”

    This assumption that disabled peoples’ time is worthless really makes me angry. No one would say that *outright*, of course, but the fact that the system finds it perfectly reasonable to have a half-hour pickup window and a 1.5h trip time (!) — no one would stand for a public transit system that worked so poorly, but disabled people are treated like second-class citizens.

    • Thanks so much for reading! I agree with you on every point, especially the fact that nondisabled people aren’t used to services that are this badly-managed, and would never stand for it because they have been raised/socialized to expect better. Most disabled people I know, self included, were socialized to expect the worst and find a way to be content with it.

  5. Pingback: Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons [Repost] -

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