Wheelchair accessibility and the TTC: Lessons from Bangkok, Thailand


By Michelle Fedorowich

The Grand Palace is one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in Thailand. In March 2015, in the heart of Bangkok, I accompanied a large group of adults living with physical disabilities who were relocating from the Grand Palace to the Siam Museum of Thai History. We walked and wheeled for easily two kilometers that afternoon.

Three-inch curbs might not seem significant, but when you are assisting 25 wheelchair users beneath the blazing Thailand sun, the challenge is apparent. Occasionally, we would see glorious sights like a ramp descending from the height of a walkway to street level, and yet have no such luck on the other side of the street.

It’s one thing to dart across the street during a break in traffic if you are able-bodied; it’s quite another reality for 25 wheelchairs crossing from one side of the busy road to the other.

I worked as an English teacher at the Redemptorist Vocational School for the Disabled (RVSD) in Pattaya, Thailand, from 2014 to 2015. The students came to the school from similar circumstances as described by MacDonald and Friars (1), who stressed the importance of incorporating “(dis)Ability perspectives” in social work to combat the historical treatment of people with disabilities: “They have been hidden away in family attics…socially segregated, and politically silenced.”

“They have been hidden away in family attics…socially segregated, and politically silenced.”

Upon my return home, I could compare the transportation systems in Thailand where, to my knowledge, there is no public wheelchair transport, to transit in Canada. In 2017, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) (2) reported that about half (35 of 69) of subway stations are wheelchair accessible.

In contrast, the people with disabilities in Thailand―who historically have been “politically silenced” due to exclusion in society (1)―won a landmark ruling in January 2015, demanding that Bangkok City Hall install elevators at all 23 skytrain stations of the Bangkok Mass Transit Systems…within one year (3)!

Many RVSD students contributed to the implementation of this tremendous accomplishment. This transformative experience allowed me to conceptualize new research ideas for investigating the limitations of available transportation systems here in Toronto. Expanded accessibility to Toronto city services will improve quality of life for people with disabilities and increase capacity for the full participation of all individuals in society.

Image source: Igor Rodrigues (Unsplash)

Historical Barriers to Accessibility for All

Historically, public attitudes towards people with disabilities created hostile and unaccommodating environments. An example close to home: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms only began including people with physical and mental disabilities in 1982 (1). The TTC later committed to making all its services and facilities accessible for all users.

According to the TTC’s 2016 Accessibility Plan Status Report (4), the deadline to meet their accessibility commitment is the year 2025―almost 45 years after the initial commitment was made. This considerable gap in time clearly shows that universal accessibility to transportation services is not a priority of the TTC. However, accessibility for all is a social issue that affects nearly 12% of Canadians who live with disabilities (1).

Wheel-Trans is a paratransit service offered in Toronto by the TTC for persons with impairments that prevent engagement with conventional modes of transportation (5). The terminology of “disability” as used by Wheel-Trans, includes any and all of the following lived experiences: “sensory impairments, such as blindness or deafness, psychiatric disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, neurological disabilities, and mobility impairments.”

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the TTC was first in operation in 1954 (6). Para Transit, a transportation system for people with disabilities, was implemented in 1973 with joint funding from the Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto. At that time, only employment-related travels were eligible for Para Transit use, and the service was restricted to seven minivans operating during peak hours.

As of 2011, this number increased to 157 accessible buses as part of the Para Transit services, with an additional 73 accessible taxis contracted out by the TTC. In 2015, the TTC’s Operating Statistics Report records the number of Wheel-Trans users at 3,487,526 “an all-time high record and an increase of 410,345 over the 2014 total.” (7)

Evidently, the TTC has a duty to provide accessible and suitable transportation to accommodate this increasing number of users in need of Wheel-Trans services.

Evidently, the TTC has a duty to provide accessible and suitable transportation to accommodate this increasing number of users in need of Wheel-Trans services.

Who Is Deciding What to Do? And Who Should?

One challenge to improving transit systems for people with disabilities is the representation of the key players in the decision-making process. Who gets to make these decisions? Predominantly, it is able-bodied individuals who implement policies affecting those with mobility impairments. Those groups impacted by the policies in question (i.e., individuals with disabilities), are grossly underrepresented (8).

This underrepresentation is a prime example of ableism.

Ableism is a theoretical concept that excludes or denies the need to accommodate persons with mobility challenges, thus catering to able-bodied citizens. Able-bodied refers to people who do not have a disability, whether temporary or permanent (1).

The need for TTC to offer accessibility services for all is supported by the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which asserts that those directly implicated by the impacts of decisions regarding transportation policies must have their voices heard (9). Advocacy efforts are needed to increase representation of persons with disabilities at the decision-making table since they are directly affected by Toronto’s transportation policies.

The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: those directly implicated by the impacts of decisions regarding transportation policies must have their voices heard.

In 2016, the TTC investigated the customer satisfaction level of all users, including those registered with Wheel-Trans (10). The research study was a survey on the transit habits of users such as timing and frequency of use and mode of transport utilized. Although 85% of people surveyed reported satisfaction with Wheel-Trans services, the survey neglected to indicate responses according to intensity of need (e.g., this number included temporary Wheel-Trans users).

The findings from this study is limited by the small number of respondents (1000 respondents) relative to the total number of Wheels-Trans users and the survey method of a 10-minute phone interview. These procedures do not fully capture the lived experiences of Wheel-Trans users and is unlikely to be a representative sample of all Wheel-Trans users.  

Image Source: Justin Main (Unsplash)

Proposing Research Using a Critical Ethnography Approach

Personal experiences cannot be captured by counting survey results. Instead, we propose using qualitative research methods―such as an ethnographic approach―which can focus on the lived experiences of Wheel-Trans riders and provide further insight on the reality and limitations of current transportation services. More importantly, results are presented from the voices of those dependent on these services themselves.

Consider the problem solving required of a wheelchair user who arrives at a subway station. They need to transfer to another service route, but the elevator is out of service. Using an ethnographic approach, the effectiveness of designated “wheelchair accessible” subway stations can be examined. These stations feature elevators that are “specially designed for people using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, other mobility devices or with baby strollers.” (2)

The main goal of a critical ethnography approach is to bring about change through in-depth observation of lived experiences (11). Our research study will include five individuals who use Wheel-Trans for employment purposes. After obtaining their consent, we will video record them navigating the TTC over a one-day period. We will interview the participants before and after this one-day observation period, highlighting the top three recommendations from participants for immediate implementation by the TTC.

Image source: subpng

A Documentary Film to Bring About Change

Once participants approve the study findings, it will be shared with the public as a documentary film. This method of delivery was chosen in hopes that it will have the strongest impact on stakeholders who are in positions to implement the changes recommended by those directly impacted by transit policies.

We plan to present the documentary film with research participants involved in a question and answer period, in locations including: (a) TTC board meetings where operating statistics and customer satisfaction are reviewed; and (b) the annual TTC Forum on Accessible Transit mandated by Accessibility for Ontarians Disability Act (12). A short video for social media will also be created to engage public support.

Transformative social justice for people with disabilities can be achieved through the demonstration of lived experiences of Wheel-Trans users. If, as a society, we continue to neglect the (transportation) needs of people with disabilities to access employment, social services, and community events, we will continue to oppress them instead of promoting their independence (13) and quality of life.

If you, or someone you know, uses a wheelchair for mobility purposes and is a Wheel-Trans user, please contact us (the Authors) to participate in the development of this documentary film.


Featured illustration by Daniela Casas for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Fedorowich M. Wheelchair accessibility and the TTC: Lessons from Bangkok, Thailand. rehabINK. 2020:9. Available from: https://rehabinkmag.com

rehabINK Link to Survey Icon_FINAL


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