By Jesse Thomas
A major legal decision was reached this week, forcing Ontario taxi companies to eliminate illegal fees imposed on wheelchair passengers.
Alessia Di Virgilio, a Disability Services officer at Humber College in Toronto, filed an application with the human rights tribunal four years ago, in attempt to amend the passenger Bill of Rights and ensure equal access for those wishing to take a taxi.
“This settlement will hopefully give more options for people with disabilities,” said Di Virgilio.
The case went to mediation before the Human Rights Tribunal in December 2010. Four taxi companies — including Beck, Co-Op, Royal and Scarborough Taxi — were charging flat rates on wheelchair calls.
Wheelchair riders were being illegally charged a flat rate of $25 to $35 just to lower the ramp and drive someone down the street or around the block.
According to the passenger “Bill of Rights” this service is free.
“It was a procedural nightmare,” said Matheson.
With so many parties involved, it took a long time to come to a decision. More than two years after the hearing, an agreement was reached.
“The cab companies have been charging her double and sometimes triple,” said Clara Matheson, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, who represents Di Virgilio.
Toronto taxi companies are going to amend their passenger Bill of Rights and the Tariff Notice and post information in their cabs about prohibited fees.
The changes also mean that companies must train their wheelchair taxi drivers and inform them of prohibited fees and include a new system of discipline that can result in termination if drivers who don’t follow these rules.
The agreement also means customers have the right to find out what penalties were handed out because of their complaints.
“This is illegal and if it happens to someone they need to complain to the city of Toronto and the city licensing division as they have the power to revoke licences. But also complain to the taxi companies themselves and bring this illegal fare to their attention,” said Matheson.
“This decision would apply to any taxi anywhere, but in particular here in Toronto,” she said.
The decision allows people with disabilities the opportunity to afford transportation just the same as an abled body customer would.
Wheel Trans, which costs the same as a ride on the TTC, takes Di Virgilio to work every day. It makes sense for her, because she has a fixed work schedule. But she said the service does have some limitations.
“They don’t do an on-demand service,” she said. “You are likely to pick up other people along the way, you don’t usually get a direct ride and sometimes they’re late.”
“On top of that if you have an appointment and the appointment runs late you can’t change your appointment.”
Di Virgilio told Humber News that she is is proud of her role in the enforcement of the law, despite the decision taking longer than expected.
“This is the first step of many and right now hopefully there will be a lot of awareness,” she said. “If taxi companies continue to charge a flat rate, that people will complain to the companies and the city.”
She hopes one day it will simply be common practice.
Di Virgilio considers herself an activist, but admits she’s a little leery about acting as a spokesperson or a role model.
“It’s difficult to speak on behalf of people with disabilities, but I am just trying to do my part,” she said. “Transportation is an important issue for people with disabilities.”
Andrew Poulos, Disabilities Services manager at Humber’s North Campus, believes this is a landmark case.
“The thing that often happens is that people with disabilities are often penalized as a result of their disability and that really needs to be eliminated,” said Poulos. “I think it’s great for Alessia, great for Humber and great for the department.”
Poulos says, Di Virgilio is a great model for the students.
“A lot of what our counselors talk to students about is self-advocacy,” he said. “Getting to know your disability and advocating for yourself, is important because if you don’t, who’s going to do it.
“In this case Alessia did it, not only for herself but for many people. I think she’s really a great role model for our students and people with disabilities in general.”