Apathy limits accessibility in Durham Region

Carly and Paul Hippern come together at Participation House in Whitby.

Sun peers over the horizon. As Carly Hippern’s neighbours sleep, she frantically calls Durham Region Transit (DRT) specialized services. The dispatch picks up and she explains her grandfather is in the hospital and doesn’t have much time to live. She needs to get there quickly. Every minute is critical. Hours later, the driver arrives. Hippern reaches the hospital just before noon. Her grandfather had died 20 minutes earlier.

Hippern says the driver was never even notified of her situation. “They just don’t care,” Hippern says with frustration. “But maybe they would if they had to spend a day in a wheelchair.”

That sentiment is echoed by almost every person in this story: Carly’s husband Paul Hippern, Michelle Marhsall of Participation House, as well as members of the Whitby Abilities Centre, Tim Van Leeuwen, Bill Thompson and Haris Farid.

Durham Region has a population of around 650,000 and according to Statistics Canada, approximately 70,000 are living with a disability. That means one out of every ten people in the region requires wheelchair accessible bathrooms, ramps, elevators and automatic doors. Yet these are in short supply. At the core, the problem is not the hardware. It is humans.

Michelle Marshall, executive director at Participation House (PH), explains the biggest barrier for individuals with disabilities is the community’s attitude towards them. Participation House is a non-profit organization that supports and provides a range of services to individuals with physical and developmental disabilities throughout Durham Region.

People wrongly accuse non-profit organizations of being nothing more than charities. Participation House is battling that idea and changing the paradigm with its Thank You Durham campaign. The purpose of Thank You Durham is to show appreciation for people making a difference in their community. It also functions as a way for persons with disabilities to show how independent they can be. Individuals supported by Participation House will deliver the awards to the recognized nominees. In its first year, Thank You Durham, which began on January 26 and runs until April 30, works to bring the community together. Participation House plans to turn it into an annual celebration, Marshall says.

In addition to the various services it offers throughout the year, Participation House also holds the Life Readiness program. PH partners with Durham College and UOIT to provide adults with disabilities (18-years-old and older) the opportunity to live independently. The South Village residence becomes their home for the month of July. Those who join the program at a younger age can then act as mentors for new members, Marshall says. The purpose of these initiatives is to create a cultural shift in order to change the ideas people have about physical and developmental disabilities and inspire a total inclusive community, Marshall says.

Tim Van Leeuwen, a member of the Whitby Abilities Centre, also works to find a solution to the barriers facing people with disabilities. Van Leeuwen has addressed accessibility in letters and emails he’s sent to Clarington mayor Adrian Foster, Durham MPP Granville Anderson, DRT general manager Vincent Patterson, DRT deputy general manager Martin Ward and more. Van Leeuwen says the problem is people don’t get it and for those who do, they just don’t care. He says every city councillor, politician and/or policy maker should spend a day in a wheelchair to see how their policies truly affect everyone.

Van Leeuwen believes a problem for persons with disabilities is their vulnerability. He’s witnessed people he knows breaking down in tears after missing funerals because they lack accessible transit. Carly Hippern is not the only person to experience that loss. She won’t be the last if changes to the system aren’t made.

In his email to Adrian Foster, Van Leeuwen references this lack of transit and explains persons with disabilities still have responsibilities and social lives that are “paramount to [their] mental health.”

Van Leeuwen says waiting for transit at night is particularly dangerous because he’s a “sitting duck” in the street. However, he explains he doesn’t send these letters and try to find a solution only for himself. Van Leeuwen does it for his friends at the Abilities Centre and the 70,000 people in Durham Region living with a disability.

One of those friends is Bill Thompson. He says one of the greatest problems with DRT specialized services is the advanced planning it requires. According to their website, DRT specialized services takes “next day trip reservations”. These trips, according to the site, may be booked up to seven days in advance. However, Van Leeuwen and Thompson say they must book seven days in advance if they hope to reserve a vehicle. Thompson says it’s impossible to know those details so far in advance. What do you do when you want to go somewhere?” he asks.

From left to right: Tim Van Leeuwen, Bill Thompson, Chris and Rick Nehring sit inside the Abilities Centre in Whitby.
From left to right: Tim Van Leeuwen, Bill Thompson, Chris and Rick Nehring sit inside the Abilities Centre in Whitby.

The restrictions on booking stop individuals from truly living their lives, says Thompson. For Carly Hippern, they stopped her from witnessing the end of a life.

DRT specialized services (formerly known as Handi Transit) implemented no-show/cancellation policy around a year ago. Any trip cancelled with less than 12 hours of notice is considered a late cancellation and the customer is penalized with one demerit point. Customers must be ready 15 minutes before their scheduled pick-up time, and drivers are only required to wait five minutes before leaving. If the customer is not available at the scheduled pick-up time and location, they are considered a “no-show” and are given two demerit points. Both numbers are doubled if the late cancellation or no-show is for a round trip.

The creation of these rules was supported by approximately 2,500 special services reserved trips being wasted in 2014 because passengers didn’t show up, or only cancelled when the driver arrived. Regardless of the rationale behind them, these policies limit the freedom of DRT specialized services passengers.

Tim Van Leeuwen and Bill Thompson use public transportation rather than specialized services because of these restrictions. However, they still face issues such as extended waiting periods, public buses only having two wheelchair accessible spots and simply traveling to bus stops in adverse weather conditions. Snow is especially challenging.

Oshawa by-law states residents must remove snow from their property and attached sidewalk by midnight of the first day following the end of a snowfall. The Whitby by-law also says the clearing of driveways, including the snow windrow left by plows (road and or sidewalk), is the responsibility of the property owner. Even with these by-laws, a lack of accessibility to these sidewalks still causes problems for those in Durham Region who use wheelchairs.

For Haris Farid, living in Toronto before moving to the Durham Region has exposed these weaknesses. He notices a particular lack of accessibility during the winter. Farid jests that you can’t control the weather but you can control snow removal from sidewalks and roads, and general upkeep of both. Unfortunately, it isn’t only in winter that sidewalks aren’t accessible.

Farid remembers a time his wheelchair got caught in the raised sidewalk where an opening should have been. He fell forward, face-first. His wheelchair rolled back into traffic.

There are many sidewalks in Durham with that problem, Farid says. To avoid falling face-first from his chair again, Farid travels on the road.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) says Ontario will be completely accessible by Jan. 1, 2025. That’s becoming increasingly difficult for some to believe. Many sidewalks still have curbs rather than slopes for wheelchairs to enter.

David Lepofsky is chair of the AODA Alliance. He’s been an advocate of persons with disabilities and has practiced law in Ontario for over 30 years. His experience consists of work in constitutional, civil, administrative and criminal law. He formerly led the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee. That committee’s tireless effort led to the passage of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2001 and the AODA in 2005. Lepofsky has said the provincial government hasn’t made significant progress in making Ontario fully accessible in the ten years since the AODA passed.

If changes aren’t made to Ontario’s accessibility, today’s youth will suffer. As Tim Van Leeuwen says, “someone needs to plant the tree today so tomorrow someone can sit in the shade.”

He’s planting that proverbial tree for individuals such as Kurtis Venhoven. Venhoven, only in his early 20s, sees the weaknesses with DRT specialized services. He’s arrived at Participation House an hour before it opens and has been left alone and forced to wait until staff arrives to let him in the building. Venhoven has also been forgotten at his home with no warning. However, he still says his overall experience with DRT has been positive. But it’s impossible to ignore the system failing him, just as it has with Carly Hippern.

Hippern never said goodbye to her grandfather because the system failed her. Durham Region’s lack of accessibility has left and continues to leave everlasting imprints on its residents. In Whitby, the Abilities Centre smashes the physical barriers while Participation House fights to change the stigma behind the attitudinal barriers. Initiatives such as Thank You Durham and the Life Readiness Program provide individuals with disabilities an opportunity at independence while simultaneously working to unite the community. The AODA promises to make Ontario accessible by 2025. But the residents of Durham Region must also make a promise, one which doesn’t take ten years to fulfill.

Carly Hippern knows full well what is lost when time ticks on. She missed seeing her grandfather by 20 minutes, after waiting hours for transportation. For those who still don’t see the importance of an accessible community, maybe it’s time to heed the advice of Hippern, Van Leeuwen, Thompson, Farid and Venhoven. Spend just one day in a wheelchair and see if your perspective on accessibility in the Durham Region changes.


  1. I’ve just been advised by my Dr. that from now on, I require a four-wheeled walker and an electric scooter/wheelchair for distance walking. I’m only turning 60 this year but because of Disability in walking I’ve had a Disability Parking Permit for the past two years and will eventually not walk at all! I’ve always helped others with disabilities as I’ve witnessed the diffulculties they persevere. Accessibility is a very important matter here in Durham! Please support these groups!

  2. My name is Deanna MCINROY. I am a handicapped all in my life and I am working in the PH office. I do that volunteer job of paper work on my computer works with Melanie or Angela Clarke and Elaine, I love it volunteer job in PH office,