Lack of wheelchair accessible transportation ‘heartbreaking’

The lack of wheelchair accessible transportation in the county is “ripping apart” local families.

That’s the message Mich­elle Martin and Helen Edwards are spreading in their campaign to obtain sustainable funding to fill the void as soon as possible.

“Rural people deserve the same respect and dignity that people in the city receive,” Martin said.

As senior program development coordinator with the local Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) chapter, Martin has re­cently witnessed several “heart­breaking” scenarios where county citizens were forced out of their homes to receive vital medical services in urban areas because the cost for transportation is too enormous to bear.

Edwards, health services coordinator with the Seniors Centre for Excellence in northern Wellington, said the Rural Wellington Transportation Group (RWTG) has lobbied for about seven years for improved services, with little results.

She is hoping the recent “critical” developments will help change all that and she acknowledges raising awareness is an important first step.

“We will continue to raise these issues and advocate for the people who need the service,” Edwards said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get a vehicle for the people of this community.”

The Fergus Legion offered wheelchair accessible transportation on Wednesdays for roughly the last two decades, but its vehicle has since broken down.

“Since we haven’t had it, we’re constantly being asked when we’re going to offer it again,” said  Legion president Brian Bielby.

The loss of the Legion’s vehicle leaves many Fergus residents in the same predicament as the rest of the county’s senior and disabled citizens – having virtually no options for affordable rides to medical appointments or treatments or for even more basic needs like a trip to the grocery store.

“That, to me, seems like a real, essential core service that should be available in our community,” said Martin.

She noted Wheels for Well­ington, a subgroup of the RWTG, has advocated since the 1980s for improved transportation services for seniors and those with disabilities. There are many great service within the county, but the trouble is accessing them, she said.

There have been many im­provements in recent years, and the county has been very supportive through the Commu­nity Resource Centre’s transportation program, but there remains a glaring void, Martin said. She added there is no longer even a wheelchair accessible taxi in the county.

Ron MacKinnon, executive director of the local Commu­nity Resource Centre, said none of the local groups has the money to fund a vehicle on their own, as the cost for a vehicle to carry one or two wheelchairs could be upwards of $100,000.

“It’s just a crime that people can’t get out and about in their own community and get to important medical appointments,” said MacKinnon. “It just isn’t right.”

Martin highlighted the case of two seniors; one who faced a $234 charge just to get from the Wellington Terrace to a dentist in Fergus, and another from Kenilworth who was forced to leave her family’s farm and stay near the Kitchener dialysis clinic because the family could not afford transportation back and forth, which was expected to cost $450 per day.

“Some of the horror stories coming from the community are just scary,” Bielby said.

For many, leaving a spouse, family, friends, and rural setting they have known their entire lives for a tiny room in the city can lead to depression and other health complications, which, Martin said, can unnecessarily shorten lives.

“It seems discriminatory,” Martin said. “It’s a real community issue that’s bigger than just getting to a doctor’s appointment … It’s a health and wellness issue.”

Bielby called the aforementioned stories “just the tip of the iceberg.”

While the Legion is playing “a small part” in the push for a new vehicle, Bielby said a vehicle shared between various county groups could immediately make 5,000 trips per year – and that figure would likely double or triple within 12 months, once word spread the service was available.

MacKinnon believes a new vehicle would be used five days a week and serve “hundreds” of residents, but he  stressed there would still be a legitimate need if the numbers weren’t so high.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s 10 or 110,” he said, adding barriers to transportation should not be forcing those with accessibility issue out of their own homes.

The Seniors Centre for Excellence recently held a fundraising dance to help raise money, but Edwards noted that route is “a long and drawn out process.”

Martin said sustainable fund­ing is crucial, and when it comes down to it, such services should be provided by the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network.

“We can’t afford to be denied again,” Martin said, noting the transportation group has asked the LHIN for a transportation help for the last five years.

“In other regions the LHIN does it.”

Edwards, Martin, Bielby, and MacKinnon met with Ted Arnott last week, hoping the MPP can help them convince the LHIN to finally grant their funding request.

Arnott told the Advertiser on Nov. 20 he will do whatever he can to lobby for better transportation options for those with mobility issues.

“I believe there is a legitimate need for it,” he said, adding the personal stories relayed by Martin and Edwards indicate a need for an expedient solution.

“This sounds very urgent … that kind of anecdotal evidence goes a long way to bringing this to the forefront.”

Sandra Hanmer, Chief Executive Officer of the WWLHIN, did not return a call by press time.

County Warden Joanne Ross-Zuj has stated that a usable van is being donated by a county family, but the details are not yet available.