Privatizing compassion: Squeezing a profit from HandyDART

Common Ground
by Dean Brown

A chilling rain falls in the Vancouver night. I sit in a bus outside St. Paul’s Hospital preparing to board a group of kidney dialysis patients and take them home. Exhausted by their ordeal of being hooked up to a machine for four hours, some of them shuffle forward on their own steam, determined and steady in their step, not too advanced in the disease. Some are slumped half asleep in a wheelchair. They are quiet, leaning on my arm, humbled by the unwanted circumstance of kidney failure.
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It’s a busy and sunny afternoon at GF Strong Rehab Centre. All sorts of passengers board and unboard my bus. Some are in complicated chairs with respirators, gamely overcoming head injuries. Some wobble along with walkers while others dart around in sleek, manual wheelchairs, long recovered from that devastating back injury. There are myriad mobility aids that need to be folded, secured, tied down and belted.

My passengers include a federal civil servant, clearly a professional in his prime, who needs me to attend to that one simple but crucial detail of opening his front door; an old man, who although unsteady in his gait and sometimes incontinent, insists on attending night school; a woman, who, post-stroke, insists she is fine and then collapses weeping into the snow and must be lifted onto her porch.

Someone will fall asleep, perhaps even fall unconscious, and need step-by-step assistance to their front door. And they’ll get it, all for the price of a single zone bus ticket. In our corporatized, networked, worked-out, buffed, polished and gleaming city of glass, we can sometimes avoid the world of the imperfect and the slow or those who have been humbled by circumstance, age or something unwanted and unexpected. We might manage to bypass the people who can’t just stroll down the street and board a bus, jump into their shiny SUVs or run up a set of stairs. But there it is, that less than perfect world, and we’ll all be surprised when we arrive there too.

However, there is an effective and civilized resource that currently serves those who find themselves outside the fast paced norm. A long-standing part of the transit system, HandyDART is a Metro Vancouver-wide service that offers people a connection to movement, life, dignity, work and recovery and to being human.

I’m a HandyDART bus driver. Driving for HandyDART is to navigate through a series of different cities within Vancouver itself – the Vancouver of schedules, appointments, heavy traffic, and of hurry. The Vancouver of the imperfect. The Vancouver of back alleyways, back entrances and of residential streets. Of passengers that need constant attention and those who can operate their own chairs, thank you very much. All these cities demand a level of care, competency and attention that remains high, every day that I drive.

Perhaps you have heard that we are on strike. This is the reason: Translink recently privatized the operation of HandyDART, a publicly funded transit system that is, by nature, heavily subsidized. The motive is profit, a powerful force. And to generate this profit, the new, private operator, MV Canadian Bus, wants to lower labour costs.

It’s a lot to swallow. The company wants to pay HandyDART workers much less than other transit workers, reduce their benefits, and strip away a pension plan that provided some measure of security for the future. The HandyDART labour force has a sterling reputation (ask virtually any HandyDART passenger) and a high skill level and it is dispirited and dismayed by such treatment. MV Bus is a large US company and at some of its operations south of the border, staff turnover approaches 100 percent annually. What kind of future is being offered to us here?

What is the nature of our right to movement? Is it less when we are less than perfect? Look into the polished glass city and ponder the unexpected.

I am angered that the ideology of profit is being forced upon HandyDART, to the detriment of workers and passengers. HandyDART users, vulnerable for many reasons, have the right to be attended to by a workforce that is skilled and adequately paid.

Got something to say to Translink? Email Martin Lay, director in charge of accessibility, at martin.lay@translink.ca Contact your local mayor and express your concern. Translink is ultimately accountable to a council of Metro Vancouver mayors.

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