Public transit in cities across Ontario is fundamental to the ability of many people to participate meaningfully in the life of their communities. Public transportation is used to access employment, education, public and social services and community activities.
Equal access by persons with disabilities to public transportation is a right protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code  (“Code”). Equal access to transit services in not a reality for many citizens of the Province and despite its importance in our daily lives, barriers to public transit services remain.
Over the past years, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has received numerous complaints against transit providers in Ontario alleging that aspects of their respective transit service, including para-transit service, infringe the right to equal treatment with respect to services on the ground of disability. Transit providers frequently take the position that the para-transit service operating in their respective community is a “special program” under section 14 of the Code.
In 2002, the Commission settled a series of complaints with the Toronto Transit Commission (“TTC”) regarding its para-transit operation, Wheel-Trans, and fees charged to Wheel-Trans users. In response to the complaints, the TTC claimed that Wheel-Trans was a “special program” within the meaning of section 14 of the Code. Most recently, in December 2004, the Commission settled a series of complaints with the City of Hamilton, regarding its para-transit service, DARTS (Disabled and Aged Regional Transit System). As in the TTC complaints, the City of Hamilton asserted a position that its Accessible Transportation Services Program, which included the DARTS service, was a “special program” within the meaning of section 14 of the Code. Neither of these settlements addressed the issue of whether the respective para-transit services were, or were not, “special programs”.
In recent years, the Commission has undertaken a number of significant initiatives to promote public discussion and facilitate improvements in accessible public transportation. In February 2001, the Commission released a Discussion Paper on Accessible Transit services in Ontario. The Paper was developed to promote public discussion on the accessibility of local mass passenger transportation in Ontario. The Discussion Paper was followed by a period of public consultation with stakeholders, including transit providers, disability consumer and advocacy groups, seniors’ organizations, labour organizations and numerous individuals. These consultations led to the development of the Commission’s Consultation Report “Human Rights and Public Transit Services in Ontario”, released in April 2002, which set out the Commission’s theoretical framework for its work in the area of accessible public transportation.
The position taken by the Commission in its Consultation Report is that para-transit services are a form of accommodation that can be required to meet the duty to accommodate under the Code:
Where individuals are unable, because of their disabilities or because of the non-inclusive design of many older transit systems, to access conventional transit systems, transit service providers have a duty to accommodate these needs, up to the point of undue hardship. While some transit providers argue that para-transit is a type of voluntary special program under human rights law, it is the position of the Commission that para-transit is a form of accommodation that can be required to meet the duty of accommodate under the Code. 
It became apparent to the Commission from its public transit consultations that a discrepancy exists with many transit providers in the interpretation and application of the duty to accommodate under the Code and the provision of para-transit services. The Commission believes that there is an important public interest to be served in dealing with this issue directly.
Under section 14 of the Code, the Commission has the authority to inquire into a program, on its own initiative, and has the discretion to declare, by order, that the program does, or does not, satisfy the requirements of the special program provision in section 14(1) of the Code.
Hence, the Commission has authorized its staff to inquire into the following “programs”:
- In the City of Toronto, the para-transit service “Wheel-Trans”;
- In the City of Hamilton, the para-transit service “DARTS” (Disabled and Aged Regional Transit System);
- In the City of Windsor, the para-transit service “Handi-Transit”;
- In the City of London, the para-transit service provided by the London Community Transportation Brokerage.
As part of the inquiry, this position paper is being circulated to solicit submissions from stakeholders, with a view to assisting the Commission in determining whether to exercise its declaratory power under section 14 of the Code regarding the aforementioned programs.
Section 14 of the Code provides as follows:
14. (1) A right under Part I is not infringed by the implementation of a special program designed to relieve hardship or economic disadvantage or to assist disadvantaged persons or groups to achieve or attempt to achieve equal opportunity or that is likely to contribute to the elimination of the infringement of rights under Part I.
(2) The Commission may,
a. upon its own initiative;
b. upon application by a person seeking to implement a special program under the protection of subsection (1); or
c. upon a complaint in respect of which the protection of subsection (1) is claimed, inquire into the special program and, in the discretion of the Commission, may by order declare,
d. that the special program, as defined in the order, does not satisfy the requirements of subsection (1); or
e. that the special program as defined in the order, with such modifications, if any, as the Commission considers advisable, satisfies the requirements of subsection (1).
(3) A person aggrieved by the making of an order under subsection (2) may request the Commission to reconsider its order and section 37, with necessary modifications, applies.
(4) Subsection (1) does not apply to a special program where an order is made under clause (2)(d) or where an order is made under clause (2)(e) with modifications of the special program that are not implemented.
(5) Subsection (2) does not apply to a special program implemented by the Crown or an agency of the Crown.