Christin Milloy:

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Disabled Trans* Woman Hit with Name-Change Discrimination by TTC Wheel-Trans Service

Transphobia and Ableism are bad enough individually, but Disabled Trans* people face double trouble. In this case, a service specially designed to accommodate Disabled people was made inaccessible to one woman, when her request to have Wheel-Trans use her preferred name was met with confusion and apparent refusal.

Kylie Brooks (who has given consent for the publication of this story) describes herself as a Deaf, Disabled, and Queer-identified Trans* woman who lives in Toronto.

Landscape photo of a TTC Wheel-Trans minibus. White with a red stripe and large doors, driving or parked on a roadway, with a tree and park in the background.

TTC Wheel-Trans Minibus

Like many Disabled people, she relies on TTC’s Wheel-Trans service to get around the city. Like many Trans* people, she often runs into problems with organizations that mishandle “name change” policies in a way that endangers Trans* people and tramples their dignity. That appeared to be the case with TTC’s Wheel-Trans service, Kylie found out April 25th. “I made a call to Wheel-Trans Customer Service… asking for a name change,” Kylie said. “I do not feel that this call is up to adequate customer service standards.”

The Legend of Wheel-Trans

It’s no secret that the Subway, Bus, and Streetcar service provided by the Toronto Transit Commission isn’t very accessible to Disabled people. Only 32 of the 69 subway stations are wheel-chair accessible (46%), with upgrades to the rest not scheduled for completion until 2025.

Commendably, TTC boasts a conventional bus fleet that’s 100% accessible since 2011, however their streetcar system is 0% accessible, with accessible replacement streetcars slated to enter service beginning late in 2014 with complete replacement by 2019. Certain streetcar stops will also need remodelling, to allow for the accessible car doors (which open at a much lower height).

Presently there are still serious gaps in the system, which prevent Disabled people from getting around. That’s where Wheel-Trans service comes in—at least, in theory. Created in 1975, Wheel-Trans service consists of a fleet of accessible minibusses (and sometimes provides service by contract with accessible taxi services). They operate not on fixed routes, but on an as-needed basis to help people get around. It’s designed for trips that aren’t reachable via the accessible parts of the regular transit system, or, for persons who need accomodations that go beyond what is available on the accessible parts of the fleet. Wheel-Trans will take its clients from anywhere, to anywhere, within the boundaries of the area generally served by the TTC, and Wheel-Trans customers pay only a standard TTC fare for each trip.

There are some drawbacks, however. By policy, trips must be booked at least 24 hours in advance. In practice though, trips must be booked much earlier than that in order to reasonably guarantee availability.

The website says cancellations must be booked at least 1 day in advance, or else it is logged and “held against” the customer… up to four cancellations per month are tolerated, after which you may be subject to mysterious unspecified penalties. However, it seems they may be having some trouble staying current on the web… “(There were) changes that happened last year and this year,” explains Kylie. “The info on the Wheel-Trans site is out of date. Trips can be booked (from) a week in advance… to 4 hours on that day (of the trip). Trips can be cancelled in that period as well.”

And then, there is also the fact that they seem to have problems dealing with their Trans* customers.

“I” before “E,” except after “M”

Kylie’s need was simple, she wanted to be called by the name she uses: “Kylie,” and not by her legal name… which is similar, but is considered more masculine and does not represent her gender identity. Unfortunately, she hasn’t yet been able to change her name legally. The legal name change process in Ontario is complex, has strings attached, and costs $137. “For most disabled people on Wheel-Trans, that is a financial barrier,” she says. In addition to calling her by the wrong name at pickups, Wheel-Trans drivers were also misgendering her because of the old name on file.

Kylie’s situation is complicated by the fact that the drivers do not know ASL (American Sign Language), and are therefore unable to provide her with accessible communication.

Kylie contacted Wheel-Trans customer service using the Bell IP-Relay chat system: Kylie chats to a Bell operator through her computer, and that operator speaks to the other party on the phone. In the below transcript of a confusing conversation, the Wheel-Trans customer service agent initially challenges Kylie’s gender identity based on the legal sex on file, then refuses to help her and gives her a draconian set of discriminatory proof requirements to follow—but then, bizarrely, totally reverses course and immediately processes the name change with no proof required.

Wheel-Trans Requires Legal Docs to Change Name — or do they?

Some identifiers have been stripped, and emphasis added below. “ga” means “go ahead” (end of line), and “sk” means “stop keying” (ready to hang up).

Fri Apr 25 2014 10:48:39 GMT-0400 (EDT)
Calling : 4163934111 (Wheel-Trans Customer Service)
[operator] : Welcome to IP Relay Service. This is operator number [#___] my name is [____], Thank you, please hold…
[operator] : ringing 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. 5.. 6.. 7.. automatic message one moment
[operator] : we are on hold
[operator] : yes hello how i may help you ? ga
[kylie] : hello. i am kyle, [#_____]. um, i would like to ask if there is a way to setup a preferred name. ga
[operator] : we have kyle brook on the name on the file, you want to add another name on the file? ga
[kylie] : Well, I would like to be called by kylie brooks so if doing that will accomplish that purpose great ga
[operator] : ok it s easy, can have your gender please, ga
[kylie] : please rephrase? ga
[operator] : can have your gender, please because kylie can be for boy and girl, ga
[kylie] : female ga
[operator] : ok, one moment please,
[operator] : ok i have a kyle brooks, but i got to male name, i dont have female name , kylie if you have a women, im not sure if i m looking at the right file here, ga
[kylie] : you are looking at the correct file … [#_____] ga
[operator] : ok, i have 2 documents sayaing that your are male, ga
[kylie] : well, I understand that you require legal documents, but for most disabled people on wheeltrans that is a financial barrier ga
[operator] : im sorry i dont understand, you are a man or a woman? because i got 2 documents where you see that your are a man ,ga
[kylie] : right I understand that you require legal documents that affirm such however I am a trans woman. ga
[operator] : ok one moment
[operator] : (we are on hold)
[operator] : ok please send us a document regarding your trans gendar change, so when we receive this doucment we will be able to change your name for Kylie, ga
[kylie] : Well, I don’t think that is the best way to deal with things in the interim. It is expensive to get such documents. I am asking for a way to set up a preferred name and be referred to by that name. ga
[operator] : im already take care of your name change to Kylie, we will refere to Kylie when talk to you ,ga
[kylie] : okay but what aabout the website for booking? ga
[operator] : ok, if you refresh screen on your website now you will see the name change effective immediatly, ga
[kylie] : okay thank you very much sksk
[operator] : ok thank you sorry for the confusion sk
[operator] : Thank you for using the IP Relay Service, goodbye SKSK

Training Derailment

When I learned about Kylie’s experience, I was concerned and frustrated because I’ve seen many Trans* persons facing similar problems before. When this happened to me at President’s Choice Financial, it required escalation through social media to finally get to a customer relations manager to establish that there was, in fact, a policy to accomodate Trans* clients with name changes… but that their staff weren’t following it, because they were never properly trained. In the end it took several weeks of repeatedly following up to persuade them to provide the necessary information to their customer service agents.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter one iota that an organization has an accessibility or anti-discrimination policy, if that policy isn’t being followed at the customer level by front-line personnel. Discrimination by accidental incompetence creates just as much of a barrier for marginalized customers as if the discrimination was done on purpose.

After a bit of correspondence with Wheel-Trans, I was able to arrange a phone call from a customer service supervisor this week (“R”), who at last shed some light on what happened to Kylie.

It turns out, they used to have a strict policy of respecting only one’s legally registered name, and would require documentation in order to change the name on file. That policy has since been adjusted, R said, because (among other reasons) they have “encountered this (Trans*) situation before.” Their new policy will accommodate not just Trans* persons, but anyone who requests to be called by a preferred name.

The telephone agent Kylie interacted with “must have done it wrong,” said R. “We’re still working to get everyone trained up on what the policy is.” He also told me that this change had only occurred “recently,” although precisely when it happened remains unclear.

Regarding the way she was treated initially, Kylie is not impressed. “Asking for ‘a document regarding your trans gendar change’ demeans transgender people,” she said. “When people ask Wheel-Trans Customer Service for a name change, legal documents or medical documents should not be required.

In the weeks since getting the name on file changed, Kylie has run into a new problem: when they come to pick her up, the drivers are ignoring her. “The drivers see ‘Ms Kylie Brooks’ on their manifest, and expect someone who has a specific appearance,” she told me. “I don’t match that appearance, so (when they see me) the drivers think I am the wrong person.

R suggested an idea that could prevent this from happening again. “She can just show them her (Wheel-Trans client) card,” he said. But Kylie’s card is printed with her old name on it—would this card ‘solution’ simply out her all over again, thus defeating the entire purpose? Fortunately, no.

As part of their accommodation policy, “a Wheel-Trans card can be issued with either (the legal or preferred name on it),” R explained. He also promised to mail Kylie a new Wheel-Trans card with her preferred name immediately and free of charge.

Back on Track

It’s good that Wheel-Trans has switched to a more accessible policy, but their flawed execution of that policy due to improperly trained staff is continuing to have a negative effect on their Trans* clients. R acknowledged this. “We’re trying to get everybody trained on it as quickly as we can.”

“That new card will help,” Kylie said, but ultimately she believes that Wheel-Trans should take it further by giving coaching to their drivers about basic Trans* awareness and sensitivity. That’s “Probably (the) best solution for long term,” she explains. “Gender should not be required to travel on Wheel-Trans.”

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Christin Milloy