Tonka takes the train…

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It was 5:45am when I thumped the alarm off!

This was it, the day that had consumed most of my week to get ready for! Tonka and I were off to Toronto on the 7:34am VIA Rail train to Toronto Sick Kids to meet my daughter, Chantel and her mom Nancy at The Dalglish Family Hearts and Minds Clinic. I was giving my blood for genetic and research testing in the hope of discovering more about 22Q11.2 Deletion Syndrome that Chantel has and is not known well because it is a relatively new discovery.

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Our destination at Sick Kid’s in Toronto

The Accessibility for Ontarian’s with Disabilities Act (AODA), General Requirements, Section 7: Training say that every person in Ontario who is an employee, employer, volunteer or who helps make policy shall take Ontario Human Rights Code training. During the first training video it explains how aircraft, banks and interprovincial travel are exempt from the AODA as they are considered Federal organizations…I should have remembered that that fact makes riding the Go Train very different from riding VIA Rail!

I’ve been on the Go Train and the Subway with Tonka before so I’m thinking that VIA Rail will be a breeze, buy a ticket, get on the train with Tonka on my lap and off we go…never think like that!

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Boarding in Kingston…

When travelling on the Go Train I just buy a ticket and get on but travelling by VIA Rail required booking a seat. I had just finished paying for my train ticket and was reading the ticket information when I realized that my seat was on the aisle. That wouldn’t be good for Tonka as he’d end up in peoples way and besides I wanted the window too. Calling VIA’s customer service was my next step as I had to change from the aisle, they’d understand because I had a Service Dog or so I thought.

Explaining that I’d accidentally booked an aisle seat and would prefer a window was no problem. Great, I exclaimed, my Service Dog likes to sit on my lap and look out the window. There was a slight pause then she asked “Do you have a Service Dog?”. When I confirmed that I did, she told me I’d need 2 seats reserved! My first thought was that the trip was going to cost me double, my next was “why?” Then I started to get anxious and it started building. The rep quickly explained that Tonka would need his own seat and that there would be no extra cost, he would though have to stay off the seat and remain on the floor. She continued that I’d need a little more room because of him so she reserved 2 seats from a group of 4 plus a small table. Everything was going along great until her next request.

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Tonka’s first train ticket and assigned floor space!

She needed a form signed by my doctor saying I needed a Service Dog and they would keep it on file, make sure that I had my certificate to show at boarding and carry his vaccination records to present if asked and to make sure that I had my certificate ready! This was Monday afternoon and I was leaving Friday at 7:34am, I also had problems with what was being said…I was still operating under the false assumption that the AODA applied. After a few very tense moments talking I realized that I was wrong and this was a very different circumstance as there are no accessibility requirements for Service Dogs at the federal level. There are UN Human Rights requirements that Canada has accepted at the federal level however, so there is a requirement for accommodation just no official federal policy.

Monday night the anxiousness had built to a mild peak of “freak-out” when I decided to tell VIA what I thought of their Service Dog policy. Stating how I thought it was unfair because there was no way I could get my doctor to sign that note in 3 days, that there are no government approved (federal or provincial) training centres for Service Dogs and that the certificates/capes they asked for could be bought online in a kit for $250 to create false Service Dogs and finally, I didn’t need vaccination records to cross the US border and am only required to carry my “letter of documentation” stating I required a Service Dog for a medical reason and the only way to get that letter is to be diagnosed with a disability, thus the letter or as I call it “my prescription”! The rant continued…as they embarrassingly do!

The next day I got a call from Ms Norie-Lyn Grier at VIA Rail Customer Service in answer to my email. Now maybe nobody else would have a problem but my mental health disability was working full force and I was almost paralyzed with the fear of not getting to Sick Kid’s. After apologizing for being a dink in my email I explained how my disability was effecting me. Everything that VIA and I seemed to do created more tension on my side but Ms Grier, kept me calm and worked through every concern that I had…in short she was great. I learned from her and I think that she learned a little from me. Nothing was done in an order that made sense but that was mostly my problem…as a Service Dog owner I must assume a certain amount of responsibility to call/check accessibility requirements and availability as well as liability. I didn’t do that and now was running scared that I wouldn’t have time to do everything I needed to do. Again VIA was great and already had a system in place. Even though their system seemed a tad over the line in avoiding liability.

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Our Conductor for both our VIA rides that day…lucky us, she was great.

These are some ways to help make Service Dog accessibility work for you on VIA Rail.

  • The first time you call to book a seat you should call at least a week ahead as there is a little paperwork and special seating to arrange for future travelling…after that you’re in their system and the need for accommodation is automatically flagged for the ticket agent when making your reservation.
  • If you are like me and have a mental health or development disability call VIA by phone and ask for help…I found booking on the VIA website confusing. There is a drop-down box from one of the menu items on the home page where you will see a link to “Special Needs” (I know I had a problem too)…it helps but in my case it was better to call and get help.
  • Create a VIA Rail Preference Number…this gives you an account and lists you as needing accommodation for your disability including the accommodation required.  In my case it says that I travel with a Service Dog and need an extra seat, which under the VIA support person/service dog policy is free…with documentation that you sent whilst creating that preference number.
  • Via will email a form that your doctor must sign stating you require accommodation due to a medical disability. This form asks for medical information that I was not comfortable handing out and is needed for medical documentation. I explained that under the AODA I had to carry a “letter of documentation” signed by a medical professional stating that I required a Service Dog due to a disability…this letter was the only thing that made my dog legal as you can’t buy it online! After a brief discussion Ms Grier said that attaching a copy of the “letter” to the form in place of the doctors signature would suffice and offer the evidence they needed.
  • Next was a requirement that I carry a copy of his vaccination records…even though I argued that I don’t need that to cross the US border, I relented. What was the trouble in making a photocopy and having Tonka carry it in his cape pocket…life is mostly a two way street, this was my turn to show that I understood their point.
  • Ms Grier and I discussed the “certificate” problem. I explained that if the person mentioned a “certificate” then I automatically assume that the person has not had accessibility training! Again Ms Grier was great…we had a great talk about the difference between a “letter of documentation” signed by a medical professional who has diagnosed the person’s disability and a “certificate” that anyone can buy online. She then said that the letter would suffice as a certificate as it was signed by a doctor on letterhead with the medical professionals registered license numbers. I think I was arguing semantics but was still convinced that if nothing was said the station attendant would still be looking for a plastic card…seems that everyone believes a plastic card stating Tonka is a Service Dog is needed, its not, the letter is!
  • The dog can not be on the seat, its must be on the floor.
  • The train can’t stop for a “pee break” and you can’t get off and get on the next one as may be possible with a GO Train…this requires advanced planning depending on the length of the trip and the dogs washroom routines, which are normally trained into the dog. For instance, when sailing I control Tonka’s food/water intake the night before, on land its a little easier but he still has a routine for evacuation and I can control that routine after training a “poo-on-command”. Within a few minutes we’re done.
  • Remember that as the owner/handler “you” have a certain amount of responsibility to keep the dog under control.
  • It must be leashed and identified as a Service Dog with a cape.

So a quick recap; call a week ahead, setup a preference number for ease of future travel (creates an accommodation flag on your account), fill out medical form (without intimate detail) and attach the “Letter of Documentation” then fax both, carry a copy of the letter and vaccination records when travelling, keep off seat, must be under control (leash, obedient, housebroken), wearing a cape that designates a Service Dog, assume full responsibility for your animal.

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Our Conductor was kind enough to take our picture…then it was back to the floor, unless I needed him, which I did a couple of times.

I would like to ask of VIA that they consider the following;

  1. please ensure that station attendants understand that in Ontario at least, certificates are only legal for Guide Dogs and can/are faked for Service Dogs, that only the “Letter of Documentation” makes the Service Dog legal and must be presented when asked for
  2. that a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog are not the same and should not be treated as such. Service animals must perform 3 “specific tasks” to aid the handler so are considered working dogs. Therapy Dogs aid others to feel comfortable or better they do not perform “specific tasks” for the handler and as such are not working dogs. They do to qualify for “entry exemptions” of any kind. They do not get a letter documenting the owners disability and entitlement to keep their dog with them at all times.
  3. that vaccinations might not be required as under the AODA Service Dogs are required to be healthy and vaccinated at all times, its part of the handlers responsibility as owner
  4. lastly…remind employee’s not to take abuse from customers about a certificate, explain that proof of a Service Dog requirement is part of VIA Service Dog policy, only medical documentation without detail is acceptable. The letter is more an affirmation that I have a diagnosed disability and require the presence of a Service Dog, it must be signed by one of the AODA approved medical professionals. The certificate only affirms that the dog is trained in some discipline, not that I require it and it is issued by the dogs training centre.

Tonka and I did get on the VIA Train on time. The trip was pleasant and the assistance from VIA employees, from Ms Grier to the conductor, was what I would consider fantastic. Tonka had his own ticket for his seat beside mine and I felt like I was being treated like a regular person. When I got home after travelling back to Kingston on VIA I realized something. I was treated like a regular person…VIA Rail treats everyone with the same respect, kindness, thoughtfulness and individual understanding. They are fantastic with everyone!

Thank you Via Rail and everyone who helped me that week…you went beyond for me and made me feel included, respected, independently able to travel and equal in opportunity. And thats all Human Rights ask’s…to be included in the whole“Tonka’s Tips”.

Hope this helps make your trip with VIA Rail as enjoyable (after my self-created angst alleviated) as mine was …change your habits, take the train!

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