Disabled Whitby mom seeks accommodation so daughters can safely ride bus to school
Whitby resident Brittany Heath, who has ALS, is seeking accommodation so that her two young daughters can ride the bus to school. The family lives 400 metres too close to the kids' school to qualify for the service.
Published Thursday, September 21, 2023 9:52PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 22, 2023 7:47AM EDT
A disabled Whitby mother is speaking out about a policy that she says has left her unable to access school bus transportation for her two young daughters.
Brittany Heath lives with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is no longer able to walk unassisted or freely use her arms. She gave up driving six years ago due to her illness and has found it difficult to get her children, ages 4 and 6, safely to school when her husband is unavailable to help due to work obligations.
She told CP24.com that she would like the consortium responsible for school transportation in Durham to accommodate her by allowing her children to ride the bus that passes by her door every day.
However, Heath said that her kids have been denied access to school bus transportation because they live about 400 metres too close to their school.
In order to qualify for bus service through Durham Student Transportation Services families must reside 1.7 kilometres or more from their school. Heath and her family live 1.3 kilometres away.
“There’s no reason why they cannot accommodate us. It’s plain discrimination,” Heath alleged in an interview with CP24.com.
Last school year, Heath was initially denied school bus service as well but an arrangement was eventually reached with Durham Student Transportation Services (DSTS) so that her eldest daughter could be picked up and dropped outside their home. The younger one was not of school age at that point.
Heath had hoped that a similar accommodation would be made this year, but that wasn’t the case.
Now, she says that she is in the process of seeking legal counsel and is considering filing a human rights complaint.
“I’m already very sick and I’m having other health problems because of this stress. … I’m only getting sicker every day and this is adding to my unwellness,” Heath said.
“Life is hard right now for a lot of people. There’s needs to be some flexibility.”
In a statement provided to CP24.com on Thursday evening, DSTS said that they “recognize this family's situation poses some challenges" pointing to “temporary accommodation” that was made last year to “give them time to find alternate arrangements as their residence is outside the transportation boundary.”
The school transportation company went on to say that the local school “primarily serves students who walk to school.”
“Unfortunately, it is simply not possible to provide transportation for every family due to the current funding arrangement for student transportation services in Ontario. DSTS aims to provide fair and effective transportation services for those who live outside the walk distances to schools,” Kelly Mechoulan, of DSTS, wrote in an email.
“We try to help where we can, like we did last year to provide the family with a one-time exception based on our policy to give them some time to adjust.”
A spokesperson from the Durham District School Board said that the family in question does not “qualify for home to school transportation because they live too close to their school,” but said that they are “always willing to work collaboratively in the spirit of finding solutions wherever possible.”
“That’s what happened last year when Durham Student Transportation Services provided temporary transportation for this family for the remainder of last school year in order to give them time to make alternative permanent arrangements,” spokesperson Cory Wilkins wrote in a written statment provided to CP24.com by email.
Wilkins went on to note that the current funding arrangement for student transportation services in the province “requires efficient service and prevents (them) from being able to provide transportation services for everyone who requests it.”
At least one human rights lawyer says that Heath’s situation raises real legal questions.
Wade Poziomka, who has represented both individuals as well as schools boards in a range of education-related disability cases, told CP24.com that under the Ontario Human Rights Code there is a requirement that reasonable accommodation be provided for students and families with disabilities so that they can access the school system equitably.
Poziomka, it should be noted, is not representing Heath.
“(The school transportation company) has an obligation to bend the rules. And while some call it bending the rules, I see it as levelling the playing field. … That is exactly what a duty to accommodate requires, in my view.”
Poziomka added that in light of the transportation company agreeing to provide school bus service to this family last school year, there should be no reason why they can’t do it again this school year.