When an eighteen-year-old girl with severe development disabilities went missing for seven hours in early February, people were naturally worried. Like usual, Ólöf Þorbjörg Pétursdóttir had gotten into a van operated by the public bus company Strætó, which she relies on to transport her to an afterschool programme at Hitt Húsið. But when it was time to go home at the end of the day, she was nowhere to be found. It turns out she had never made it to the programme, and was actually still in the van, sitting in front of the driver’s house with her seatbelt fastened.
The ensuing kerfuffle drew the ire of various institutions and politicians from both sides of the aisle. The driver claims it was a misunderstanding and blames Hitt Húsið. The father says it was Strætó’s fault for not having more safety checks. The head of Strætó’s transportation services has apologised, as has Reykjavík’s mayor. For the people using the services, however, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
One of those people is Andri Valgeirsson. Andri is a 29-year-old student and caseworker for Sjálfsbjörg (“Self Help”), a national union of people with disabilities. Born with arthrogryposis, a condition characterised by stiff joints throughout his body, Andri spends most of his waking day in a wheelchair, which makes him entirely dependent on Strætó’s services to get to school, work, the doctor’s office, and social functions. As such, he is not the least bit pleased with the recent developments.
Built on sand
Andri says this incident is part of a problem that began when the Strætó’s Ferðaþjónusta Fatlaðra (“Transport Services for Disabled People”) decided to put the transportation service out for tender. Andri says Sjálfbjörg contacted the city and surrounding counties to offer suggestions on how to make the service more efficient after three of its clients had been picked up by three separate vehicles to get to a single location. The counties, however, somehow took this to mean that they should put the collective contract out for tender, Andri says, which was exactly the opposite of what Sjálfsbjörg wanted.
“We were opposed to the idea right from the beginning, because as has now come to light, there was no transfer of knowledge,” he says. “Two or three decades worth of experience that the previous companies had accrued from working with people with disabilities was all thrown away, and mostly new people were hired.”
Very few of the drivers and staff from the support centre were transferred over when Hópbílar got the contract at the end of 2014, although Strætó maintains that all employees had the possibility of keeping their jobs. When the company tried out their new services in November, Andri says it was a disaster. “We at Sjálfsbjörg were pushing to have a say in how the operation was run, but our requests fell on deaf ears,” he says, “and the service was absolutely abysmal. The vans were far later than they said they would be, there were repeated communication breakdowns between the calling centre and drivers, and there were a few cases of disrespectful behaviour from the drivers.”
With the new contract, clients were also limited to 60 trips per month, or 30 back-and-forth rides. This includes any trips to school, work, medical appointments, and to see friends. For what Strætó calls “active individuals,” a fuzzy term, there was the option of applying for an additional twenty trips per month at the cost of 1,100 ISK per ride, which is a tall order for people on disability benefits that amount to less than 200,000 ISK per month.
Andri shows me a diary he’s kept of his travels since the new system went into effect. On the fourth of January, he notes the van was 25 minutes late, and the driver took five minutes to drive off, as he didn’t know how to operate the door. On the seventh of January the van didn’t come on time and Andri was seventeen minutes late for a physiotherapy appointment. Again on that same day, he heard a driver admit for the first time that the system was broken and that the whole office was going mad. The rest of the diary continues this way, with late appointments, missed meetings and erroneous bookings.
“The only good things to come out of the new contract were the new fleet of cars, which are better suited to the needs of people with disabilities, and the ability to book same-day trips with only two hours notice through a call centre that’s open for longer,” Andri says, “but to be honest, everything else has been for the worse.”
The winds of change blow slowly
After Ólöf went missing in February, Reykjavík City Council was forced to face the diminished quality of the service, and put together an emergency committee to make meaningful changes to the way the service was conducted. Strætó also shaped up and removed the additional cost per trip for “active individuals,” but people soon started seeing the same problems pop up again.
Andri allows me to look at a closed Facebook group for people with disabilities where complaints about the transport services are frequently posted. Just in one day late late February I see three serious complaints about people being almost half an hour late to work, drivers not accommodating the needs of children with special needs, and students being late to school for important exams despite booking their trips well in advance.
“Being so late doesn’t just affect the people being transported, but also everyone else around them,” Andri insists. “Do you think people can keep their jobs if they’re always late? And how about the children who go to afterschool programmes and are picked up 30-45 minutes late? Is the staff expected to wait with them without pay?”
The solution, in Andri’s mind, has to do with training staff properly, and then retaining those with experience. “I’d like to see someone with experience working with people with disabilities in a senior-level position at the office, because the job isn’t just about numbers and percentages,” he says. “And the staff, both working at the call centre and driving the cars, need extensive specialist training, because they are dealing with a very vulnerable group of people that can have a hard time communicating verbally.”
Andri says that if these problems are not taken into consideration, there will be repeated instances of catastrophes like the one we saw in February. “I hope that this illustrates to the city and other counties that when they’re dealing with a situation where they have limited experience, it helps to speak to the people with more experience,” he says. “This is especially true with matters concerning people with disabilities, where people who don’t understand our special circumstances often make decisions that affect us without even bringing us to the table. I hope they do better in the future.”
Who is Andri Valgeirsson?
Andri is a 29-year-old student and caseworker for Sjálfsbjörg (“Self Help”), a national union of people with disabilities. He spends his free time editing videos for the comedy sketch group Oryrki.is (“Legally Disabled”), taking photographs and programming, as well as playing video games, and listening to hardcore and metal music like Muck (read our review of their latest album here). Heck, Andri even makes his way to metal extravaganza festival Eistnaflug when he can.
You Can’t Always Go Downtown
Sun peers through the large windows at Hressó on Andri Valgeirsson, shining on his transition lenses and heavy 5 o’clock shadow. He sometimes comes to Hressó when he’s in 101 Reykjavík, but most of the time you won’t see his dark navy Pumas around the downtown area.
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