The operator of Ontario's GO Transit service is asking bus drivers to accommodate an autistic man by spitting out their chewing gum if asked, a directive meant to encourage employees to meet the needs of those with invisible disabilities.
Metrolinx says a regular passenger, who is autistic, has extreme sensitivity to the sounds and scents of people chewing gum nearby.
Spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins says Liam Walshe takes steps to limit his exposure when travelling by train, but says options such as relocating to other cars are not available when using a bus.
She says Metrolinx has therefore asked drivers to spit out their gum if the man boards their vehicle, saying the directive is comparable to similar measures asking staff to refrain from wearing perfume or eating foods likely to trigger serious allergies.
Aikins says that while the memo only specifically mentions the one passenger, it's meant to serve as a guideline encouraging staff to recognize that people with invisible disabilities must be accommodated on the service.
Walshe issued a statement through a legal representative saying he's pleased with Metrolinx's willingness to accommodate him, but says other transit authorities still fail to provide inclusive environments.
Aikins said Metrolinx's stance is a bid to acknowledge the critical role public transit plays in the lives of people with disabilities.
“We want everyone to be able to participate fully in society," Aikins said in a telephone interview. "Often that requires use of public transit . . . Participating in public transit is not a privilege, it's a right.”
Walshe, a paralegal living in Mississauga, Ont., has two conditions that greatly amplify his sensitivity to sound.
His legal representative Mark Stoute said Walshe has both hyperacusis, a physiological condition that gives him particularly sensitive hearing, and misophonia, commonly defined as particular dislike or intolerance of sounds.
Stoute said Walshe's autism compounds these conditions “exponentially” and compromises his capacity to function in some settings.
He said Walshe sought accommodations from more than one transit service.
While Metrolinx was willing to work with him, he said legal action is pending against a regional provider who denied his application for paratransit services.
Under Ontario's accessibility legislation, the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, paratransit services are available to people with a wide array of disabilities.
In 2017 all services were required to expand their eligibility requirements beyond those with mobility impairments and include those with cognitive, sensory, or mental health disabilities.
“Mr. Walshe is not a gold digger, and does not seek to exploit anyone using his legal prowess,” Stoute said.
“He merely wants to be able to commute like other people with dignity and safety, but he legitimately requires accommodation for his special needs.”
Aikins said Metrolinx differs from many public transit operators by not having a separate system dedicated to disabled passengers, such as a paratransit service.
While she recognizes that the company cannot control passenger behaviour, she said Metrolinx is committed to making its service as inclusive as possible by asking drivers to take small steps that could promote rider comfort.
She said the latest directive has been met with some public pushback but maintained that it was right move.
“Their experience in life is that it's their responsibility to accommodate the rest of the world,” she said of many disabled passengers.
“I'm hoping in time that changes.”
GO Transit's train and bus network stretches from Peterborough to Niagara Falls and north to Barrie.