Cameras, Used to Deny Disability, Struck Down

By Carlton Purvis, Published Jul 11, 2013, 12:00am EDT

Is your mom lying about being disabled to get free bus rides? A Canadian city is so determined to stop her that they have deployed thousands of cameras to catch her in the act. But hold on. These cameras have been struck down. In this note, we break down their approach, what was found to be at fault and what needs to happen next to continue surveillance usage. 

City Investigation 

After an investigation by the city ombudsman (full investigation report), the Toronto Transit Commission has stopped using surveillance in para-transit service vehicles to asses passengers’ levels of disability. The investigation found that camera footage was being used in hearings to deny passengers service. Those passengers were never told footage was being collected making them unable to fairly defend themselves in cases where a disability changes the amount of mobility from one day to the next.


The Wheel-Trans program is a door-to-door transit service for disabled riders. From 2006 to 2007, the city fitted Wheel-Trans vehicles with cameras for “crime deterrence and the safety and security of passengers and staff.” By the end of 2008 more than 7,000 cameras were installed in transit vehicles. In 2010 TTC expanded the scope of the cameras, using them to verify the customer eligibility.

If a person complains that a rider may not have a disability (or limited mobility) TTC initiates a “Questionable Rider” investigation. The first step of a TTC investigation involved pulling video from the rider’s recent Wheel-Trans trips. An investigative panel gets a copy, but the rider does not and is never told video was used in the assessment. Using this procedure, 70% (54) of “questionable riders” observed in 2012 and 56% (45) in 2011, were deemed ineligible for service.

Policy Violation

Following a complaint against TTC, City of Toronto Ombudsman, Fiona Crean, opened an investigation in to TTC’s surveillance camera use. The final 45-page report was released this week. The ombudsman found that TTC violated its own policy that requires public consultations before expanding surveillance camera use. It also found that TTC did a poor job informing passengers that footage could be used to determine eligibility. TTC was using tiny decals that the ombudsman says were “so small that most people wouldn’t notice it.

The report included this image of a decal (but did not note the actual size displayed). 

[UPDATE]: Crean says the decals were on the buses below the cameras. Their dimensions were 8.5 by 3.75 inches. 

Unfair Representation 

The worst problem was that the cameras presented an unfair depiction of a person’s situation. The report used several anecdotes from former Wheel-Trans riders.

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“Ms. X” had her eligibility terminated after a panel reviewed video of her using transit services. “She explained that if she had been video recorded during the winter, when she experiences more difficulty walking, the panel would have seen her challenges. Conversely, if the video recording was taken during the summer, it would not accurately reflect the degree of her disability,” the report says. Other passengers had their eligibility terminated after video footage showed them occasionally walking unassisted or on days when pain was not as severe or debilitating. Another patient interviewed said her doctor told her occasionally walk unassisted to promote blood circulation. The panel found her ineligible for services.

The ombudsman said using video against passengers without telling them was unfair and did not give passengers a chance to defend themselves. None were aware that footage from the cameras would be used against them, and some said they would have been ready to explain their situation or present information from a doctor at the hearing if they had been.

The ombudsman issued 11 recommendations to the TTC that included:

  • Enlarging its decal to make all wording readable 
  • Provide surveillance information in the form of web pages and booklets
  • Conducting a public consultation on expanding the scope of the cameras
  • Allowing riders to see footage and defend themselves in hearings 
  • Inviting all riders disqualified since 2011 to reapply for service

TTC agreed to comply with all of the ombudsman's recommendations. 

Other Highlights From the Report

Surveillance Use in Major Canadian Cities

Of 10 other major cities with para-transit services (Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Vancouver and Winnipeg) half used surveillance in their vehicles, however, Toronto is the only one to use surveillance to determine eligibility. The cities said their primary purpose for using surveillance was “public safety and security.” Other uses included accident investigations and physical and property damage investigations.

Most of the transit providers had signage in their vehicles. Five had additional information on their websites.

Cameras Do Not Tell The Whole Story

They can provide an extra set of information that can be weighed along with other information, but they are never a complete and accurate record of an event. Cameras help measure interest in store items, watch machinery and track vehicles, but none of this is done without just as much information coming from outside the camera. TTC erred by ignoring other sources of evidence and putting more weight on surveillance footage than testimony from passengers or doctor’s notes. 


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