Putting special needs kids in cabs

Lorrie Thomas does not want her son to graduate from Grade 12. The 21-year-old special needs student feels safe at school and has friends there.

Lorrie Thomas does not want her son to graduate from Grade 12.

The 21-year-old special needs student feels safe at school and has friends there.

“The only good thing is we won’t have to deal with Premier Cabs anymore,” said Thomas.

In 2008, Premier Cabs won the Education contract to transport special needs students to and from Whitehorse schools.

Since then, Thomas has dealt with questionable drivers, unkempt vans and speeding issues.

“My son has had to tell drivers, ‘Slow down, this is a school zone,’” she said.

Thomas has complained to Premier Cabs owner Ken Giam.

And one van was taken off the road after a parent complained about its condition, she said.

But this isn’t the only problem.

“Many of Premier’s drivers don’t know how to deal with special needs kids,” said Thomas.

Her son is paralyzed from the breastbone down.

“And there have been times in the winter when the ramp didn’t work and he was left sitting outside at minus 40,” she said.

Before Premier won the contract, Takhini Transport bused the special needs students.

“And some still use the yellow buses,” said Education student transportation officer Dea Hrebien.

There are roughly 15 special needs students in Whitehorse.

Only four or five use Premier Cabs, she said.

These students live in places the big buses can’t access, or there may be timing issues, said Hrebien.

Takhini Transport only has two wheelchair-accessible buses/vans.

But there are students in wheelchairs in every Whitehorse school.

When the buses are booked, Premier Cabs picks up the slack, she said.

Sometimes, the cab company even takes the special needs students on field trips, while their classmates ride the school bus.

“These kids want to be like everyone else,” said Thomas.

But putting them in cabs and separating them from their classmates “makes them stand out even more.”

The special needs students can bring friends with them in the cab, said Hrebien.

“We want them to feel included.

“We want to make sure they’re treated the same as the other students.”

In 2005, Sir Froggy’s limousine service used to transport special needs students, said Hrebien.

Takhini took over the contract a year later, and used school buses and vans to do the job.

Takhini bid on the $70,000 contract last time around too, but lost out to Premier.

“Premier has been good,” said Hrebien.

“And we’ve worked out any issues that came up.”

The contract will tendered again in May.

And Standard Bus Contracting Ltd. bid on it, said Hrebien.

Standard Bus beat out Takhini Transport for the Yukon’s school bus contract this month.

The BC-based company will take over busing in the fall.

Thomas hopes it is awarded the special needs contract too.

But it will be too late for her son, who graduates this year.

The cab drivers need a criminal record check, a clean driver’s abstract and first aid training, said Hrebien.

“It’s the same for the school bus companies.”

But first aid training and a clean driver’s abstract isn’t enough, said Giam.

When Premier won the contract three years ago, Giam thought he could assign any of his drivers to the special needs runs.

It took the company two years to realize this wasn’t working.

“When we took the contract we underestimated the challenges with respect to the drivers,” said Giam.

“We thought we could just pull on any driver who passed the criminal records check.

“But it’s not as simple as we thought.”

Premier transports students with behavioural problems, kids who can’t speak and children in wheelchairs.

“And the drivers need to be able to relate to the special needs kids,” he said.

Of his 45 drivers, only two fit the bill.

“They are very stable,” he said.

“Many don’t want to do it, because they have to load and unload the wheelchairs,” added Giam.

Premier has four vans that accommodate wheelchairs, but only two qualified drivers, plus a sub.

Premier hasn’t had any trouble with its vans, said Giam.

And the company has a fulltime mechanic on its payroll, he said.

Still, if the company wins the contract again, it would like to upgrade two of its vans.

Premier deals with eight special needs students, taking them to and from school and swimming at the Canada Games Centre, he said.

When the contract goes to tender in May, Giam is going to bid on it again.

“We hope we win,” he said.

“And if we lose we will recommend the new company hire our two drivers because they know the parents and the students.”

Thomas admits the current Premier driver transporting her son is “good.

“I would have started driving my son everyday myself, if it wasn’t for this last driver,” she said.

But even good drivers don’t solve the issue of isolating the special needs students in cabs.

All the other students ride big yellow school buses to school, said Thomas.

“Why are they letting the special needs students be shipped around in taxis?”

Contact Genesee Keevil at