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An important reason why full-service stations are needed

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I am here today to worship at the feet of those among us who can’t walk on their own.

For years I worked at the Toronto Star with Barbara Turnbull, probably the bravest person I’ve ever known. Shot in the neck and left a quadriplegic in 1983 when she was 18 years old, she became a reporter and advocated for others struggling with physical disabilities. This seems to be a pattern.

Take Louise Russo. She was standing in line at a North York sandwich shop in 2004, buying supper for her family, when an underworld hit went wrong and she was shot. She hasn’t been able to walk since but has been working, with others, to fight for the rights of the disabled.

And then there’s Edward (Eddie) Rice, who’s fought for mobility much of his life. Struck down by polio as a toddler in the early 1950s – it got him literally a day or two before Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine became available – he was left completely paralyzed at 18 months. An iron lung kept him breathing till he turned three and, when he emerged, he had some movement except in his legs. Braces and crutches allowed him to get around.

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There’s been an ebb and flow to Eddie’s life ever since. Medical science allowed him to use his legs to get his driver’s licence when he was 16 but, as he’s gotten older (he’s 72 now), post-polio syndrome has kicked in and is once again robbing him of his ability to walk.

He’s gone from crutches to a scooter and now he’s in a wheelchair. He drives a specially equipped minivan with hand controls. He gets around on the roads just fine. So, what’s the problem?

Ever try to buy gas when you can’t walk?

Big problem, eh? Once upon a time we had what were called service stations. The attendants pumped the gas and cleaned your windshield and even checked your oil. Now there’s one person, maybe two, taking the money and you get to pump the gas and do everything else at what are called self-service gas bars.

So, if you can’t walk and you need gas and what do you do? You go to a self-service bar and honk your horn but what sort of signal is that? You could try phoning the station, but attendants are often so busy they don’t answer. And the button on the pumps that you can push if you need attention?  They often don’t work or else nobody inside pays any attention.

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Eddie runs the Canadian Coalition for Mobility Challenged Drivers, which is connected to B’nai Brith Canada. Louise works with him. There’s a solution out there, but Eddie is concerned that not enough of the two million disabled people in Canada know about it, and not enough are using it. It’s called the Fuel Service App. Here’s how it works.

If you need one, you download the app from the App Store. It’s free. When you need gas, just tap on the icon; when it opens, tap on the “find stations” button and your GPS will list the stations near you. Tap on the station locator and within 30 seconds you’ll be told that a staff member will assist you when you arrive. They will fill your tank and ask if you want anything from the store before taking your credit card and completing the transaction.

I asked Eddie if he was ever inclined to buy something from the store, even if he didn’t need it, because he appreciated the service so much. “I have a fridge full of Coke,” he chuckled, “and I don’t drink Coke.”

Now, this is not a universal app. Developed originally by Shell U.K., it arrived in Canada thanks to Barry Monroe, an associate member of the coalition, who was contacted by the U.K app developer Niall El Assaad. Shell Canada launched it here.

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So, yes, this app only works at Shell stations. It’s a mystery to Eddie – and me, now that I know about this – that Petro Canada and Esso aren’t involved.

“If nothing else,” REddie said, “it’s good business. I’ve told Petro Canada and Esso that there are potentially two million (disabled) Canadians who would be delighted to purchase gas at the pumps and confections from their stores, but they’ve taken a pass.

“Shell went from being a good corporate citizen to a great one by doing this.”

Eddie finished our chat by saying this: “Unless people have a disability, or live with someone who has, they don’t know the  problems we face.”

He’s right about that. Like most people who do not have a disability, I thought I understood. But it was only after I broke my wrist a little more than a year ago that it hit home. It was my right wrist and I do everything with my right hand – write, button up my shirt, use a fork to eat. I couldn’t drive as my insurance would be compromised. I recovered, but I remember thinking about permanently disabled people.

The Fuel Service app will not solve all the problems in their lives. But it will go a long way to making one part of it just a little bit better.

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