Taxis 'miles better' over special needs

DRIVER 'COULDN'T HANDLE IT': Porirua Taxis manager Raj Gordon, right, with his autistic son Sameer and wife Monika.
DRIVER 'COULDN'T HANDLE IT': Porirua Taxis manager Raj Gordon, right, with his autistic son Sameer and wife Monika.

The Wellington taxi company contracted to transport special-needs pupils to and from school is denying allegations that many of its drivers are not qualified to do so.

The Ministry of Education and Wellington Combined Taxis this week acknowledged initial "teething issues" in Porirua, since the company took over the tender to transport special-needs pupils this year.

The company says 400 of about 600 drivers hold a special-needs qualification, and it is working to replace unqualified temporary drivers in the Porirua area with permanent, qualified workers.

But Porirua Taxis, which lost the tender for the job, claims most Combined drivers are unqualified.

Porirua Taxis manager Raj Gordon, whose severely autistic son Sameer, 15, needs transporting to and from Mahinawa Specialist School, said a driver told him on Monday that she could not handle the boy.

"The lady who came first day said she couldn't handle it, so I dropped him myself. He was behaving like an autistic boy does, and she couldn't handle it."

It was "fundamentally wrong" that temporary drivers doing the Porirua run had no qualifications, he said.

The Dominion Post was contacted yesterday by other anonymous taxi drivers with similar concerns about the lack of qualifications among colleagues at Wellington Combined.

Wellington Combined chief executive Lynne Hayman said the company's service improved significantly yesterday, despite a few glitches. Yesterday she met ministry officials, who were also pleased with the improvements.

"Nobody is being left on their own today. They are all being handed over from caregiver to caregiver."

Mazina Jalal, who criticised the company's "Mickey Mouse" treatment of her 17-year-old autistic son Shameel on Monday, had two taxis arrive to pick him up yesterday.

She also received an apology phone call and assurance that there would be no more "hiccups".

Jill Sim, whose 14-year-old daughter Rachael had previously been picked up late and by various drivers, was happy with yesterday's service.

"They obviously know that I'm going to rock the boat. And the driver told me he would maybe be her permanent driver."

Mana College head of student services Rex Parker said the new taxi service for its Te Whare Ako pupils had gone from a "bloody nightmare" to "miles better".

It was "really, really important" drivers were qualified in handling high-needs students with various medical issues, he said.

Ms Hayman said all Wellington Combined's permanent drivers had qualifications in dealing with special-needs passengers, and the company was working on having more of them obtain a first-aid certificate too.

Drivers in Porirua were not all permanent yet, but in-house training had been given to the temporary drivers in the meantime, she said.

"At the end of the day, we need to get this right and we're working really hard with schools and drivers. We still have work to do and we acknowledge that."

A ministry spokesman said Wellington Combined was experienced and qualified, delivering transport for Wellington special-needs pupils since 2008.

All permanent drivers had to attain specific NZQA unit standards relating to the driving of special-needs pupils. The ministry carried out annual reviews of all its taxi providers' contractual requirements.

The Dominion Post