Tendering a Relationship? When a taxi is more than a ride.

Over the past two years, my son was driven to and from his school everyday by a taxi service funded by the government. At the end of last year, we were told that the contract for these daily taxi trips was going to another company. The school itself had argued against the change; they were more than satisfied with the service they were already receiving and tried to make the relevant government department in control of the tendering process, understand that change of this type can cause great stress and anxiety for special kids. There was nothing wrong with the existing provider, the change would cause distress for vulnerable children, but still the tender process ran its course, and so the school was left hoping for the best.

By Evgeni Zotov

And receiving far from it.

Two Octobers ago, I shared with you the tale of the miscommunicated change in school taxi drivers that left me panicked, thinking my son was missing or abducted. It was an instance of the immense vulnerability we and our children have in this situation: We trust these drivers to safely carry high needs children from A to B, but it’s more than picking them up and dropping them off. It’s trusting that the driver has strong enough character and patience and problem-solving skills, to cope with very challenging high needs children, when the drivers have no training at all in this area. All they have to know to get the job, is how to drive. (And apparently their pay-packets reflect this expectation, I’ve been told the pay is very poor.)

They don’t understand why a severely autistic child, for instance, can’t just be dropped off at their home, they need to be physically handed over to a guardian. They don’t understand how to correctly deal with a non-verbal child that kicks and screams in the back of the taxi. They don’t understand why certain phrases and instructions mean nothing or can even be painful to the wrong set of ears.

I went out of my way to set up a personal relationship with the two long-term taxi drivers my son had, so I could try to fill these knowledge gaps, and try to make them care about my son as an individual and not just a package to be delivered (it would have been just one driver over the two years, but the original driver moved overseas). I’d talk to them about his behaviours and what he could and couldn’t understand, and how to help him calm down if he was acting up. I even gave them Christmas and thank you gifts, to cement that relationship. These couldn’t just be taxi drivers, I needed them to feel like they were more than just that, because they were more than just that.

So putting a taxi service up for tender – seeking the best price – strikes me as missing the point. In my eyes, that’s tendering a special relationship. So it’s even worse when I read that the contract recently tendered to a new company, apparently allows that company to then sub-contract out those services to other providers. That makes me think the tendering process wasn’t focused on the history or reliability of the company that would be providing the service, if they were given the power to then subcontract to whoever they might choose; it’s no longer a service provided by that specific company at that point. The end results of this subcontracting and of the companies that won the tenders in their own right, are beyond unacceptable.

My son no longer takes the taxi everyday to and from school, because he started at the local school this year (we literally walk across the road). What my son misses about those daily taxi trips, isn’t the trip itself, it was the man in the front seat. The man who knew about the other kid in the back of that taxi van that teased my son, and how to deal with it. The man who played “Dancing Queen” over and over in the taxi, because it made the kids so happy. The man who was sad to know he’d no longer get to see the kids he’d grown to care about.

How do you tender for that?

Money matters, yes. But so does what you get for that money. And when the school, and the students, and the families, all think the change in service provider is unnecessary and foreseeably damaging, it’s best to listen and weigh that very heavily in any tendering process. The consequences of getting it wrong are felt in the daily lives of vulnerable children and their families.

Our children are not just cargo, and their drivers were never just drivers.

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11 Responses to Tendering a Relationship? When a taxi is more than a ride.

  1. Nellie says:

    What a thoughtful post. The New York City bus strike is over and the bus picked my kids up for the first time today. I nearly kissed them in the mouth, lol, because yes, we have a relationship with them, they know our kids, they know me, it is a relationship we have cultivated since September with some bumps along the way and yes, that is worth more than money. To have someone else understand your child, that is priceless. Thanks for sharing!

  2. dixieredmond says:

    In the name of saving money, we have seen our school system do away with clerical support for special needs teachers. We have seen the school system reduce the number of support staff in terms of what we call ed techs. We have seen them reduce programming, such as swimming, designed to help those with sensory needs. I have seen a need for sensory equipment reduced to a folding chair in an alcove in the classroom. This is in a district whose mission statement is to “provide optimal education for all”. Optimal in some districts is code for less expensive.

  3. Kim says:

    How did you get the government to cover your taxi expense? Is there a program out there dedicated to this type of transportation?

    -Kim the travel speech therapy girl

    • Kim, I assume you’re in New Zealand? Whether a child is entitled to a government paid taxi service depends on the distance required to get to their school, as I understand it. I was told by my sons’s school that he was entitled to the service, so speak to your school about whether it’s an option for you, if you need this service too.

  4. Zara Bryden says:

    An insightful posting on this topic – well done. You have captured the very essence of why the service is provided in the first place – to adequately provide transport services that meet the varied needs for some of our most vulnerable young people.
    After some research I found on the Ministry of Education’s website, the documents used in tendering the services last year at: http://www.minedu.govt.nz/NZEducation/EducationPolicies/Schools/SchoolOperations/SchoolTransport/School%20Tenders/2012SESTA.aspx
    It takes some reading but after glancing through a few words of “tokenism” the criteria appears bereft of defining the real qualities that a transport company’s management and drivers should have for contributing to the lives of these students. As you have rightly defined: “tendering a relationship”.
    Lowest price has obviously taken priority over quality.
    The issue of further sub-contracting referred to in the Herald article should be intensely scrutinised. The tender required that any nominated sub-contractors go through the tender process and that a list of vehicles be provided to determine that they conform to defined standards and checking by NZTA.
    A current observation of service, reveals the raft of sub-contractors and shabby ageing rented vehicles currently used, and I have heard from my neighbour some stories that can only be described as horror stories: inadequate vehicles with hoists that don’t work and no wheelchair tie down equipment, untrained drivers learning how to use the hoists upon arrival to collect, huge variations in collection and drop off times, or not being picked up at all, inability to make contact via the taxi number provided, stressed at school having to deal with all this, even stand up arguments with management of the service in the school driveway of all things – as if these parents have not got enough on their plates without this fiasco. I observed myself a taxi travelling along a busy main street with back windows down and students’ arms flailing dangerously out the windows.
    May be companies tendered last year and provided plausible tender responses, however the reality of service now is far removed, likely contrary to the picture painted at tender time and, after researching the documents, could well be in breach of contract.
    Whether the Ministry of Education is intent on checking this sorry state of affairs is another aspect. The Manager’s response in the NZ Herald article is unacceptable. There is a safety aspect attached to all of this as well as providing some dignity, confidence and understanding to those in receipt of this transport scheme.

    • Excellent comment Zara, thank you for digging deeper into the facts and background, I really appreciate the work you put into it, and anyone reading my post will benefit from having access to your comment.

  5. Hi! I love reading your blog, so I’ve tagged it for the Liebster Blog Award which helps link blogs together. I’ve written more about it here:
    http://autismandtheteensibling.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/liebster-blog-awards/

    Keep on blogging! :D

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