Transportation Issues for People with Disabilities
Transportation provides a vital lifeline for people with disabilities to access employment, education, healthcare, and community life. Transportation services allow individuals with disabilities to live independently within their communities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, provides discrimination protection to people with disabilities, particularly in Sections 503, 504 and 508. People with disabilities are no longer to be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended, requires accessibility in public transportation by intercity and commuter rail and for public transportation other than by aircraft or certain rail operations (See Part B).
However, despite these two landmark federal laws, transportation services are often not accessible to individuals with disabilities as policies are not implemented and adequate funding is not provided. A recent settlement of a class action suit brought against the Jackson, Mississippi public transportation system is an example of the federal government’s efforts to ensure that localities provide accessible transportation for individuals with disabilities.
Paratransit is an alternative mode of flexible passenger transportation that does not follow fixed routes or schedules, and can offer door-to door service that is particularly important for people with disabilities. These services often feature modified vans that are equipped with lifts to accommodate passengers who use wheelchairs. Paratransit passengers must be certified as eligible to use the services, which usually consists of filing an application that describes the passenger's disability, explains why he/she is unable to use regular transit, and requires the signature of a health care professional. Eligible passengers usually receive a special card that allows them to purchase paratransit fares and schedule rides on the system.
Paratransit services must be provided by a public entity that also operates a fixed route service. The law says all new vehicles purchased or leased by these public entities must be accessible (retrofitting of existing vehicles is not required), and good faith efforts must be demonstrated with regard to the purchase or lease of accessible used vehicles. Paratransit services are frequently limited by budget constraints in most areas.
Over-the-road buses are buses with an elevated passenger deck located over a baggage compartment. In 2007, the Over-the-Road Bus Transportation Accessibility Act established accessibility requirements for over-the-road bus travel. These bus routes typically operate by picking up individuals on the road rather than at a terminal, and the companies often ignore compliance with ADA. The enactment of the law in 2007 enforces the provisions in ADA to apply to over-the-road buses. Over-the-road buses must not deny transportation to passengers with disabilities, require or request a passenger with a disability to reschedule his or her trip, or require individuals other than bus staff to assist with boarding a passenger with a disability. Accessible service must be provided on 48 hours’ advance notice, and passengers should be aware of their rights if an over-the-road bus company does not comply with the law.
Amtrak has increased its ridership by 32 percent between 2002 and 2008. Within that ridership, 288,000 were passengers with disabilities. Although all Amtrak trains meet or exceed the requirements of ADA, not all stations are accessible. Currently, 94 percent of Amtrak passengers board at accessible stations. Congress mandated a deadline of July 26, 2010 for all stations to be accessible, but Amtrak does not have enough funding to make this a reality. It is estimated they will need $1.6 billion, but have only been allocated $144 million from Congress.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 was reauthorized in 2009 and ensures that individuals with disabilities can utilize aircraft travel. Like many other disability policies, enforcement of ACAA has been inconsistent. Airlines are required to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections; they cannot count assistive devices against the number of pieces of carry-on baggage individuals may take; and wheelchairs and other assistive devices have priority for storage in the baggage compartment. The reauthorization in May 2009 included a provision to apply the ACAA to foreign carriers, making international travel easier for passengers with disabilities. Nonetheless, airline staff are frequently inadequately trained to serve customers with disabilities, and many passengers are treated unfairly, abandoned on the plane upon landing, or are returned broken wheelchairs or other equipment. It is important for passengers to know their rights before going to the airport to ease the flying process.
Local Transportation Programs
The Transportation for the elderly and people with disabilities (Section 5310) program provides formula funding to states to assist private nonprofit groups in meeting the transportation needs of the elderly and persons with disabilities when the transportation service provided is unavailable, insufficient, or inappropriate to meeting these needs. The New Freedom formula grant program (Section 5317) provides additional tools to overcome existing barriers facing Americans with disabilities seeking integration into the workforce and full participation in society. The New Freedom formula grant program seeks to reduce barriers to transportation services and expand the transportation mobility options available to people with disabilities beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The funding for the New Freedom program has been underutilized, and as of April 30, 2008, only 8.7% of New Freedom funds that were available to be awarded were awarded. SAFETEA-LU also created a new planning process and other changes that will affect people with disabilities. The legislation that authorizes these two programs as well as all highway and transit funding in the United States – the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) - expired on September 30, 2009, and neither a reauthorization nor a replacement bill has been enacted. Without reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU, these provisions to safeguard people with disabilities are lost.