Impact Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities
Drawing Attention to Transportation: Disability Awareness Day in DC
Transportation for people with disabilities is an evolving and important issue for regional transportation planning. Over the past decade, regional planning agencies have gradually begun to include the needs and concerns of persons with disabilities in the planning process.
Federal law requires every urban area with a population of at least 50,000 to have a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) to address transportation at a regional level. The MPOs typically include representatives of the departments of transportation, elected officials from local and state government, and sometimes transit agencies. The MPO for the Washington, DC, region is called the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB). Federal law further requires MPOs to involve the public in the transportation planning process, including low-income communities, minority communities, and people with disabilities. To ensure that typically underrepresented voices are heard in the planning process for Washington, the TPB created the Access for All (AFA) Advisory Committee in 2001. The AFA committee advises the TPB on transportation issues important to low-income and minority populations, and persons with disabilities, and is comprised of diverse community leaders.
The AFA committee has expressed numerous concerns about access to transportation for people with disabilities and has recommended improvements. Much to the frustration of disability advocates on the committee, input and ideas from the disability community are often met with resistance on the part of transportation agencies. John Hudson, a member of the AFA committee, challenged it to go beyond the routine strategy of simply making recommendations and to address the root of the problem: attitudes and misunderstandings. John and many others believe that common myths and misperceptions about people with disabilities are a major reason why the transportation needs of the disability community are not always effectively addressed. The AFA committee agreed to try a new way to tackle the problem: hosting an awareness activity to increase the sensitivity of elected officials to people with disabilities and their transportation needs.
The AFA committee sponsored its first Disability Awareness Day on October 20, 2004, with the purpose of raising awareness about the following issues:
- The importance of public transit for enabling people with all types of disabilities to travel for work, medical, and social purposes.
- The need for improved pedestrian access, including accessible sidewalks, intersections, pedestrian crosswalk signals, and curb cuts.
- The broader social benefits of improving transportation accessibility and addressing the travel needs of persons with disabilities. Accessible sidewalks create a better pedestrian environment, and an easy-to-use transit system encourages the general public as well as people with disabilities to use public transportation.
The event was held in conjunction with National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and stressed the fact that transportation is a major barrier for people with disabilities in gaining employment. According to a 2004 National Organization on Disability (NOD)/Harris survey (NOD, 2004), persons with disabilities are twice as likely to have inadequate transportation as persons without disabilities. In the Washington region, the unemployment and poverty rates for individuals with disabilities are also twice that of the general population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). “Reliable and dependable employees need reliable and dependable transportation,” notes AFA committee member John Hudson.
To highlight the typical workday commute of people with disabilities, 11 travel teams – each including a person with a disability, an elected official or transportation agency representative from the TPB, and a member of the media – trekked to a press conference held October 20th at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) headquarters. Easter Seals Project ACTION, the American Council of the Blind, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Community Transportation Association, and the Center for Workers with Disabilities co-sponsored the event. At the press conference, travel team members shared details of their commute, highlighting accessibility features and challenges encountered along the way. For many TPB members the trip was an eye-opener. “I have traveled back and forth to COG for many years and I would have said yesterday that coming out of the Metro station was an absolutely flat trip along the sidewalk,” said Carol Petzold, a Maryland House Delegate who traveled with Connie Caldwell from Montgomery County’s Commission of People with Disabilities. “Today with Connie and her manually-operated wheelchair I realized there is a significant slope to the sidewalk,” Petzold continued. “Something that had never mattered to me was a significant safety feature for us today.” Additional challenges encountered by the travel teams included elevator outages, narrow sidewalks crowded with people and poorly placed objects such as fire hydrants and parking meters, poorly placed or missing curb ramps, and confusion and delays associated with paratransit shuttle bus services.
Travel team participants also had praise for the progress the region has made towards accessible transportation since the passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990. For example, transportation agencies have installed wheelchair lifts on over 90% of the region’s buses. All participants agreed, however, that there is still more to do. Participants with disabilities described difficulties with day-to-day accessibility issues such as elevator outages in the Metrorail system, elevator buttons that are inaccessible, and the gap between rail cars and the platform.
Benefits for All
“The region needs to work together to create a transit and pedestrian system that provides access for all,” said Kathy Porter, Takoma Park, Maryland, mayor and chair of the AFA committee. She commuted by Metrorail to the conference with Phillip Strong of the American Council for the Blind, and noted the helpful audible crossing signals in the newly-developed downtown of Silver Spring, Maryland, but also said the region needs to work on getting bumpy warning strips on all Metrorail platforms, making sure all buses are lift-equipped, and improving pedestrian access, especially at busy intersections. AFA committee member Dr. Bud Keith, a retired federal employee with a visual impairment who has been working for better transportation access for people with disabilities for about 35 years, told participants that improved pedestrian and transit access will benefit all of society. He stated, “We are not doing this for us, but for you. As you age, you might need a wheelchair. Your vision could get worse.”
One measure of success of the event was the extensive media coverage, which brought the message of “access for all” out to the general public. Media coverage included four newspaper articles in the Washington Post and other newspapers, numerous TV network news reports, and at least two radio stories, including one on the local National Public Radio affiliate. The event also successfully demonstrated the powerful impact that personal one-on-one experiences between people with disabilities and elected officials can make. Michael LaJuene, a participant who uses an electric wheelchair, was the “Quote of the Day” in the Washington Post: “You can talk to people until you’re blue in the face about what you can do for people with disabilities…But until you’re in a chair, you can’t understand” (Washington Post, 2004). This event gave the officials a chance to more fully understand.
National Organization on Disability. (2004). 2004 National Organization on Disability/Harris survey of Americans with disabilities (No. 20835). Retrieved from www.nod.org.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2000). Census 2000, 5% public use microdata sample. Retrieved from www.census.gov/main/www/pums.html.