Impact Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Living Life in the Community: The Role of Transportation in Inclusion


Alan Abeson is Director of Easter Seals Project ACTION, Washington, DC.

“Same time, same place, every day: 6:45 a.m., the 90 bus from Damascus to Shady Grove Metro. For six months, my son has been volunteering in the Health and Human Services mailroom in hopes of a permanent position. This job could enrich his life in unfathomable ways. Jay is developmentally disabled. Last week he was informed he has a full-time position. He tells a fellow rider on the way home. The next morning as he boards, everyone on the bus applauds him. I know that it takes more than a village for Jay. It takes a bus, too.”

(Joan Kenealy, August 1, 2004, The Washington Post)

Individuals with developmental and other disabilities should be able to live their lives as fully as possible in typical neighborhoods in usual communities. Fundamental to this belief is that with appropriate supports participation will occur, benefits will be derived, and contributions will be made as a result of the involvement of these citizens in the array of activities that occur in all communities. It is this expectation of community participation that is the driving force guiding the extensive system of human service programs provided for children and adults with developmental and other disabilities. Regardless of whether it is functional or transition skills taught by educators, job counseling or training provided by vocational rehabilitation specialists, on-the-job training by job coaches or independent living skills from independent living centers, the goal for individuals remains the same: living life in the community!

Too often, the expectation of living in the community for people with developmental and other disabilities stresses only housing and employment. But just as is true for all other people, there is much more. To be able to fulfill civic responsibilities, serve as a volunteer, go shopping, enjoy a park, join a club, and spend time with friends are also virtues of community life. Being able to realize these and all of the other opportunities of community living is dependent on various external factors beyond the well-intentioned and thorough work and support provided by service providers and families. Among the most important is the knowledge, skills, and opportunity to use community transportation. People simply have to get where they need to go! And without transportation, virtually all of the dedicated effort to support people with developmental and other disabilities to live in the community may be wasted. Some even say that without the availability of transportation and the training to use it, it is pointless to invest time, energy, and money in preparing people for life experiences that will forever be inaccessible.

The Need for Access

As awareness of the importance of mobility for people with developmental and other disabilities has increased, the shortage of accessible transportation in the United States has been well documented. The 2003 National Transportation Availability and Use Survey (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2003) found that to travel outside their homes about one in four people with a disability needed help from another person and or an assistive device. Also discovered was that out of about 6 million people with disabilities, one in eight lived where public transportation was limited or nonexistent. Additionally, out of a total of 3.5 million people who never left their homes, nearly 2 million had disabilities. Five hundred and sixty thousand of these people with disabilities stated that the reason for being homebound was difficulty with transportation.

In part because of the past lack of accessible transportation, many people with developmental and other disabilities received transportation from human service agency owned and operated vehicles. One result of this practice was that no instruction, support, or experience was provided in using public transportation where it existed. Typically, using agency vehicles required traveling with a group on a pre-determined fixed schedule to a location selected by the agency, such as to and from sheltered workshops, recreation programs, and group homes – the antithesis to living independently in the community.

Remedying the inaccessible transportation situation for people with disabilities was partially the intent of the Congress in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. As a result of the ADA, considerable progress has now been made in improving the availability of accessible, safe, reliable, and affordable transportation. This is particularly true in communities that operate regularly-scheduled fixed route bus systems. In accordance with the ADA, people who because of their disabilities are unable to get to or use fixed route buses, if determined to be eligible, are entitled to complementary paratransit service. Noteworthy, though, is that because such paratransit service is frequently limited to a three-quarter mile path along fixed routes, people needing to travel outside that zone may have few or no options. Further complicating the challenge is that nearly 40% of the country’s “transit dependent population” lives in rural areas, and in many rural communities public and community transportation is limited or not available (CTAA, 2005).

Expanding Options

Fortunately, the overt hostility and resistance that characterized the relationship between the transportation industry and disability community prior to and at the time the ADA was enacted has long since passed. Despite limitations, much progress has been made as evidenced by the estimated 90% of fixed route buses now being lift or ramp equipped (APTA, 2005). The transportation industry, often with direct involvement and assistance from the disability community, provides training for bus operators regarding effective service for people with disabilities. Additionally, many community transportation agencies have also created advisory groups that include people with disabilities and senior citizens to provide ongoing review of the system’s operations as well as to assist in problem solving.

The growing understanding of the importance of transportation in enabling people with developmental disabilities to live in communities has not been lost on the transportation industry. With increasing ridership a consistent goal of the industry, there is now recognition that the disability community represents a large pool of potential customers. There is also the recognition that if people learn to use and do use public transportation at younger ages, they are likely to be customers for life. It is for these reasons that some transportation authorities have built strong alliances with public schools to develop and provide bus familiarization training programs, making buses available for teaching purposes and providing free or reduced fares to students and their teachers.

Teaching Transportation in Schools

Reinforcing the importance of transportation in the adult lives of people with developmental and other disabilities occurred in the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) with a provision regarding instruction for students with disabilities to use transportation while in school. Specifically, the definition of special education was expanded to include “travel training,” meaning “…providing instruction, as appropriate, to children with significant cognitive disabilities and any other children with disabilities who require this instruction, to enable them to – (i) Develop an awareness of the environment in which they live; and (ii) Learn the skills necessary to move effectively and safely from place to place within that environment (e.g., in school, in the home, at work, and in the community)” (IDEA, 1997). Guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Education states that “Travel training is often integral to ensuring that some children with disabilities receive FAPE (free, appropriate public education) and are prepared for post-school activities such as employment and independent living” (Fed. Reg., 2000).

Ultimately, teaching public transportation skills to secondary school students must be thought of in the same context as providing driver education since both address life-long community mobility. Learning about and using transportation should be considered for inclusion in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Individualized Transition Plans (ITPs). Within that context, it again must be recognized that transportation is the means for people to access all else in the community. Transportation must not be an afterthought in educational and transition planning, but a basic.

Getting Familiar with Public Transportation 

Unfortunately, in the minds of many, public transportation has a negative stereotype that may lead to resistance to its use by people with developmental and other disabilities, their families, and those who work with them. While generally unfounded, if such stereotypes are held by teachers, employment counselors, rehabilitation counselors, and family members, they must be suspended. The best way to do so is to actually be a passenger and become familiar with the opportunities offered. In addition to eradicating stereotypes, such familiarity will significantly enhance the delivery of travel familiarization, travel training, and all other forms of transportation education.

Regardless of the discipline or agency involved in designing and/or delivering instruction regarding the use of transportation, addressing the following questions will be helpful (United We Ride, 2005):

  • Do staff know how to travel across town on the community bus system?
  • Can staff arrange for daily transportation to and from work for someone with a significant disability who may or may not use a mobility device?
  • Do staff know what transportation services are available in the community?
  • Are staff and the people they support familiar with the transportation services that operate during business and non-business hours?


As the nation moves steadily forward in enabling people with developmental and other disabilities to become full-fledged participants in communities everywhere, significant progress continues to be made in increasing the availability of accessible transportation. The transportation industry has worked to reduce physical barriers on vehicles, provide driver sensitivity and customer service training, improve signage in transportation centers, increase the availability of paratransit services, and establish relationships with schools and other human service agencies to provide training and support for future passengers. Increasingly, community public works departments, working in concert with transportation providers, are identifying and eliminating barriers in the environments at and near bus stops and pedestrian intersections that hinder the use of public transportation. Taking advantage of these advances and opportunities to enable people with developmental and other disabilities to live and enjoy mobility in the community and all that comes with it is now the obligation of all those who work on behalf of these citizens.


  • APTA. (2005). APTA facts book. Retrieved from http://www.apta.com/research/stats/factbook/documents/bustb.pdf
  • Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA). (2005). Retrieved from http://www.ctaa.org/ntrc/is_rural.asp
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §1401 (25). , (1997).
  • Kenealy, J. (2000, June 8). Life is short: Autobiography as haiku.
  • United We Ride. (2005). Building an individual transportation plan. Retrieved from http://unitedweride.gov