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

Supporting Independent Travel Through Skills Training


Donna Smith is Training and Technical Assistance Specialist with Easter Seals Project ACTION, Washington, DC.

Transportation – how we get to and from the events that make up our lives – is a primary consideration for everyone, including people with developmental disabilities. This article will focus on skills training as one essential component of independent travel.

If transportation is critical to the accomplishment of the business of life, then good independent travel skills are critical to the successful use of transportation. While it is generally accepted that people need a certain amount of education, training, and hands-on experience to learn to safely and independently drive a vehicle, the same attention is not necessarily given to the provision of skills needed to safely and independently use public transportation. The fact remains that driving will not be a viable option for many people with developmental disabilities, and alternatives such as use of public transportation are essential to enhancing quality of life and advancing independent living. Travel training or travel instruction is the profession that teaches such skills, and there is growing recognition of its value by educators, human service providers, transportation providers, and the disability community.

Travel Training/Instruction Defined

Travel training/instruction is one-to-one, short-term, intensive instruction designed to teach people with disabilities to travel safely and independently using public transportation in their community when appropriate. At an even more basic level, it is instruction to teach purposeful movement that enables a person to move from where they are to where they need to be, training that occurs in most instances at a very early age and within the context of learning to walk and orient to one’s environment as a natural part of the development process. Though such learning also occurs for most children with disabilities in accordance with their developmental pace, additional, intensive instruction is needed to apply the concept of purposeful movement to ever-increasing spheres of travel. While it is preferable for such training to be incorporated into the education process as early as possible, the actual instruction of moving about in one’s community and using public transportation most often occurs during middle and high school years. It is important to recognize, though, that this training can be introduced at any stage of life, and benefits are immeasurable and immediate.

Building Basic Skills

Teaching independent travel skills to people with developmental disabilities is very individualized. Though the basic skills that need to be learned are the same, the method of teaching should be flexible to adapt to the learning needs of the individual. Basic skills include orientation to the immediate environment, identifying landmarks, learning a route, street-crossing skills, and safety while moving in close proximity to traffic. When use of public transportation is an option, additional skills are needed such as understanding the concept of fixed-route schedules, identifying the public transit vehicles, locating transit stops, paying fares, recognizing when to disembark, and learning the route from the transit stop to the points of origin and destination. Finally, interactive and problem-solving skills are also needed, such as how to interact with the vehicle operator and other passengers, and what to do when unexpected changes occur such as delays, detours or inclement weather. How much instruction is needed in each of these areas will vary from individual to individual, and practitioners report that skills can be effectively taught in days or weeks based on the individual’s ability and experience and the complexity of the route. People with developmental disabilities can also learn to make use of available resources around public transportation such as telephone and Web-based trip planning assistance, printed maps and schedules, and customer information booths in transit centers.

Addressing Barriers

The barriers to travel training/instruction mostly exist as challenges that prevent or make it difficult for this kind of skill development to occur. In the service provision field, one such challenge is the ratio of professionals to consumers and justifying the expense. For example, in an inclusive classroom, the ratio may be one teacher to twenty students, and in an adult services program the ratio may be one professional to four participants. But for the purpose of travel training/instruction, the ratio needs to be one-to-one, and the challenge becomes how does a program administrator justify the cost of providing one-to-one instruction. Since travel training/instruction is intensive and short-term, one solution is for the program to hire professionals who specialize in this field to work with one person at a time. In locations where the school system makes use of fixed-route public transportation to provide transportation to and from school, the cost of providing travel training/instruction to students with disabilities is quickly offset by the reduction in cost of providing specialized transportation on an ongoing basis. Similarly, for any human services program that bears the cost of specialized transportation for its participants, teaching individuals independent travel skills so they can make use of all transportation options available reduces some of the financial and logistical responsibility for travel, in addition to benefiting the individual, who is able to lead a more independent life.

Another barrier that can interfere with the provision of travel training/instruction is a difference in perception about the need for and the ability to accomplish independent mobility. Most planning to meet the needs of people with developmental disabilities occurs through a team process including the individual, a parent or guardian, and staff. There is often a difference of opinion among them as to whether independent travel is a viable goal. A typical example might be that the person with the disability believes that he can learn to use the public transportation system to take the trips he wants, and the parent or guardian may think that use of public transportation may be too risky. The professional, on the other hand, may think of the individual in terms of his limitations and may doubt his ability to achieve independent mobility. It is then necessary to seek a compromise of these diverse views, and an effort needs to be made to obtain a fair assessment of the individual’s potential, to establish safeguards to address concerns of safety, and to implement a course of instruction that will enable the maximum level of independent travel to be achieved. Anecdotally, it has been proven time and time again that people with disabilities who learn to travel independently and safely exhibit greater levels of self-confidence and are more likely to accomplish other goals of independent living, education, and employment. The benefits are well worth the effort to negotiate around differing views about what can reasonably be accomplished.

Sometimes the barriers occur in other areas. For instance, the infrastructure of the community may not support safe pedestrian travel because there are inadequate sidewalks or paths of travel along roadways, there may not be a public transportation provider serving the community, or available transportation providers may be unskilled in providing assistance to travelers with disabilities. Travel training/instruction can still occur around the infrastructure as it exists, and with the goal of assisting the individual to learn to navigate use of whatever transportation is available such as carpooling, human service transportation or taxicab. Advocacy coalitions can also be formed to address the issue of pedestrian access and alternatives to driving at the local level as it impacts many citizens such as people with lower incomes, people with various disabilities, and older adults who can no longer drive or who need or want to walk for better health. And advocacy can occur with transportation providers to ensure that operators are trained to provide assistance when requested, such as announcing destination stops or reading written information from the customer about their destination.

In summary, barriers to use of transportation by people with developmental disabilities mostly have solutions in increased awareness of the issues and training for both the individual with the disability and the operator or customer service staff with the transportation provider. While the funding for the provision of such training must be sought from a variety of sources, it is generally considered to be an efficient use of funds in that use of fixed-route public transportation is more cost-effective than specialized transportation. The benefits to the individual in terms of freedom of movement, independence, community inclusion, and increased confidence are immeasurable.

For Further Information

For more information about travel training/instruction, consult the following resources available from Easter Seals Project ACTION. They are available online at no cost at http://projectaction. Select the category “Free Resources,” then “Order & Download Free Publications,” and look for the heading “Travel Training.” They may also be ordered by phone at 202/347-3066:

  • Curriculum to Introduce Travel Training to Staff Who Work with People with Disabilities. A training program for people who work with individuals with disabilities, informing them of the benefits of travel training.
  • Competencies for the Practice of Travel Training and Travel Instruction. This resource guide lists the essential academic and field practice competencies needed in order to conduct a travel training or travel instruction program successfully.
  • Route to Freedom. A curriculum designed for high school students and young adults on use of public transportation.
  • You Can Ride. A pictorial booklet and audio CD that illustrates the components of using public transportation, such as waiting at a bus stop, identifying a bus number, paying a fare, and asking an operator for assistance.

In addition, the following resources may be useful:

  • National Council on Independent Living. Centers for Independent Living (CIL’s) often provide travel training to their consumers or contract with local schools, service programs, and transportation providers for such services. CIL’s are also a good source for information about where to find services such as travel training in local communities.
  • The Association of Travel Instruction . ATI is the professional association for persons who teach people with disabilities (other than visually impairment) to travel independently.