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

The Promise and Limitations of Transportation: Preparing Youth and Adults


Sue Fager is Transition Specialist with PACER Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Rachel Parker is Program Co-coordinator with PACER Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Marcia Kelly is an Editor with PACER Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

If you want to spark an animated discussion among people with disabilities, bring up the subject of transportation. You’ll likely hear inspiring stories about how transportation has offered great freedom and opportunity – and equally passionate tales of how transportation has presented significant limitations and frustrations. The issue is more than academic. For many people with disabilities, access to transportation is the primary factor that determines whether they will be able to live and work independently in the community.

Planning for individual transportation needs can be like putting a puzzle together. The pieces may include providing travel instruction, developing travel-related skills, coordinating service schedules and availability with individual needs, and exploring less conventional options. Keep in mind that the puzzle can take a long time to assemble. Middle school is not too early to begin planning for a youth’s future transportation needs by including transportation-related skills in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and transition planning.

The following are descriptions of some of the essential pieces of the individual transportation puzzle, with examples illustrating how four individuals identified and overcame roadblocks to a variety of typical transportation issues.

Provide Travel Instruction

It takes know-how to successfully ride mass transit. Riders must learn how to find the right route, transfer, manage unexpected events such as detours and late transportation, and more. Adding travel instruction goals to a student’s IEP can be a first step toward developing that competence. Assessment, training, and practice can lead to independence. An example of how this can be done successfully is found in Keisha’s* story.

Keisha is 16 and in the 10th grade. She and her family have begun planning for her transition from high school to her life as an adult living and working in the community. Keisha loves buses and looks forward to the day when she will take a city bus to work just like her parents do. Because she finds it particularly difficult to talk with strangers and has been taken advantage of by her peers on several occasions, her parents are concerned about her ability to travel safely on the bus. At her parent’s request, Keisha’s IEP team investigated travel options, then added travel instruction goals to her IEP. The district’s travel instructor met with Keisha to assess whether she would be able to travel independently, only on specific routes, or only with assistance. Keisha proved to be a good candidate for travel instruction, so additional mobility goals were written into her IEP. Her travel instruction included practicing how to enter and exit buses, talking with drivers about their buses to increase her comfort level in speaking with strangers, sitting closer to the bus driver if another passenger made her uncomfortable, learning what to do if the bus broke down or was detoured, and researching route options by calling the transit authority and using the Internet. Keisha also learned how to correct mistakes she might make, such as boarding the wrong bus or missing a transfer. To become more comfortable with Keisha’s growing abilities, her parents were included in some of her lessons. Keisha’s proudest day came nine months later when she successfully navigated herself and her parents from their home to her favorite restaurant – a feat that required two transfers. Her next goal is to travel independently to meet her extended family at the restaurant to celebrate her birthday.

Travel-related skills, like transition skills, include problem-solving abilities, good judgment, self-advocacy, assertiveness, knowledge about one’s disability and the supports and accommodations needed, and confidence in asking for assistance. Individuals with and without disabilities need these skills to travel in the community. The earlier families can help their youth develop these skills, the better. The experience of Lee* illustrates development of individual travel skills.

Lee is 21 and recently secured a new job. With his first day of work just three weeks off, he asked his group home staff to help him prepare for the paratransit transportation he would use to commute. To help Lee recognize that he was at the correct location, the staff drove him to his workplace, using the route that the paratransit driver would likely take. They practiced how he could tell the driver if he was at the wrong place. Lee also carried the addresses and phone numbers of his employer and his group home in his wallet. On Lee’s first day of work, the dispatcher at the paratransit company inadvertently transposed numbers in the address he relayed to Lee’s driver. Thanks to his practice runs, Lee knew he was at the wrong location and was able to use his self-advocacy skills to explain that a mistake had been made. Lee gave the correct address to the driver. He also asked him to inform the dispatcher of the error so the afternoon driver would pick him up at the correct address.

Consider Schedule Convenience and Service Availability

People who rely on paratransit and public transportation need to consider whether those services will be available when they need to travel between home, work, and recreational activities. When they plan to move or accept a new job, they may want to factor in answers to the following questions:

  • How late does the service run?
  • Is it available on weekends and to employees working first or swing shifts?
  • Can a paratransit service reliably deliver and pick-up an employee on time?
  • Is the potential employer located within a reasonable distance from the train, bus or subway?
  • How close to home is the transit line?

Brandon’s* story illustrates successful information-gathering and problem-solving in relation to these questions.

Brandon, 45, has lived in the same small, city apartment for 15 years and dreams of moving to a larger townhome or condominium. He is also seeking a new job. Brandon’s case manager found a townhome that accommodated his electric wheelchair, had a bedroom for his live-in personal care attendant, and was within his price range. It was near a subway line that could take him to work, but it was half a mile away from the bus stop he would need for local activities such as shopping and going to temple. That distance would be an obstacle in inclement weather. Brandon continued to look for a townhome closer to mass transit with schedules that would serve his needs for both work and leisure activities. Meanwhile, with the assistance of his vocational rehabilitation counselor, he found a job that fit his interests and skills well. It met his salary requirements and was conveniently located near a subway stop. Six months later, Brandon found a spacious condominium that was on the same subway line – and was just half a block from the bus he needed on weekends.

Seek Creative Arrangements

People living in urban areas generally have more transportation options than those living in rural areas. Many small towns do not have access to any public transportation; others may have transportation that is accessible but runs only at limited hours. In those cases, people with disabilities, their families, and service providers may need to be creative in seeking, or developing, other options. Carmen* and her family are one example of how this has been done.

Carmen lives with her family in a rural area. Since graduation three years ago, she has been working at the local day training center. Carmen believes she could be competitively employed; so does her family. On a trip to the county courthouse in a nearby town, Carmen and her father noticed that the only coffee available was from a vending machine, which often malfunctioned. An idea was born: Carmen, who loves coffee, could open a coffee cart at the courthouse. It would be a great match between her interests and the community’s needs. She could use her Dynamite communication device to chat with customers about their favorite coffee beans and the virtues of lattés versus mochas. Carmen’s team and her vocational rehabilitation counselor supported the idea of self-employment. The counselor even arranged some bookkeeping assistance. Arranging transportation proved more of a challenge. Short-term funding for transportation was available through vocational rehabilitation services, but Carmen needed to find something more permanent in her community. Carmen’s family began to network. They talked with members of their church to see if anyone could drive Carmen to work on a volunteer basis or for a fee. They found someone with the Meals on Wheels program who could bring her home, but not to work. Carmen’s case manager checked with the local senior transportation company but learned that the bus wouldn’t arrive at the courthouse until 11:00 a.m. Finally, the efforts paid off. Carmen’s mother discovered that her secretary’s cousin worked at the post office next door to the courthouse. She was open to including Carmen in her carpool. Carmen and her team met with the woman and her other rider. They discussed how they might be able to provide transportation for Carmen and settled on a fee for gas and mileage. Carmen and her family liked both carpoolers and felt confident that they would be able to transport her safely to work. Carmen now has added two new communication folders to her Dynamite: one for carpooling and another for her new business at the courthouse.


To be active, contributing members of their communities, youth and adults with disabilities need to have accessible, reliable transportation. They also need the training and skills to use it safely and confidently. Families, school personnel, and adult service providers can all help prepare and assist youth and adults to access the transportation that leads to living their own lives in the community of their choice.


Note: PACER Center coordinates both state and national projects addressing transition issues for youth with disabilities and their families. In 2003, it began work on an innovative cross-agency collaboration administered by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Connecting Youth to Communities and Careers (Project C3) www.pacer.org/C3. Funded by a grant from the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the U. S. Department of Labor (#E-9-4-3-0090), the goal of Project C3 is to demonstrate how local transition services and outcomes for youth with disabilities can be improved through innovative partnerships with community organizations and cross-systems collaboration. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U. S. Department of Labor.