Program Profile

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

The Road to Transportation Independence: Travel Instruction Models at Two Sites


Joe Timmons is a Project Coordinator with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Sheryl Lazarus is a Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Travel instruction (TI) is the term used to describe individualized training designed to help people with disabilities other than blindness to learn to travel safely and independently in the community. It is based on concepts initiated in the 1960s by a New York City psychologist, Jack Gorelick, who saw that many of his adult clients with cognitive disabilities were dependent on family members to get around the city. He knew that they could learn how to negotiate the transit system on their own, but that specialized training would be necessary to make them safe and efficient travelers. From this experience, TI was born. 

Typically, TI is provided by instructors and trainers employed by community organizations or public transit entities. Services are provided to adults and older youth who have disabilities, as well as older adults who have given up their driver’s licenses. In a few places around the country, TI is also provided to middle and high school students as part of their transition services in the public school setting. Individualized instruction is based on personal abilities and the corresponding environmental demands or constraints. Environmental constraints can be physical (poor sidewalks, lack of public transportation, or streets without traffic controls) or social (lack of support from significant others, employer indifference, or public insensitivity). All TI programs provide interventions that alleviate constraints and allow the individual to reach desired destinations with as much independence as possible (Blasch, LeGrow, & Peterson, 1997).

Although the number of travel instruction programs is relatively small, the availability of TI is growing as many communities see the cost benefit of increasing the independence of individuals and decreasing the need for expensive specialized transportation services. The Association of Travel Instruction (ATI) is helping to maintain this growth by taking steps to set and maintain professional competency-based standards for travel instruction.

This article profiles two successful TI programs, one in St. Paul, Minnesota that serves in-school youth in a public school system, and one in Summit County, Ohio that serves out-of-school youth and adults through an independent living center.

St. Paul Public Schools TI Program

The St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) TI program began in the late 1970s. Over 150 SPPS students a year receive individualized training that allows them to attend school, work, shop, visit friends, and take care of many independent living activities without outside assistance.

The program is coordinated by two travel instructors, Lydia Peterson and Susan Olsson, and a travel trainer, Mary LeClaire. The program works with three populations, each with distinct needs: a) pre-travel skills for younger students and those with more significant disabilities, b) fundamental travel skills for older students who need to learn specific bus routes, and c) advanced skills for older students who are able to learn bus route planning. In all three instances, TI is often done in conjunction with other special education staff and consultations with physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, or other specialists. SPPS are also very culturally diverse and the TI program consults with language specialists regarding student cultural and language needs.

Pre-travel instruction focuses on elementary components of travel and students usually begin the program between the ages of 12 and 14. The lessons are provided in classrooms, on group field trips, and in one-to-one sessions. Components might include following directions, basic orientation skills, problem-solving, communication, map reading, using bus schedules, and negotiating environmental factors such as curbs, stairs, escalators, elevators, doors, and revolving doors.

Fundamental travel skills for older students include evaluation of individual needs, orientation to and practice on public transportation, safety skills training, orientation to specific routes connected to work experiences, jobs, recreation, and other activities in the community. Each student develops travel goals that take into account communication skills, mobility aids such as wheelchairs, medical needs, and their previous experience traveling independently.

The advanced travel skills training includes planning bus routes or securing directions to new destinations. Safety issues are also addressed, such as traveling in new neighborhoods or crossing busy streets.

Problem-solving is perhaps the most important component of the SPPS program. Out in the community students may be videotaped, especially during street crossings, so they can review what went right and what may need some work. Other times, upon the approval of the student’s parent or guardian, the student participates in a “stranger approach.” This involves the student being approached by other SPPS staff who act as strangers. The staff try to distract the student from their travel to see if they can recover independently.

The St. Paul travel instructors pay a lot of attention to parental concerns. With stranger abductions on the rise and with bus and car traffic heavier than ever, parents need to see concrete evidence of their child’s safety skills prior to “letting go,” and their involvement is key to setting travel goals. To achieve this, parents are included in planning meetings and can observe lessons with their children or watch the videotapes made of their children traveling in the community.

In the 2004-05 school year, 46 students received services in the pre-training program and 120 students received services in the fundamental and advanced training. For each student, their travel goals were included in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) and their personal progress measured by ongoing assessment by the instructors.

Summit County’s Community Travel Department

Since 1967, in Akron, Ohio and the surrounding communities, many individuals with disabilities have received services from the County of Summit Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (CSBMRDD). Currently, the CSBMRDD serves more than 2,900 people with disabilities in Summit County and includes early intervention services for children, transition services for youth, and vocational, habilitation, and retirement programs for adults. Like many such organizations, it has a mission to support individuals with disabilities so they can “work, live, learn, play and participate as equal citizens in their communities.” CSBMRDD has long recognized the need for innovative approaches to transportation in the community and, for 30 years, has had in place a TI program whose goal is to teach individuals with disabilities how to travel safely as pedestrians and how to use paratransit and fixed route transportation services.

According to Carolyn Sombaty, manager of the Community Travel Department (CTD), the program works with approximately 300 individuals yearly, with as many as two-thirds of the participants (customers) ending up using the fixed route bus service, the Metro RTA, for at least some of their transportation needs. The CTD employs five travel instructors and one coordinator (assistant manager). New customers undergo a transportation assessment to determine their abilities and needs. An age-appropriate, structured training sequence using repetitive adaptive techniques is employed to plan and navigate routes. Adaptive techniques are often used – for example, an instructor may teach an individual to use a color-coded bus schedule that indicates bus routes to be used to reach a destination and to return. Customers may have a number of fears as they learn how to use public transit. Common concerns include questions such as:

  • How do I know what bus to take?
  • How do I indicate to the driver that I want to get off?
  • What should I do if I miss my stop?
  • What do I do if someone bothers me?

With the repetitive lessons, individuals become more comfortable traveling independently and less frustrated when problems arise. After the customer demonstrates the ability to independently navigate the initial route, the instructor will observe the person for a minimum of two days to ensure that they know how to safely use the system and solve problems en route. Most individuals who complete the training may need additional assistance from the program from time to time as they learn to navigate new routes or transit changes.


Because TI can assist many individuals with disabilities in learning how to travel safely and to use public transportation services, school districts and community agencies are invited to learn more about TI programs. Existing programs and the Association of Travel Instructors are very interested in sharing expertise. The future availability of TI will hinge on innovative and creative service providers working to develop professional services and making safe and efficient travel an essential part of everyone’s life.


  • Blasch, B., LaGrow, S., & Peterson, L. (1997). Other learners with mobility limitations. In B. Blasch, W. Weiner, & R. Welsh (Eds.), Foundations of orientation and mobility (2nd ed.) (pp. 530–549). New York: American Foundation for the Blind Press, Inc.