Guaranteeing Access To Transportation
"Transportation is the linchpin to the quality of life." -- Susan Schruth, Acting Director, Office of Civil Rights, Federal Transit Administration
Elevators make building interiors accessible to all.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. ADA decrees that any entity -- be it a building, a restaurant, an office, a sidewalk, a restroom, a bus, you name it -- that is open to the public must be accessible to people with disabilities. ADA also says that people with disabilities are entitled to equal employment opportunities.
Needless to say, ADA has made quite an impact on the transportation industry: the act's various titles prescribe an extremely comprehensive program that affects every aspect of transportation. And that makes sense: ADA is all about accessibility, mobility, getting from one place to the other easily, conveniently, reliably.
What is somewhat less obvious is the extent to which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is involved in ADA oversight and implementation -- in terms of both public accommodation and employment. Key FHWA responsibilities in these areas are highlighted below.
FHWA's Office of Motor Carriers regulates certification of drivers in interstate commerce. Historically, certification has been denied to people with vision impairments (that is, whose corrected vision is not at least 20-40 in each eye), hearing impairments, diabetes, and epilepsy. Since the time these regulations went into effect -- which was about 1937 -- many medical and technological advances have been made. When ADA was passed, Congress directed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to determine whether these absolute standards barring employment were still appropriate and necessary.
"We could have taken the easy way out," says FHWA's Michael Thomas of the Office of Motor Carriers. "We could have conducted a typical paper study. But we didn't. We decided to keep people on the roads, to keep good people working." Monocular (one-eyed) drivers have been working in intrastate commerce for years. Some who "slipped through the cracks" have been working in interstate commerce. So have deaf drivers and insulin-dependent diabetics. Recent tougher enforcement of FHWA certification regulations at the state level was threatening these drivers with the loss of their jobs. This circumstance -- taken together with the congressional directive to study the situation -- led FHWA to embark on a proactive "waiver study."
The first part of the study began in March 1992 and allowed a sample of drivers to waive the vision standard if certain conditions were met. These conditions included a clean driving record as a motor carrier, at least 20-40 vision in their better eye, and a doctor's report stating that there was no reason why this driver couldn't drive a commercial vehicle. The drivers selected for inclusion in the vision study are being monitored to ensure that these waivers are in the public interest (i.e., they provide employment opportunities for those who would otherwise be denied employment) and pose no adverse impact to public safety.
FHWA has since started up similar waiver programs to study the performance of drivers with hearing impairments and drivers with diabetes. The epilepsy component of the project will begin shortly. To date, the findings from all the waiver programs indicate that the waived drivers have excellent safety records.
Accommodation and Accessibility
DOT is one of eight designated agencies with regulatory responsibilities under ADA. As such, the Department of Justice refers any ADA-instigated complaints that are even remotely related to transportation to the agency. Within DOT, these complaints are handled by the most appropriate entity. Consequently, a wide variety of issues fall within FHWA's scope, which covers basically anything part of or related to a road or highway. Thus, complaints received about the design of or accessibility related to traffic lights, curb cuts, median strips, ramps, sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks, interstate and highway restroom facilities, parking spaces, parking lots, and any other highway-related facility are FHWA's responsibility. The agency reviews and investigates the complaints and works with the involved state or local organization to resolve the situation.
FHWA is also obligated to provide technical information to the field about how to comply with highway-related ADA provisions -- how to ensure that new design and construction is in compliance and how to implement effective procedures for reducing vulnerability to complaints. Another area in which this technical guidance is particularly necessary is in the right-of-way program. In the course of this program, FHWA frequently appraises, acquires, and disposes of structures subject to ADA provisions -- that is, public accommodations such as business or commercial facilities. FHWA right-of-way personnel have to understand how ADA affects the appraisal value, management, and resale of these structures; they must also understand the impacts and intricacies of relocating people with disabilities from these structures. To this end, FHWA's right-of-way program has developed a white paper for state departments of transportation and local public agencies.
Additional training and information for state and local organizations is currently being prepared by FHWA's Office of Civil Rights. Civil Rights Office DirectorEdward Morris explains, "We are putting together plans for training state and local personnel to help them reduce the liability of states to complaints and suits." One of the first topics to be covered by this training will be how to investigate ADA-related complaints.
Of Buses, Trains, And Planes
Even as FHWA handles ADA issues related to roads and highways, its sister agencies ensure access to other types of transportation.
Among these, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has perhaps the biggest responsibility under the law. That's because public transit is used by millions every day to get to and from work, shopping, and recreation. ADA requires that all current and future fixed rail and bus systems across the country be fully accessible by 1997; it also requires that supplemental paratransit service be provided -- that is, demand-responsive service for people who cannot access fixed-route service. FTA is in charge of reviewing local transit organizations' plans for meeting this mandate. To date, FTA has reviewed over 500 plans. Only 54 were disapproved in the first year, and several of which have since been brought into compliance.
FTA and the transit community are learning that making public transit accessible makes sense economically as well as legally and socially. Public transit is generally an expensive proposition; paratransit even more so. It is in companies' best interests to ensure that their stations, stops, and equipment are accessible for people with various disabilities. Several transit systems have hired disability advocates, many of whom have disabilities themselves; this provides an in-house sensitivity toward and awareness of the challenges to -- and need for -- accessible public transit. And FTA awards about $1 million annually in grants for programs and innovations aimed at improving accessibility.
The Office of the Secretary, Consumer Affairs Division, ensures access to airports and airlines by people with disabilities. This assurance is provided under the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which predates ADA but has the same intent. The division monitors airlines' compliance with the act, and it receives and investigates any complaints about access from the public.
In general, air travel raises relatively few accessibility concerns. Airlines are required to accommodate guide animals (e.g., seeing eye dogs) in the passenger cabin whenever possible; they are also required to inform people with hearing impairments about gate and other travel changes. Flight safety information is conveyed in alternative formats for those with hearing and vision impairments.
The Americans with Disabilities Act benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Ensuring a wheelchair user's access with ramps and curb cuts also helps an able-bodied mother pushing a stroller or a senior citizen wheeling a cart of groceries. Supplementing signage with auditory cues (for example, at crosswalks) helps those who are temporarily distracted or forgetful.
There's another side to the story too. Those of us without disabilities are merely "temporarily abled." Disease, accident, and old age will most assuredly come to everyone or to a loved one. So people with disabilities are not "they;" they are us or our relatives. So policy, design, construction, and technology that ensures "their" access ensures ours tomorrow.
An exciting example of the crossover effect of technology comes from FHWA's Intelligent Vehicle-Highway System program. Electronic toll collection is rapidly on its way to widespread implementation. This technology means that, instead of cars stopping at toll booths and drivers tossing coins or tokens into a bin, tolls will be collected through some variation of an electronic debit card system. The general advantages of this practice are obvious -- less traffic, less hassle, less inconvenience. But consider the ADA side of the issue. There are many thousands of people throughout the United States with upper body disabilities who simply cannot reach toll booths -- people for whom driving on a toll road is at best an embarrassing experience or at worst an impossibility.
Here is an example of technology obliterating the need for numbingly detailed regulation. In the next century, rather than prescribe mandatory heights for toll booths and ticketing machines, everyone will have easy and open access via an "electronic highway." And that's the true spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act: equal and equivalent treatment for all.
Nita Congress is a senior writer/editor with over a dozen years of experience in preparing a wide variety of informational and technical materials for the federal government. She has served as a technical editor for Public Roads since 1985 and has frequently contributed articles to this publication. Ms. Congress last year served as senior editor on Vice President Gore's Reinventing Government Task Force. She was recently named managing editor of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' 1995 Transportation Statistics Annual Report.