By Michael Rock

Despite the need for people with disabilities to access mass transit, many of the current options are inadequate for them. Despite the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, various forms of public transportation currently pose challenges for this key demographic.

Specialized paratransit is limited in some jurisdictions due to cost concerns, and accessing a ride with one can be time-consuming and challenging, while over the road busses are often not in compliance with the ADA.

For longer-distance trips, Amtrak may be a better option, as the majority, though not all of its stations are accessible, while airline staff are often ill-equipped to handle the needs of passengers with disabilities, and wheelchairs can be damaged while in storage during the flight.

Despite its status as the largest city in the United States as well as home to its largest mass transit system, New York City’s public transportation is inadequate for the needs of passengers with disabilities. Its paratransit system is cumbersome to use, requiring a limited time frame in which one can call to book a ride and a specific pickup time or appointment time but not both.

The subway system is little better. Hardly a quarter of the 472 stations in the network have elevators, and even fewer have ramps. Such additions would be helpful for those without disabilities as well, as steep stairs and heavy crowds can lead to injuries.

Still, local advocates recently designed a map proposing an additional 50 subway stations to which the MTA should next add elevators. Factors included in their chosen locations include proximity to major city institutions as well as areas where many people with disabilities live.

Other cities have also begun efforts to make their mass transit more accessible. In Tampa, City Council candidate John Godwin has offered a comprehensive plan to make the city’s public transportation more accessible. Some features of the plan include modernized street cars in an expanded fleet. 

As Madison, Wisconsin grows, the demand for accessible public transit there has increased. Some proposals have included a Bus Rapid Transit line, leveled and widened boarding platforms on buses, and extra doorways.

Meanwhile, Cimarron County, Oklahoma has lobbied the state’s Department of Transportation to seek federal funds to expand its public transportation in 2020. Details of the plan will be released by March 31, 2019.

Ultimately, accommodating people with disabilities on mass transit, like most other accessibility and inclusion efforts, is more a matter of creativity than it is a burden. Perhaps somewhere down the line, we will see such developments in a future “Design for All Showcase” as the Obama White House did in late 2016. There, various products designed to be accessible for people with disabilities and developed on their own terms were put on display. Though this display featured such items as specialized jeans for wheelchair users and modern prosthetics, there is no reason that mass transit cannot be redeveloped to accommodate all who need to use it. 

Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.