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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Hot Topics – Old Dogs and New Tricks in Peril: Barriers to Mobility and Transportation

An Update from the NCIL Transportation Subcommittee

For people with disabilities to live independently, getting where they need and want to go is vital. Having accessible, affordable transportation services is essential. There are many barriers to transportation that people with disabilities face daily.

With the passage and implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carriers Access Act, progress has been made, but some of those gains are now in peril. Autonomous Vehicles (AVs or self-driving cars) offer great potential as a way to remove some of the barriers to transportation, as well as making travel safer for everyone. Some states already have driverless cars on the road, but none of them are accessible to people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices.

Over 75 years ago, Guide Dogs for the Blind was started to provide greater independence for people who are blind. More recently, Service Animals have been trained to assist Deaf people, those with epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and other disabilities. These service animals have expanded travel opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities. Support Animals (also called therapy or emotional support animals) are also used by people with a wide variety of disabilities to enable them to be more independent and a part of community life. 

Recently, Delta and United Airlines have changed their policies regarding service and support animals, which makes it harder for people with disabilities to access air travel and creates barriers that others don’t face. On March 1, Delta’s new policy regarding service and support animals went into effect. Veterinary records are now required for people who use “a trained psychiatric service or support animal”. Shortly after Delta made its announcement, United Airlines followed suit with a similar policy. Initially, Delta made this a requirement of all service and support animals. Before the March 1 implementation date, Delta modified their policy. This is still a discriminatory practice, placing unfair burdens on those using psychiatric service animals and those using emotional support animals. It requires documentation that is not required to access other areas open to the public, such as restaurants.

Many in the disability community believe that people without disabilities are abusing the use of support animals. Some of those animals are not well trained and airline personnel are not enforcing existing regulations that bar aggressive animals from boarding aircraft. Air travel continues to be challenging for people with disabilities. If you have a ‘horror’ story of your travel experience, you can share it at AirAccess30.

Representative James Langevin (D-RI) introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (H.R. 5004), on February 13. The bill would strengthen the rights of people with disabilities traveling by air and includes the ‘Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights’. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced a companion bill in the Senate (S. 1318), last year. Advocates are working hard on these (and other) transportation issues. It’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s imperative that there are no barriers to transportation for people with disabilities.

So these are the ‘old dogs’ so to speak, but the other hot topic in transportation is the new technology of self-driving cars or Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). As of April 2, driverless cars will be allowed on California streets, and they are already in Arizona. AVs offer tremendous opportunity for people with disabilities who are not able to drive. For our way of life, it could be the biggest change since the invention of the car itself.

Unfortunately, none of the vehicles currently being developed or on the road are universally accessible, in particular to people who use mobility devices. We know from past experience that accessibility cannot be an afterthought. Universal accessibility must be designed from the ground up. Manufacturers are not paying attention. Considering the potential market, it makes no sense that AVs aren’t designed with universal access in mind. It is possible to make an accessible AV.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF-DRIVE Act (HR. 3388), but there was no requirement for fully accessible vehicles. The Senate has introduced a similar bill (S. 1885), the AV START Act. Although slightly better than the House bill, it still does not require universal design, which is essential. People with disabilities will be left behind again, as technology advances. A new campaign, “We Will Ride” is being developed to bring the issue of lack of accessibility in AVs to the forefront of manufacturers, legislators and other stake holders. Stay tuned!


  1. Marlene Pohl says

    I appreciate this article. I believe if we don’t demand, now, that “accessibility not be an afterthought” the battle will be harder. I work in Transportation (Travel Trainer) and am greatly dis-heartened by the seeming lack of consideration for accessibility in all of these new modes. Unfortunately, I know that transportation itself is often an afterthought. Doesn’t really matter if the voting booth is accessible if you can’t get there (or anywhere else for that matter). Tell me again why Uber and Lyft aren’t required to procure a percentage of their available vehicles be accessible?

  2. The disabled wih low income are always left BEHIND !!! In my opion until Christopher Reeves became disabled, DID ANYONE “REALLY CARE”… This is an on going fight for disabled individuals to live any kind of NORMAL LIFE !!!!!