Op-Ed: From the Americans with Disabilities Act to Universal Design

July 26, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Since then, huge strides have been made in the field of transportation to increase access to mobility for people with disabilities. Busses and trains are designed for accessible seating, boarding, and alighting; repaved intersections include more curb ramps and truncated domes; and new subway stations include spacious elevators.

Beyond what the law requires, some planners, engineers, and policy-makers have also adopted a practice of universal design, which can increase safety, accessibility and quality of life for all users. Ramps, elevators and maneuvering space benefit people with mobility aids, strollers, heavy bags, and people scrolling through Instagram while they walk. GPS tracking technology has allowed passengers to avoid waiting outside in poor weather by tracking transit and paratransit vehicles in real-time.

However, much of transportation infrastructure and services in the United States are still not accessible for millions of Americans and visitors. Walking along the grounds of our nation’s Capitol Building you’ll find a crosswalk on the North side that ends butting up against a four-inch curb instead of an accessible and ADA-compliant curb ramp. In most cities (with notable exceptions in New York City, Chicago, and the State of California) that transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have entered, the performance of wheelchair accessible vehicle service and other options for people with disabilities are not monitored or measured to assess equivalency of service with ambulatory vehicles. A quarter of the New York subway system is inaccessible for anyone who can’t climb stairs (And other major US cities like Chicago and San Francisco also lack elevators at many stations). Most paratransit users still have to book rides 24 hours in advance, leaving minimal options for spontaneous travel decisions and needs.  Millions of major intersections still lack audible communication to guide pedestrian crossing. Urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country have miles to go to increase accessibility for people with disabilities, even 30 years after the passage of the ADA.

Today, many people with disabilities are critically impacted by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.  Pre-existing conditions that can be correlated with disabilities also increase risk for serious symptoms and higher fatality rates with COVID-19. People with disabilities were already at higher risk of facing social isolation, and now getting from place to place includes an additional risk of exposure. Waiting for already slow elevators to carry riders one person at a time to reduce exposure in a small, closed-off space could result in longer travel times.  Stepping into the street to avoid passersby on the sidewalk is much more difficult for people using mobility devices or those with low vision. Service cuts for public transportation unduly affect people with disabilities who are less likely to drive or own vehicles than the overall population.

Pandemic or not, implementing universal design from the outset can have long-lasting impacts on accessibility and mobility. Even 30 years after the ADA, new transportation options can be better designed for all users.

As new transportation ideas and projects continue to emerge, the ADA and accessibility should be addressed from the beginning.  We need to increase oversight for compliance with the ADA. We need to encourage more universal design in all aspects of transportation and design for all people from the outset. And we need to notice and oppose ableism in all aspects of our professional and personal lives to help work towards civil equality where people with disabilities are no longer needlessly shut out of economic and social opportunities that should be available to all.

(Ed. Note: Today was Dr. Grossman’s final day at the Eno Center, as she is departing to accept a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We wish her all the best.)

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