Guest Op-Ed: Passengers with Disabilities and Workers Must Not Be Overlooked in COVID 4 Bill

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S., the virus and our collective response is disproportionately affecting people with disabilities and others who struggled with or were denied access to services before the pandemic, including transportation. Stay at home orders, social distancing guidelines, family obligations, valid anxiety, and illness has led to fewer available drivers and workers, cuts to transit routes, and service altogether in some areas. The CARES Act signed into law on March 27 provides $25B in necessary funding for transit and more than $1B for Amtrak, but omits funding for the Section 5310 program that people with disabilities rely on. Most significantly, the CARES Act missed the opportunity to prioritize maintenance of service for all people, require necessary guidance prohibiting discrimination, and promote collaboration amongst agencies.

Many people with disabilities who cannot drive or do not have access to an accessible vehicle rely on public transit, ADA paratransit, on-demand and rail services, including Amtrak. As the Washington Post editorial board noted recently, “transit is not an urban amenity; it’s life support for people who need it to access groceries, dialysis and jobs at hospitals whose continuing ability to address the crisis depends on employees showing up for work.”

In addition, for decades, disability advocates have fought for the right to live in their communities, outside of nursing homes and institutions that are now hot spots for the rapid spread of the coronavirus.[i] Personal care attendants and direct support professionals provide vital care and assistance with activities of daily living that allow people with disabilities to follow the guidelines and remain in their homes. Many of those professionals are low income and rely on transit to assist their clients.

As the fourth COVID legislative package is developed and transportation policies are implemented, the needs of passengers with disabilities and direct care and transportation workers must not be overlooked. 

Policy Solutions
Funding for Disability-Specific Transportation Programs
Adequate funding for all public transportation is a necessity during and after the pandemic. Stimulus funding must be made available for Section 5310 programs which provide critical transportation services for older adults and people with disabilities when traditional transportation service is unavailable, insufficient, or inappropriate to meeting these needs.

In addition, according to Scott Bogren, of the CTAA, “operators funded by Section 5310 are ideally suited to meet the current demands presented by the national response to COVID-19. They have highly trained drivers that understand the needs of at-risk populations and operate in a demand-response mode that’s a good fit for home-delivered meals, groceries and prescriptions.”

Maintenance of Transit and ADA Paratransit Service Areas
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, local transportation systems are required to provide complementary paratransit service within ¾ mile of each bus route and rail station. As transit agencies begin to cut hours and routes, ADA paratransit service areas may be diminished.  It is essential that paratransit service remains available for people who may need to travel in an emergency, and transit routes remain available before and after for people with disabilities, low income individuals and neighborhoods, and the support professionals the disability community relies on to remain in the community.

CCAM Convening to Identify Alternatives When Necessary
The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund and partner disability advocacy organizations have urged USDOT to work with the members of the inter-agency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (CCAM) to identify necessary resources for people with disabilities. We encourage state and local entities who are not already to do the same. If fixed-route transit, ADA paratransit, or other transportation services such as NEMT are not provided in an area due to staffing shortages or unavoidable cuts, or if it is unsafe for disabled passengers to travel, access to groceries, medical professionals, COVID-19 testing, meals, and services must be made available.

Protective Gear and Cleaning Supplies for Transportation Providers
While funding was made available for PPE and cleaning supplies, it is up to states and transit agencies to ensure supplies find their way to drivers and transportation workers. People with disabilities, including wheelchair users, will need to travel. Protective gear for drivers is essential, especially since they will need to continue to provide securement at close proximity for wheelchair users.

COVID-19 Transportation Policies Must Not Discriminate
Finally, any new policy or waiver must take into account the needs of disabled passengers, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act obligations. For example, new policies requiring rear-door-only boarding on transit buses must provide an exemption for wheelchair users requiring the ramp, and other passengers who may experience difficulty accessing the rear door, including those with sensory and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Persons who are blind or visually impaired listen for auditory cues to enter the bus. Such auditory clues are not available at the back doors. All effort should be made to convey the policy change in accessible formats, and drivers must be reminded that not all disabilities are obvious and to have patience as we all acclimate to new procedures. We also encourage providers to seek the guidance of their local disability advocates and accessibility advisory committees to help ensure nondiscrimination.

Disability advocates shared these priorities with USDOT and members of Congress in a letter on March 24, 2020,[ii] and developed recommendations for rear boarding policies as an addendum to the NCHRP public transportation pandemic guide. We ask for the transportation industry’s support in gaining passage of and development of these policies. We’re grateful for the essential services transit agencies and workers provide during this pandemic and seek to support their efforts both during this crisis and in the future.

You can find additional COVID 19 resources and policy recommendations on the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund website.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

[i] In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Olmstead v. L.C. [Lois Curtis], 527 U.S. 581 (1999) that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination that violates the ADA. The court held that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when appropriate and wanted, in light of the overall needs of people with disabilities in the state.

[ii] The letter was author by Claire Stanley of the American Council of the Blind and Carol Tyson on behalf of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities and signed by 18 disability advocacy organizations.

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