This fall we were reminded that the decades-long fight for accessible transportation is far from over: on October 16 the National Disability Rights Network issued a report documenting a lack of ADA compliance at Amtrak stations in 25 states and the nation’s capital. Barriers found nationwide include the absence of ramps or elevators, train platforms that are not level with trains, and ticket counters that are too high for people with wheelchairs.
Also in October complaints surfaced detailing treatment of airline passengers with disabilities that was so egregious that even the newcasters reporting the story found them hard to believe. Complaints detailed include abuse by Transportation Security Administration employees of one 92-year-old man in a wheelchair and a second passenger, 77, who walks with a cane.
Just in time for the winter holidays, however, there’s been a streak of good travel-related news. In November the federal Department of Transportation issued new rules that will improve air travel for people with disabilities. Mandated changes will include making all airport kiosks that print boarding passes and luggage tags accessible within ten years, and giving space for wheelchairs priority on airplanes.
In addition, the new rules require that all airline travel websites be made fully accessible within three years, with pages containing core travel information and services accessible within two years. Design improvements might include enabling the use of text-to-speech software, adding captions and sign interpretation to videos, enlarging clickable areas for people who have difficulty controlling a mouse, and enhancements that allow navigation by keyboard or single-switch device.
Airlines are already required to provide free, immediate wheelchair assistance upon request to any passenger with disabilities, but they do not always comply.The same day that the Department of Transportation issued the new accessibility rules the agency also fined U.S. Airways $1.2 million for failure to provide assistance to passengers using wheelchairs at its terminals in Philadelphia and Charlotte, NC. Taken together, these actions are a promising start for the administration of Anthony Foxx, who became Secretary of Transportation in July.
“All air travelers deserve to be treated equally and with respect, and this includes persons in wheelchairs and other passengers with disabilities,” Foxx said in a statement. “We will continue to make sure that airlines comply with our rules and treat their passengers fairly.”
The new accessibility rules and the U.S Airway fines were based upon customer complaints made to the Department of Transportation. Passengers with disabilities who receive discriminatory treatment are encouraged to file a complaint with the agency here.
Advocates Win Big in New York City
Closer to home, on December 6 a settlement agreement was reached in Noel, et al. v City of New York Taxi and Limousine Commission. This class action lawsuit, filed in January of 2011, sought to make New York’s taxi fleet accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Once approved by the court, the settlement will ensure that at least half of the City’s 13,000 medallion cabs are wheelchair accessible by 2020.
ICS board member Terry Moakley, a leading advocate for transportation for people with disabilities, called the settlement “a great leap forward for the city’s disability community.” Moakley is a consumer advocate at United Spinal Association, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the TLC. He also served for ten years as chair of another plaintiff, the New York City Taxis for All Campaign.
“This decision will give people with mobility disabilities spontaneous access to the city’s yellow cabs,” Moakley said. “All we will need to do is hail a cab ourselves or have someone hail one for us, to move around our city as easily as people without disabilities.”
According to Disability Rights Advocates, whose attorneys represented the plaintiffs, New York City’s taxi fleet is currently 98.2 percent inaccessible, with people without disabilities 25 times more likely to get a cab within ten minutes than someone using a wheelchair.
While the proposed settlement gives the Taxi and Limousine Commission six years to reach the 50 percent level for accessible cabs, New Yorkers who use wheelchairs may notice some improvement quite soon: this month outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg told The New York Times that the City’s current sale of 2,000 medallions for new taxis will all be for wheelchair accessible cabs.