The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, public transportation, and public accommodations. All programs, activities, and services provided by state and local governments, including public transportation, may not discriminate on the basis of disability, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance. The ADA does not specifically apply to privately owned and privately managed services, though it does cover similar services provided by colleges, historical sites, and airports.
Sidewalks and public rights-of-way—ensuring safe pedestrian travel requires streets, intersections, curbs, and other infrastructure to be in compliance with the ADA. The goal is to make transportation facilities and services accessible and safe for all people, including older adults and people with disabilities.
The US Access Board—a federal agency that develops accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment, transportation, and other areas—is currently working on updating the 2005 Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG), which the US Department of Transportation (DOT) identifies as the current best practices in accessible pedestrian design. Among the many issues that these guidelines address are crosswalks, curb ramps, street furnishings, signals, parking, access for pedestrians who are blind, wheelchair access to on-street parking, and constraints posed by space limitations, roadway designs, and terrain.
In addition to PROWAG, Title II of the ADA also requires state and local governments to develop ADA transition plans that remove existing barriers to travel, which must:
- identify corridors where sidewalks are non-existent but are needed,
- inventory physical obstacles and their location,
- provide adequate opportunity for residents with disabilities to offer input into the transition plan,
- describe in detail the methods the entity will use to make the facilities accessible,
- provide a yearly schedule for making modifications,
- name an official or position responsible for implementing the transition plan, and
- set aside a budget to implement the transition plan.
Vehicles—The ADA mandates that all new buses and rail cars be accessible to people with disabilities. As of 2010, nearly 100 percent of transit buses and rapid rail cars were accessible, according to the FTA. The agency also found that more than 85 percent of commuter rail and light rail cars were accessible.
For demand-response services, which do not operate on a fixed route, the ADA requirements are different. Vehicles do not need to be readily accessible to people with disabilities. Instead, a public entity operating a demand-response service may instead demonstrate equivalent service for individuals with a disability. For example, a demand-response provider may provide services in non-accessible buses and vans as long as equivalent service is available for people with disabilities in accessible vehicles.
Over-the-road buses—over-the-road buses (OTRBs), such as those used to provide intercity bus service, are required to be wheelchair-accessible under the ADA.
For-hire vehicles—the ADA and some states prohibit taxi and transportation network company (TNC) drivers from discriminating against people with disabilities, such as refusing to assist with transporting a wheelchair or charging an extra fee to a person with a disability.
Taxis are required to have a certain number of accessible vehicles, but this may not be enough to satisfy the demand. Municipalities have put in a place a range of programs to expand access to accessible vehicles. For example, some municipalities that require an authorization, commonly known as a medallion, to operate a taxi, are providing them at a reduced cost for drivers with accessible vehicles. In addition, some taxi companies contract with the local public transportation authority to provide accessible transportation services and then make these wheelchair-accessible vehicles available for regular taxi service when they are not providing service under such contracts.
Some TNCs are exploring options to ensure compliance with the ADA and expanding access for people with disabilities. These include:
- requiring training for all drivers on ADA legal requirements,
- offering services from drivers who have received additional training on how to best assist older adults and people with disabilities,
- referring passengers who cannot be accommodated to local accessible vehicle dispatch services, and
- removing drivers who do not comply with the ADA.
Airplanes—although the ADA does not apply to air travel, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits discrimination against air travelers with disabilities. Unlike the ADA, however, the 1986 law does not guarantee equal access for people with disabilities or provide injunctive relief in court (though administrative relief is available). People with disabilities continue to experience many barriers to the use of commercial aircraft and believe that enforcement efforts need to be strengthened. According to the DOT, the four highest complaint areas are wheelchair and guide assistance; stowage, loss, delay, and damage of wheelchairs and other mobility devices; aircraft seating accommodations; and travel with service animals.
Passenger vessels—the ADA covers passenger vessels, including ferries, excursion vessels, sightseeing vessels, and cruise ships. DOT rules, in effect since 2011, address service issues under the ADA. Passengers with disabilities should be able to experience all aspects of a cruise or other passenger vessel as do passengers without disabilities. For example, cruise operators are required to ensure that passengers with disabilities can board and get off a vessel through lifts, ramps, boarding chairs, assistance from personnel, and the like. In addition, the US Access Board has drafted accessibility guidelines establishing standards for the construction or alteration of passenger vessels, but they have not yet been approved.
Station infrastructure—newly constructed or reconstructed transit stations and bus stops, along with ticket-vending equipment, must be accessible to people with disabilities.
Congress required Amtrak to make all stations accessible by 2010; however, Amtrak did not meet this deadline. The Amtrak Office of the Inspector General reported in 2014 that only 51 of 482 stations were ADA-compliant. The Justice Department determined that Amtrak discriminated against people with disabilities by failing to meet deadline.
ADA paratransit services—in addition to infrastructure accessibility, the ADA requires public transportation providers to offer paratransit services within three-quarters of a mile of all fixed routes for people with disabilities who cannot use fixed-route transit. Providers determine who qualifies for these services.
Providers are required to offer services with wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Generally, people with disabilities must schedule these trips at least a day in advance. The rider may be accompanied by a friend or family escort (who must pay the same fare as the rider) or by a personal care attendant (who does not pay a fare, if the rider is certified as needing a personal care attendant).
ADA paratransit service consists of curb-to-curb or door-to-door service on specialized vehicles. The paratransit option must be comparable with the transit system’s fixed-route service in terms of its coverage area and days and hours of service. The total fare charged to the customer cannot be more than twice the base fare for the fixed-route service. However, according to the Government Accountability Office estimates that the cost of providing paratransit services is about 3.5 times more than the cost of providing fixed-route services ($29.30 per paratransit passenger, compared with $8.15 per fixed-route passenger).
The funding need for specialized paratransit is increasing for several reasons. First, people with disabilities are becoming more integrated into mainstream employment and community activities and thus need more services. Second, some agencies are no longer offering transportation for clients eligible for complimentary paratransit trips. Finally, many paratransit providers have difficulty with clients not showing up for scheduled trips, which diminishes the resources available for others who seek services. At the same time riders in some areas complain that existing paratransit services are expensive and undependable.
Americans with Disabilities Act Implementation: Policy
Local governments should encourage the development of accessible private transportation services (e.g., taxis) through such means as economic incentives, ordinances, and programs that designate medallions for accessible vehicles.
Sidewalks and public right-of-way design
State and local jurisdictions must comply with the ADA by removing access barriers that prevent people with disabilities from safely using the sidewalks.
State and local government should proactively develop and implement transition plans to ensure communities are fully accessible to people with disabilities.
State and local jurisdictions must safely accommodate pedestrians with disabilities by implementing the best-practices guidelines in the 2005 draft Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines.
Congress should direct the US Access Board and Federal Highway Administration to finalize the 2005 draft Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines.
Americans with Disability Act (ADA)
Congress should provide adequate funding for ADA enforcement activities and should aggressively seek to meet the transit and paratransit needs of people who are older, frail, or have disabilities by utilizing the higher federal match for compliance with the ADA.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Administration for Community Living should develop guidelines and provide technical assistance to transit authorities on making eligibility decisions under the ADA and providing information on available alternatives to people of all ages with disabilities.
The FTA also should:
- continue to educate the people with disabilities and other rider constituencies about their ADA rights and the use of accessible transportation;
- ensure the accessibility of all transportation services offered to the public and aggressively monitor and enforce timely ADA compliance by all public transportation providers;
- ensure transportation providers’ compliance with the ADA, in part by providing technical assistance to local transportation agencies and authorities; and
- promote research on how to reduce paratransit service costs while improving quality and dependability.
Specifically the FTA should use its authority to:
- more vigorously enforce ADA regulations,
- conduct compliance review,
- investigate complaints, and
- impose meaningful sanctions for failures to comply with ADA regulations.
Public transportation providers should identify and implement cost-effective measures that expand ADA paratransit eligibility and service beyond the minimum mandated by the ADA.
Congress should amend the ADA to explicitly prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities by private communities’ transportation services.
Congress should ensure the accessibility of all transportation services offered to the public by aggressively monitoring and enforcing timely ADA compliance by all transportation providers, including intercity and over-the-road buses.
The Federal Aviation Administration should ensure the accessibility of commercial aircraft to people with disabilities through active implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act.
The Department of Transportation, in cooperation with the Department of Justice and Access Board, should prioritize the development of accessibility requirements for passenger vessels.