The NC Department of Transportation recently released a plan for the state’s transportation needs looking forward to 2040. The plan “focuses on the policies and programs needed to enhance safety, improve mobility, and reduce congestion for all transportation modes.” Transportation is moving ‘something’ from one place to another. And in much of the plan the “something” that is being transported is people. So the plan talks about personal mobility, how people travel from one place to another. But it almost entirely ignores the needs of one group, people with disabilities.
A brief trip down I-85 or I-40 is all it takes to understand that for the majority of North Carolinians, personal mobility means driving their own car. Owning a car or having access to one and being able to drive it allows the driver the opportunity to go out the front door, get in the car, and go to work or school or church without needing to call ahead and then wait for a ride.
The ability to move from one place to another creates a measure of independence when it is accessible and affordable.
But not every adult has access to a car. Some lack access because they cannot afford it. Others cannot drive because of a disability. Many people with disabilities rely on public transit to be connected with their communities: to see a doctor, shop for groceries, attend a cultural event, or visit a friend. For the 1.9 million people with disabilities living in North Carolina, transportation is often named as one of the most common barriers to community involvement, limiting access to healthcare, employment, social activities, civic participation and voting.
Accessible transportation is, indeed essential to living a fully integrated life.
Sadly and surprisingly, the DOT plan fails to address the needs of people with disabilities. While the plan acknowledges “the disabled” as a stakeholder group, the very failure to use people-first language (i.e. the term “people with disabilities”) highlights their lack of involvement in planning an accessible transportation system.
Developing public transportation that is accessible to people with disabilities would ensure that all people could use it. A planning process that is truly responsive to the needs of the 1.9 million North Carolinians with disabilities would require the engagement of a broad range of disability groups including people with physical, sensory, mental, developmental and/or intellectual disabilities.
Considering the needs of people with disabilities in transportation planning is not a new idea. The U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Justice have each issued regulations and developed guidelines and standards to achieve equality for people with disabilities through accessible design.
The U.S. Access Board is an independent federal agency that provides technical assistance and training on these requirements and on accessible design. There is no question that these regulations apply to the new construction and alterations of transportation facilities and systems. We even have homegrown resources. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University promotes the idea that buildings, products and environments should be planned from the start that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities and people with disabilities. Universal Design uses the following principles: equitable use; flexibility in use; simple and intuitive; perceptible information; tolerance for error; low physical effort; and size and space for approach and use. These principles can be applied to our airports, buses, and other transportation features as much as to homes and offices.
Simply put, the North Carolina DOT should take a step back and revisit its planning and place the needs of North Carolinians with disabilities front and center — both because it is essential to the wellbeing of people with disabilities and because transportation that meets those needs will also better serve the rest of the state.
Vicki Smith is the Executive Director of Disability Rights NC.