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Transit Accessibility for People with Disabilities

In our last NADTC blog, guest blogger Steve Yaffe discussed the new mobility options we’ve seen enter the transportation arena in recent years and ways that barriers could be addressed to make those options more accessible. In this blog, we continue NADTC’s look at transportation accessibility for travelers with disabilities, with a specific focus on differing traveler needs, education and training, apps, and other technology.

The thrust of this blog goes beyond transit and demand-response accessibility basics, but the basics are a good place to start in order to understand the requirements that set the foundation for accessible service.

Basic Requirements of ADA-Accessible Service

Basic requirements are described in detail in these excellent sources:

49 CFR Part 37-Transportation Services for Individuals with Disabilities (ADA)

49 CFR Part 38 – Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles

New Final Rule: Reasonable Modification of Policies and Practices (Federal Transit Administration Office of Civil Rights)

Reasonable Modification Overview (Federal Transit Administration Office of Civil Rights)

Topic Guides in ADA Transportation prepared by the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF)

These five sources detail the federal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act for public transit and complementary demand-response transportation providers including service design; system policies; ride-booking; construction of bus stops, transit facilities and accessible pathways; stop and route announcements on fixed-route vehicles; and maintenance of accessibility equipment.

All of these requirements are important to provide people with disabilities a complete trip – to learn about mobility options; schedule their trips; reach the vehicle; know that the vehicle is the one they want; board, pay the fare, ride and exit the vehicle safely; know when to request a stop to alight; and reach the destination. This Federal Transit Administration (FTA) link graphically describes the complete trip.

These basic requirements are extensive. Transportation agencies, operators, and planners can more effectively apply ADA reasonable modifications to policy and offer assistance when they understand that members of disability communities have differing mobility needs. While basic ADA requirements are extensive and address a variety of situations, agencies can go beyond the basic requirements to ensure that assistance is provided that helps the customer complete their trip.

Photo of a transit driver assisting a passenger who is using a walker to use the vehicle's lift.

A transit driver assists a passenger who’s using a transit vehicle’s lift. Credit: Capacity Builders, Inc.

Disability Communities Differ in the Accommodations Required by Their Mobility Needs

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2015 there were nearly 40 million Americans who have a disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, someone with a disability has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.”

  • Sensory disabilities (audible, visual) are included, as most are physical in origin. Some individuals on the autism spectrum may regard their disability as sensory in nature as certain environments provide too much stimulation.
  • Physical disabilities are not always evident. An individual may use a cane, crutches, a walker, scooter, or wheelchair. Perhaps a person travels with a portable oxygen tank. For other individuals, a physical disability may not be readily recognizable. Examples include an inability to climb a step, inability to walk up to a half mile, uncontrolled seizures, severe hypertension, or inability to speak.
  • Intellectual or developmental disabilities include autism and dementia. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a wide range of functionality. Some individuals are able to ride fixed-route transit if the transit system has necessary accessibility features. As discussed in a 2017 Knowledge Exchange blog, riders with intellectual and developmental disabilities need clarity and simplicity in trip-planning, signage, stop announcements, fare payment and other policies. At the same time, transit personnel should be informed of how to provide assistance or reassurance to a rider who has a cognitive disability. Dementia-friendly transit is discussed further in NADTC’s April 25, 2019 Dementia, Caregiving, and Transportation webinar, with more resources in the Dementia, Caregiving and Transportation Toolkit.
  • Mental health conditions may result in behavioral changes related to memory or cognition. Mental health conditions include severe anxiety as well as panic attacks, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These conditions affect millions of Americans according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Facts and Statistics. Professor Roger Mackett of the Centre for Transport Studies, University College London has written an excellent Mental Health and Travel Report describing barriers to use of fixed-route transit by those with mental health conditions and suggests recommendations to accommodate their needs. Many of Dr. Mackett’s recommendations are focused on providing clear information and go beyond ADA requirements to accommodate the needs of travelers who want to avoid subways or seek out pedestrian pathways that are quiet.

Education and Training

Education and training programs are essential for transit accessibility and positive interaction between personnel and riders. Transit personnel need information on how to be welcoming and accommodate the needs of all riders. Riders need to know how to use the service appropriately to meet their needs and providers must inform riders on the levels of assistance provided and service characteristics. A clear statement of expectations by mobility providers of their personnel and of riders will avoid instances of misunderstanding and disappointment.

Two key components of a bus operator/paratransit driver training program are disability sensitivity and passenger assistance techniques. Drivers, as well as call center and transit station personnel, must have customer service training. Many transit managers have been successful in reducing turnover by hiring personnel who already have a customer service ethic and then teaching them how to drive, in addition to reinforcing customer service skills and providing training that focuses on awareness of the needs of customers with disabilities. Teaching good driving skills and coaching to pass a commercial drivers’ license (CDL) test is easier than motivating those who don’t enjoy public contact. Motivated and informed staff are better equipped to smoothly and efficiently accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities, and they will gain the satisfaction of providing a pleasant ride and enabling riders to reach their destinations.

  • A bus operator who has strong customer service training and skills will be better able to focus on meeting the needs of all customers while maintaining control of the situation. The operator will ensure that all accessibility equipment is working before starting service and will keep the aisle clear (unless the bus has standees). The operator will know how to kneel the bus for those who obviously have difficulty with steps. If someone who appears able bodied requests use of the kneeler or deployment of the wheelchair ramp, the operator will reply “Yes.” If younger riders are occupying the priority seating when an older adult or someone with a disability boards, the response is to point out that the new passenger needs the seat more than the occupant and point to the signage. If a passenger’s conduct is disruptive and concerning to another passenger, the operator should point out that the conduct as disruptive and must stop.
  • Transit management and call center contractors have developed their own proprietary curricula for customer service training. Agencies procuring transit and call center management services should expect a thorough description from offerors of the entire vetting, hiring and training program including specific information on their customer service, disability sensitivity, and passenger assistance techniques training programs.
  • The Easterseals Transportation Group offers training on the requirements of the ADA, which is also applicable to human service transportation providers. They also offer training in transit/paratransit management, inclusive meeting facilitation and other instruction.
  • The Community Transit Association of America offers Passenger Assistance Safety and Sensitivity (PASS) training as well as management, safety and maintenance instructional certifications.
  • Some mobility providers have partnered with their local Center for Independent Living (CIL) to assist in training new and current personnel. CILs are community-based, cross-disability, non-profit organizations designed and operated by people with disabilities. Houston Metro pioneered a model for these partnerships where individuals with visible and invisible disabilities meet with a class. They begin by explaining how their disabilities affect their mobility and the importance of being able to reach work, school, stores, and community life. As part of or following that conversation, the guests thank personnel for ensuring that the disability equipment works at the beginning of the day; for properly curbing the bus – eliminating an extra 4 to 8 inches to board the bus; for assisting them to use the priority seating for people with disabilities; for deploying the wheelchair ramp upon request – even if the need isn’t obvious; and for announcing the stops if that function isn’t automated. As some drivers come from cultures in which relatives with disabilities are expected to stay at home, the question and answer period is very enlightening.
  • Transit Travel Training programs provide instruction as to how to use transit. Many adults without disabilities have no experience riding the bus or train. While some adults can learn on their own with written or internet instruction, many benefit from classroom or on-line instruction combined with ‘practice’ trips with a friend, a ‘transit buddy’ volunteer, or a paid transit travel trainer. If the student has a disability, the instruction should be tailored to meet the needs of that individual. Individuals who are blind or who have low vision require specialized instruction from a certified orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist. A listing of agencies offering O&M services is available through Vision Aware.
    • The Easterseals Transportation Group offers travel training courses.
    • Some CILs, as well as O&M specialists, are under contract with transit systems to provide this travel instruction to people with disabilities and older adults who no longer drive.
    • Kennedy Center, Inc. has a functional transit travel training curriculum that starts with fundamentals for those with cognitive disabilities such as the ability to read signage, handle bus fares, and ability to cross the street safely unaided.  This link also provides a detailed evaluation form and instructional detail for use by transit travel trainers.
  • Another tool to assess an individual’s cognitive ability to use transit is the Functional Assessment of Cognitive Transit Skills.
  • Some area agencies on aging sponsor a volunteer transit buddy or bus buddy program for this same purpose. Find your local area agency on aging by using the search feature on the homepage of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging’s website
  • The Association of Travel Instruction offers webinars and other resources to transit travel trainers.


An app – application software – works on a smartphone or desktop computer to coordinate and perform desired functions for the user. Several apps are available for the general public to provide information of available mobility options to reach destinations; display arrival times or number of minutes before arrival of buses and trains; provide directions to drive, use transit, bicycle or walk/roll to destinations; and even to pay the fare. Successful apps require clarity and are intuitive to use. Beta-testing apps by future users who have sensory and cognitive disabilities is a best practice.

App technology (especially federally-funded) must be certified as 508 compliant  for web content accessibility and communications must be HIPPA compliant. The accessibility of web-based technology, whether for desktop computers or smartphones, should also be measured against the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI).  The article Introduction to Web Accessibility by Adhya Pranata Sakti, is useful in understanding WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Apps are also being developed to provide detailed step-by-step instructions on using transit for those with mental impairments who already are capable to walk alone and safely cross the street. These apps are intended to be customized, providing prompts for riding transit between home and frequent destinations.

  • The Discover My Route app was designed for those with intellectual disabilities by the Ontario Job Opportunity Information Network.
  • The Central Ohio Transit Authority is evaluating the WayFinder3 App for riders with intellectual disabilities as a pilot project.
  • The TravelMate app from the ARC of Northern Virginia and ONEder was designed for those with autism. Learn more about these apps on the ARC’s website.
Photo of a woman in a wheelchair reviewing a phone app while waiting at a bus stop. A woman is assisting with the phone.

Transit riders use an app to navigate their bus trip in Milwaukee. Credit: Milwaukee County Transit System System.

Other Technology

As noted in my August 2019 NADTC blog, new mobility services can and should be accessible. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Accessible Transportation Technologies Research Initiative (ATTRI) is a joint multimodal initiative supported by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). ATTRI goes beyond accessibility standards for vehicles, boarding/alighting sites and pathways.

ATTRI is focused on developing and applying emerging technology and service models to all aspects of the Complete Trip – planning the trip from origin to destination; reaching the transit or shared-ride stop (including crossing the street and accessible pathways); navigating transit stations; boarding, using, and leaving vehicles; transferring between routes or travel modes; and reaching the destination after alighting the last vehicle. Wayfinding technology is a particular focus. Learn more about ATTRI on the U.S. DOT website.

Key Performance Indicator(for each mobility provider)
Does the demographic distribution of ridership reflect the demographic distribution of the population in the service area – including by disability – as measured by the American Community Survey?

I’ll try to include at least one key performance indicator (KPI) in each of my blogs, as KPIs enable the user to measure the success of the effort. In this instance, a mobility service can assess initially whether riders who are blind or use wheelchairs or scooters use the service (as an example) and whether the proportion of users or proportion of rides provided to blind customers or customers who use wheelchairs or scooters reflects their proportion of the population.

Your comments to these blogs are welcome – please email the author at

Steve Yaffe is an independent consultant and a contractor for the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center. He draws upon 40 years’ experience planning, procuring, overseeing and evaluating demand response and fixed route transit services, including 16 years with a consolidated human service transportation program.  He has served on research panels and co-chaired the 2019 Transportation Research Board’s International Conference on Demand Responsive and Innovative Transportation Services.

Blog last updated January 3, 2020.

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