Don’t Exclude: Ending Transportation Barriers for People with Disabilities

Transportation is central to employment and economic development. Unfortunately, people with disabilities often face major disadvantages in accessing transportation options, which reduces their ability to find and hold jobs and participate in community life. The issues go way beyond the lack of accessible ramps. Barriers include poor vehicle design; lack of accessible curbs, crosswalks, and sidewalks; the absence of elevators; and non-existent or inaccessible signage and wayfinding.

At a session at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C., Charlotte McClain Nhlapo, global disability advisor for the World Bank Group and a wheelchair user, said that “1 billion people worldwide have some form of disability, and adults with disabilities make just 73 percent of the trips that abled people make.”

She led a conversation into what is holding back more inclusive transportation in developing countries:

“There is a staggering difference between the developed and developing worlds in terms of access. If you get around many developing countries, you’ll see there are often no sidewalks,” said Jamie Leather, chief of the transport sector at the Asian Development Bank. Just imagine wading into busy streets to get around, then imagine the greater dangers for a wheelchair user, or deaf or blind pedestrian.

For Nite Tanzar, a development consultant, a critical issue is that many developing countries don’t have an accurate numbers of how many disabled people there are and how many are using transportation systems. “There is a real lack of empirical evidence,” which is holding back policy and regulatory change. Policymakers simply don’t understand the scale of the issues.

People can be temporarily or permanently disabled. But both types of disabilities often result from car crashes. Mohammed Yousuf, a program manager with the U.S. Federal Highways Administration, said that globally, car crashes cost up to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) when you add in lost wages and medical expenses.

According to James Bradford, with the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP), global vehicle crash data mostly comes from police reports, which don’t measure the full economic and social impact of the loss of life, injury, or disability caused by the accident.

He pointed to the Transportation Accident Commission (TAC) in New South Wales, Australia, which insures all vehicles and collects data on crashes and their outcomes. Analyzing some 120,000 insurance claims, TAC found that 68 percent of crash victims were still on long-term disability care two years later; a quarter also had severe brain injuries. “There is a huge social cost to road accidents, not just economic.”

The conversation then turned to the key drivers of more inclusive transportation. As McClain Nhlapo noted, the goal is to “enable everyone to live independently.”

Daniela Bas, director of the UN’s department of economic and social affairs’ division for inclusive social development, who is also a wheelchair user, said the most important step is to “change the mindset of people with disabilities: they must become agents of change and lead new processes.” She added that “disabled people are often poor because they have no access” but that can change with a sense of new empowerment.

Daniela Bas / Twitter

Tanzar stated that in too many countries “there is a stigma associated with disabilities. These people are invisible, actively hidden, and viewed as shameful. We must get at that.”

Policies and regulations that lead to Vision Zero, which calls for an end to road deaths, can only help create a more universally-accessible transportation system, Leather believes.

Market-based incentives can also provide solutions. McClain Nhlapo said that in the Philippines, there are “special access taxis” to meet the needs of people with disabilities. In South Africa, the government has incentivized owners of informal buses and vans with the “nudge method: the owners get a major discount if they replace their old bus with a new, more accessible one.”

A number of panelists called for “disaggregating local data by disability” so that better policy-making and regulatory processes can happen. “We need to show a cost-benefit analysis for accessible transportation and show how the benefits are better,” Bradford argued. McClain Nhlapo called for using that data to make the case for “embedding accessibility requirements into development projects from the beginning.”

Major global events like the Olympics can also be designed to be universally-accessible, as they help “stimulate thinking” in countries about needed changes. “You can show people what fully accessible transportation looks like,” Bas said.

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