Stacy Cervenka, Director Public Policy. In the background the US Capitol Building can be seen
Stacy Cervenka, AFB's Director of Public Policy

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Throughout this month, corporations and other organizations renew and refocus their commitments to addressing the barriers that face Americans with disabilities in the workforce.

The American Foundation for the Blind hopes to address a significant barrier to employment for people with vision loss by increasing our focus on transportation, which remains one of the most trenchant barriers blind people face when seeking and maintaining employment. AFB has submitted draft language for possible inclusion in the upcoming surface transportation bill that will be moving through Congress later this fall. Our proposal specifically targets our nation’s paratransit providers, which are agencies that are federally required to provide transportation to people with disabilities.

Every three years, each state vocational rehabilitation agency performs a comprehensive statewide needs assessment of the employment needs of people with disabilities in that state. Blind and low vision people consistently identify transportation as the largest barrier to obtaining employment, accepting jobs that are offered to them, or remaining employed once they are hired.

“I wanted to apply for an adjunct position teaching English composition at a community college,” said Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter of Omaha, Nebraska. “But the school is not on the bus line. Uber and Lyft were not options because the cost would have been too great compared to my wages. So I lost out on an employment opportunity because I didn't have other reliable affordable choices.”

One significant challenge is that almost no paratransit agencies in the United States allow riders to make a stop on the way to a final destination. Paratransit agencies are not federally required to schedule rides less than 90 minutes apart. This has a huge negative affect on the ability of blind and low vision parents to enter and remain in the workforce. Most blind parents say that they would prefer to work, but it can be impossible to find reliable, affordable transportation that will allow them to drop a child off at childcare or school and then continue on to their workplace. Similarly, at the end of the day, there is often no way for parents to travel to pick a child up from childcare and then continue home.

“Inadequate transportation was a major factor in deciding to withdraw from my PhD program and become a stay-at-home mom,” said Christi Bee of Arizona. “My school is 18 miles away. This commute took sometimes hours, due to it being a shared ride. I was overwhelmed by the idea of adding pickups and dropoffs to daycare on each end. You could only schedule 1 trip per hour. That's prohibitive if you think about daycare dropoffs. If I had to use Lyft, this could easily cost $100 per day.”

One paratransit provider that has mitigated this challenge is Arlington, Virginia’s STAR program. STAR riders are allowed to make stops en route to a final destination for no additional charge if the stops fall into certain categories, such as childcare and healthcare. Because of this, Arlington is a very popular place to live for blind parents with full-time jobs.

“STAR allows parents to schedule what they call ‘interim trips’ for the purpose of dropping off or picking up our children from school or daycare,” said Rebecca Bridges of Arlington, Virginia. “We are given 10 minutes to drop off or pick up before going to our next destination. This has undoubtedly saved us thousands of dollars in time and transportation costs over the last five years, and has been instrumental in allowing us to schedule around and meet the demands of our jobs and maintain gainful employment."

Other significant barriers people face in using paratransit services include long wait times for application, which can leave them without transportation for weeks or even months. Furthermore, there are often huge gaps in service when a person moves from one jurisdiction to another. This can leave people who currently relied on transportation in one location unprepared and stranded when they move to a new location.

In order to address these problems, AFB submitted four proposed regulation changes for consideration in the upcoming surface transportation bill. The proposals include:

  1. Requiring paratransit agencies to allow riders one stop of up to 10 minutes in length on their way to a final destination, when the stop falls into certain categories, such as childcare, education, healthcare, or pharmaceutical pick-up
  2. Requiring paratransit agencies to make an applicant immediately eligible if they present proof that they were previously eligible for paratransit services in a jurisdiction in which they used to reside.
  3. Requiring paratransit agencies to provide applicants with services after 7 days have passed since they applied until a final decision is reached.
  4. Requiring paratransit agencies to provide applicants who are going through an appeals process with services after 14 days have passed since they completed the appeals process until a final decision is reached.

You Can Help

You can help us in our efforts to ensure that this language is included in the transportation bill by calling your Member of Congress and asking them to ensure that the language submitted by the American Foundation for the Blind to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure be included in the transportation bill. Every call and every voice makes a difference!

Here is a sample script you can use during your call:

“Hi, my name is______. I’m calling from___________. I’m calling to urge Congressman/Congresswoman__________ to ensure that the upcoming surface transportation bill addresses the needs of Americans who are blind and low vision. Lack of transportation can be a huge barrier to employment for people with vision loss. It can also be a barrier to older adults with vision loss, as they seek to remain active and independent in their own homes and communities. I hope that the Congressman/Congresswoman will support the language the American Foundation for the Blind submitted to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.”

You can find the name and contact information for your Member of Congress here: www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

Alternatively, you can call the US Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.