How well are the charter and tour industries making travel accessible to people with disabilities? There may be room for improvement, said Laurel Van Horn, director of operations for the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization (ODO).
The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that “demand responsive” carriers, such as charter and tour providers, must make arrangements to provide an accessible vehicle if given advance notice of 48 hours.
The ADA was passed in 1990 and amended in 2008. It prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including transportation and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The law ensures that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as others.
“As I go across the country and train for state associations, I see that so many people have still not acquired a single accessible motorcoach,” Van Horn said. “The way the rule is written makes no sense. You have to provide the service on 48-hour notice, but you don’t have to buy a coach.”
“While we typically think of ADA as providing accessibility to individuals using mobility devices, ADA encompasses the full spectrum of individuals with disabilities,” said Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer of the United Motorcoach Association.
The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Examples include many diseases, alcoholism, asthma, blindness, cerebral palsy, depression, hearing or speech impairments and complications from pregnancy.
“It is critical that everyone who has any contact with the public receive training and refresher training so that congressional objectives are met and over-the-road bus operations avoid an intervention from the Department of Justice,” Presley said.
“Many passenger carriers think there must be some exemption for them and surely ADA compliance does not apply to them. There are no exemptions, and those that believe there are have frequently paid significant fines,” he said.
The ADA web site lists about 30 enforcement actions taken against bus and shuttle companies since 2008. Most agreements require operators to comply with the law and submit reports on compliance. Seven carriers were also ordered to pay civil and compensatory penalties ranging from $1,000 to, in three cases, $55,000.
As for passengers using mobility devices, Van Horn said the standard wheelchair lift, which must be installed on all motorcoaches use by fixed-route operators, is not particularly popular with carriers that must maintain them, drivers who must know how to operate them and even passengers who depend upon them.
“They all have had problems with them breaking down,” Van Horn said.
She added, ” I don’t know that the industry is actively discriminating. Maybe they are really not seeing requests for it. It may be partly that the tour companies that are chartering the coaches are turning people away. I don’t know if people are just looking to comply and are not looking at the bigger picture and actually marketing the service.”
ODO is a non-profit that tracks accessibility compliance and assists transportation and hospitality industries. ODO has found that people with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on travel.
“ADA should not necessarily be about compliance or noncompliance, but rather assuring everyone can access your service,” Presley said. “At the end of the day, through injury, disease or just the process of aging, most if not all of us will have some disability at some time in our life. As one individual with a disability said, ‘When you think about it, ADA is just common courtesy codified.'”
Wheelchair lift usage
About 30 percent of new motorcoaches are ordered with wheelchair lifts to provide access to the disabled, according to Francois Caron, North American motorcoach sales manager for Braun Ability, a global manufacturer of mobility devices. He said 10 to 12 percent of motorcoaches purchased by privately owned operators are equipped with lifts.
“The public sector is 100 percent lift equipped, and mostly the fixed route operators on the private sector have lift-equipped motorcoaches,” he said.
The law’s requirements for over-the-road bus and motorcoach (OTRB) transportation vary by “fixed-route” operators and “demand-responsive” carriers.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration posts an overview of ADA requirements on its web site.
In general, “A fixed route OTRB company must ensure that each new OTRB purchased or leased for fixed route service is accessible. An OTRB company provides fixed route service if it provides transportation in which the OTRB is operated along a prescribed route according to a fixed schedule.
“A demand responsive OTRB company must provide service in an accessible bus to passengers with disabilities on a 48-hour advance notice basis. OTRB companies that provide mixed service must meet the requirements for both fixed route and demand responsive segments of their service.”
When selecting wheelchair devices, Caron suggests that buyers consider their operating requirements. “Think about the space taken in luggage bays if the lift is being used frequently, and the lift’s ease of operation, reliability and product support.”
The FMCSA guide to ADA compliance is posted here.
MCI accessible coach displayed at independent living rally
The new motorcoach industry’s MCI D45 CRT LE was invited to the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) March & Rally in July at the U.S. capital. The rally celebrated the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The commuter coach features a second door equipped with a patented curb-level “Low-Entry Vestibule” and secured seating for improved ADA accessibility. The low entry allows wheelchair users to roll onto the bus without use of a lift, saving ten minutes of boarding time.
“You will see many transit agencies with accessibility committees that involve groups like ours, but this is the first time we’ve worked directly with a major manufacturer of motorcoaches to design a vehicle from day one,” said Kelly Buckland, NCIL executive director. “The MCI D45 CRT LE addresses the day-to-day challenges people with disabilities face.”