It starts with understanding.

It was a pleasure presenting at the NYPTA annual convention this November in Saratoga Springs. I applaud the Association for making DISABILITY AWARENESS a part of its conference agenda. The goal of Disability Awareness is, simply stated – understanding. The more we know, the more likely we are to make the necessary changes.

Let's look at the some of the numbers. There are 600 million people with disabilities in the world today – 60 million in the United States. Of that, 25 million are regular users of public transportation. Couple that with the fact that 42% of seniors have a disability. As the aging population explodes in our Country, seniors and people with disabilities are likely to be public transit's largest growth market.

As I travel the state and country and listen to costumers and service providers, I have gained a unique perspective. Three issues take center stage:

  1. compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  2. advocacy group expectations (or demands); and
  3. lack of financial resources to meet demands and expectations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a major catalyst for change. As a result, we've seen progress. It has its limitations in two important areas: having an impact on employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and the tendency for organizations to meet minimal requirements – and not reach for more.

Advocacy groups see the ADA as a floor, not ceiling. As a result, have expectations for maximum accessibility and opportunity. And they should. Advocacy is itself is crucial for people with disabilities. The quality of life of individuals with disabilities is dependent upon their willingness to strive for independence, and advocate for their needs. Advocates play an important role in raising the bar for ADA implementation, housing, transportation, employment, accessibility, and more. In the end, advocates want to be heard. A place at the table. An opportunity to be a part of the decision making process.

At the end of day, much of what needs to be accomplished costs money. Lots of it. When paratransit costs are 10 times more than the regular fare, the transit agency has limitations. Managers in the developmental disabilities field in NYS struggle to fund transportation programs and find partners to serve their consumers.

Disability awareness goes far beyond the basic understanding of etiquette and quality of life. It's about understanding disabilities in a much larger context. Disability is a natural existence and a way of life for 1 out of 5 Americans. Stigmas and "us and they" mentalities have no place in an advanced society like ours. We are making progress. With more awareness, and understanding, we will soon see a monumental shift.

Published in InTransit, publication of the New York Public Transit Association, Winter 2005.