COVID-19's transportation implications for people with disabilities
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Despite COVID-19’s mandated social distancing measures, people with disabilities, older adults and other vulnerable populations still need access to life-sustaining transportation services and deliveries. As noted by the Washington Post, “Transit is not an urban amenity; it’s life support for people who need it.”

To understand the profound impact transportation has on individuals living with disabilities, we have to acknowledge their increased risk of contracting COVID-19, either from underlying health conditions or from the lack of social distancing due to required care or other essential supports. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund warns, “The virus itself hits people with underlying conditions harder, and long-standing discrimination in our healthcare system means that people with disabilities are most likely to bear the burden of ‘rationing’ measures that hospitals and providers will put into place as patient needs strain the resources of the U.S. healthcare system.” The “rationing” measures imposed on people living with disabilities does not end with the U.S. health care system; it extends further to our nation’s transportation services and mobility management sector.

COVID-19’s greatest risks are not from the disease itself but rather from the disruptions in services and routines it’s causing, as evidenced by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities’ recent letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation. While our nation has been successful in flattening the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, we are now facing the magnitude of destruction it’s leaving in its path. This stresses the necessity of human services agencies and government sponsors to ensure that individuals with disabilities have a continuity of supports.

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To help rehabilitate the devastation, additional stimulus efforts are imperative for Section 5310 programs. Clearly directed funding will assist private nonprofit groups in meeting the transportation needs of older adults and people living with disabilities – two extremely high-risk populations – when the usual transportation service provided is unavailable, insufficient or inappropriate to meeting these needs.

Human services organizations, like Easterseals, view this as an opportune time to help and work side-by-side with transit planners and providers to think about the critical role they play in our economy, beyond just providing a ride. Partnerships such as these can restructure the human services delivery system and reposition how our nation serves its populations safely. There is absolutely no excuse for people with disabilities and transit-dependent populations to be excluded in decision-making processes moving forward.

With states reopening their economies, people with disabilities will still depend on paratransit, transit and local transportation services returning to or expanding their full operating capacity. New approaches to transportation service delivery paradigms will emerge from this crisis in order to expand access for people with disabilities. To guide inclusive transit-based conversations in the future, policymakers have a duty to take notice and pay close attention to the impacts of reduced transit ridership and falling tax revenues on accessible transportation funding and service provision.

If fixed-route service does not recover to its pre-pandemic levels, paratransit service could suffer from major reductions in service areas and hours, which could pose a serious threat to the wellbeing of many who live in less dense areas no longer served by paratransit.

Of the many lessons we learn in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, let one of them be that we can be more inclusive of and more adaptable to individuals who need transportation most, with or without this public health crisis.

Angela Williams is president and CEO of Easterseals, a leading provider of services for people with disabilities, veterans and seniors.