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On the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

On July 26, the nation will mark the 25th anniversary of one of our great achievements in civil rights, the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Coming more than a quarter century after discrimination based on race was outlawed, the ADA was an important milestone for the more than 55 million Americans like myself who live with disabilities. The ADA has achieved much success in literally removing barriers to buildings and public spaces while also making employment discrimination illegal. But it didn’t break down every barrier to equal access to transportation. I’m excited to report that innovations in technology are moving things in the right direction.

For too long, the disabled have faced a transportation landscape with few options for self-reliance. While our nation’s buses have become accessible, their limited routes and schedules make use of them a challenge for those who need them most. That lack of choice, and constant reliance on the goodwill of others just to go about life’s most basic activities, is a constant reminder that even with the ADA, we haven’t achieved true equality.

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It often isn’t enough to land a dream job: we have to worry about what it would take to actually get there. It means getting up several hours earlier than everyone else, just to arrive on time. It means relying on friends, family and colleagues to give us rides -- not just on special occasions, but to get to the grocery store, or doctors appointments, or classes, or the mall. It means that how to get there is key; it’s always the first question, before one can consider moving to a new place to chase their dreams, going on that date, or heading out to see a favorite band. 

With the advent of ridesharing services like Uber, things have begun to change. Technology has made the matching of rider and driver a non-discriminatory process. Drivers don’t know if riders have disabilities when they accept trip requests. Special accessibility features in smartphone apps make it possible for the blind to request a ride and inform the driver of their destination.

The accountability of Uber’s system, with GPS-tracked trip data, means that drivers will take efficient routes. This provides peace of mind to the vision impaired, who couldn't know in the past if they were being taken on a roundabout route for the purpose of generating a higher fare. In addition, the rideshare services make it clear that discrimination isn’t acceptable. They provide riders with recourse if discrimination does happen, so drivers who don’t play by the rules can finally be held accountable.

But the support for the disabled doesn’t begin and end on the rider side. Uber has worked with drivers who are disabled but capable of operating a vehicle safely to help them earn an income as partners on the Uber platform. Recently, the company made enhancements to the app that enable the deaf and hearing impaired to work as drivers. Critically, the customer experience is maintained irrespective of who is behind the wheel.

Empowering the disabled to work if and when they wish, while also helping transport the disabled reliably, affordably and safely, is nothing short of a revolution. For the majority who go through life without a disability, it may not be easy to understand. But for the disabled, not having a way to get there can be a constant source of stress and frustration.

There is a sense of pride that comes with being an equal citizen. Being able to earn a living and achieve independence often seemed like distant goals before 1990; the ADA brought them within reach, and transportation choices are making them that much more tangible. 

Our cities have been the cradle of the American dream for generations: places where the multitudes can live, work, explore and spend time with others. As we look ahead to the next 25 years, the new freedom of movement brought about by innovative transportation options must continue to be allowed to thrive. The disabled want the same thing everyone does: the ability to participate in all the opportunities life gives us. That dream is becoming more of a reality than ever, which is a cause for celebration on this anniversary. 

Coelho served in the House from 1979 to 1989. He was an author of the Americans With Disabilities Act.