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Disability Rights, U.S. Transportation Priorities, and Even Climate Change

Working on a national system-change to broaden the civil rights of people with disabilities to transportation.

Marilyn Golden

Marilyn Golden is being honored as a Transportation Ladders of Opportunity Champion of Change.

For over 25 years, I’ve worked on national system-change to broaden the civil rights of people with disabilities to transportation.

Pairing “disability” with the term “civil rights” may seem odd to some. The prevailing cultural attitude is that disability is personal; a medical issue. We call that “the medical model” and have worked for decades to broaden the public image of disability to take into account our relationship to society. We want everyone to understand that the prevailing heritage of isolation, segregation, and exclusion experienced by most people with disabilities in just about all human societies is not a function of our disabilities alone, but about how society treats us.

When I was growing up, segregation and exclusion of people with disabilities was legal. Segregated schools and institutions for people with disabilities had no requirement to provide options for integration. Few people could see what was happening clearly because everything was covered by the gloss of good intentions. The burden of dealing with the consequences of disability rested on the individual. Society had no responsibility to remove barriers to equality.

Leaping through the years to today, when buildings have ramps so wheelchair users can participate, when government hearings have sign language interpreters so deaf people can participate, when government programs send letters in formats blind people can use, and when schools properly accommodate all children with disabilities, the walls of prejudice and discrimination fall.

These changes did not occur because social institutions, on their own, chose to include us. They changed because a social movement, the disability rights movement, which is both profoundly original in its thinking and, simultaneously, as traditionally American as civil rights based on race and sex. In the disability rights movement, millions of ordinary men and women have asserted ourselves to demand dignity and our rights.

This movement succeeded in the 70s, 80s, and 90s to pass federal and state civil rights laws, the most famous, but far from the only one, being the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These laws required the changes I named, and many others, too. They have enough teeth that historically-unwilling institutions—education, medical care, employment, housing, the commercial sphere (such as hotels, stores, and restaurants), recreation, and, of course, transportation—all made, literally, concrete changes to become inclusive.

This struggle is far from over. Too much health care remains inaccessible to people with disabilities; too many people are still institutionalized; and, in transportation, while much has changed, many battles remain. Many people in this movement spend long work days, weeks, and years to realize full equality. It is my true privilege and honor to work among them.

Lastly, let me point out that our movement’s struggles occur in a broad context of inequitable funding that forms the backdrop to our, and to all, discussions of public transportation in this country. The United States dedicates enormous amounts of funding to infrastructure and other functions that facilitate transport by automobile – $48 billion is proposed by US DOT for 2015, but only $17 billion for public transit.

These priorities inherently disfavor large sections of the population, including people with disabilities. All the wonderful public and private transit programs, no matter how well they implement the ADA, cannot truly fill this gap. Our country must stop neglecting adequate support for publicly funded transit; privately funded transit; and resources to make our streets, sidewalks, and the pedestrian environment work well—for travelers with disabilities and all transit-dependent populations, including people who can’t afford cars.

Moreover, spending on autos does not decrease climate change, another critical national priority for everyone; but spending on public transit can. 

Marilyn Golden is the Senior Policy Analyst at Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF).