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The Americans With Disabilities Act and the Long Road to Autonomy

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Written by: Ed Niedermeyer, Communications Director of PAVE

Thirty years ago this week President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, taking a critical step toward a more equitable and accessible society. In addition to prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disabilities, the ADA’s most recognizable impacts come from its requirement that public spaces and services be accessible to people with disabilities, a long-overlooked need that activists brought attention to by crawling up the Capitol steps.

Today the United States is a far more accessible nation thanks to the ADA and the activists who brought it about, but much work remains to be done. People with disabilities continue to struggle every day with myriad obstacles, many of which are largely invisible to the rest of society. That invisibility is tied, at least in part, to challenges in one specific area: mobility. When people with disabilities lack the resources to be physically present in public life, it’s much harder for non-disabled people to see and understand the other challenges they face.

I caught a glimpse of some of the challenges disabled people face in college, when I worked for a time as a caregiver at a group home for disabled survivors of institutional and domestic abuse. The group home was located out in the suburbs, about a mile from the nearest bus stop, and did not have a dedicated wheelchair van. For my wheelchair-using clients, making the kind of everyday trip that I had never thought twice about was a formidable undertaking, requiring considerable planning, coordination and physical effort.

The experience of tackling America’s car-dominated landscape with people who are poorly-served by car-based mobility has stuck with me over the years. It’s one of the reasons I am so proud to work at PAVE, a coalition whose disabled advocacy group members like National Federation of the Blind and United Spinal (whose ADA reflections can be read here and here respectively) are doing vital work to explain and address the all-too invisible challenges of disabled mobility and accessibility. The opportunity to highlight the disabled community’s perspective on autonomous vehicles and the work these organizations do to ensure the technology is truly accessible is truly humbling.

The insights that come from our partners in the disabled advocacy community are a powerful reminder of the profound social benefits that autonomous vehicles can provide, but they are also a reminder that providing those benefits requires awareness and education. As NFB’s Mark Riccobono recently told the NY Times, for a fascinating article on disabled DIY inventors, good intentions aren’t enough. “A couple times a year someone comes to us and says, ‘We have this great new idea for how to replace the cane!’” he says. “We try to be objective, but no. You’re trying to solve a problem that’s not a problem.”

Occasionally non-disabled people will suggest to me that autonomous vehicles are a similar solution in search of a problem, and that other, less-high-tech approaches might be a better way to address the mobility challenges that disabled people face. To be sure, the more tools and resources that society can provide to help overcome mobility and accessibility obstacles, the better. But there is one unique advantage autonomous vehicles have to offer people with disabilities that can be easy to overlook: autonomy.

Autonomy tends to be applied to technology more than people these days, but in the human context it highlights something that is easy to take for granted. Mobility is simply the ability to get around, but autonomy is the ability to move where and when you want to. “Self-directing freedom,” is how Merriam-Webster’s dictionary puts it. Services like paratransit, or the single wheelchair lift-equipped van that my clients had to share with a number of other group homes, can provide mobility but they are not capable of providing real autonomy. When I think about the better future that autonomous vehicles can make possible, I think about one in which real autonomy is within everyone’s reach.

That dream is still a long way off, but it’s a powerful motivation to see autonomous vehicle technology mature. We’ve seen remarkable progress in accessibility for disabled people in the thirty years since the passage of the ADA, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the next thirty years will see that progress continue with help from autonomous vehicles. As remarkable as the technology that makes vehicles drive themselves is, the most important autonomy will always be that of our fellow humans.

July 29, 2020