The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Phoenix—Imagine you're planning a night out. Heading home from work, back out to hit a restaurant, then off to check out your favorite local band at your favorite local bar. Your biggest care should be, "Does this shirt go with these pants?"

Michael Reardon; photo: Berkeley Teate NCSL

That's the example Kody Olson cited to illustrate a fact of life for those with a disability that keeps them from driving. 

Yet the revolution in autonomous vehicles has the potential to be a boon to people with disabilities.  

"Think about your daily life, not only getting to work, getting school, out to dinner, the ability to live a high-quality life, be with peers, be with family—all values we can understand. Being able to transport yourself is a critical fact," Olson, public policy director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, said during a Tuesday morning session titled "How Will Autonomous Mobility Affect People with Disabilities?" at NCSL's Capitol Forum.

Unemployment is twice as high among the disability community and when you can't get to a job, the challenge is even greater.

"There's a lot of money being lost by the fact that people with disabilities don't have access to transportation to get to jobs," said Michael Reardon, supervisory policy advisor, U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy. "Two-thirds of the counties in the United States don't have public transportation. People with disabilities' participation in the workforce is about a third of the level of the non-disabled population. Every time a person can't get to a job, that's an opportunity cost that's wasted, a potential taxpayer turned into a tax recipient—the opportunity to change from a life of poverty and dependence to a life of productivity and financial independence."

Transportation "is a real game-changer" for persons with disabilities, Reardon said. Without access to personal vehicles, people earn lower incomes and attain degrees at a lower rate. A 2017 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that autonomous vehicles (AV) could enable 2 million more people with disabilities to attain employment opportunities. 

Kody OlsonHowever, if AVs are not accessible to people with disabilities (and seniors), it's going to become even worse. Reardon added that tech companies have been very responsive to making their vehicles and infrastructure accessible.

A report from the Minnesota Advisory Council on Connected and Autonomous Vehicles released last December contained numerous recommendations relating to people with disabilities:

  • As the technology develops, reconsider and update driver licensing requirements to allow people with disabilities, veterans, aging, and others who may not have driver’s licenses the ability to independently use automated vehicles.
  • Conduct pilot projects in areas with aging populations, persons with disabilities, low-income communities, communities of color and tribal nations.
  • Authorize testing without human drivers present in non-commercial vehicles to advance mobility options for persons with disabilities. Only authorize testing without humans present in closed conditions in limited areas prior to testing on public roads to minimize safety risk.
  • Prioritize safety needs for all road users (e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, persons with disabilities, transit and railroads) when making infrastructure investments for CAV.
  • Solicit public feedback on how to shape future deployment policy, including how to make the design more accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Create grants or vouchers for aging populations, persons with disabilities, low-income communities, communities of color, tribal nations and other populations experiencing transportation challenges to promote independent and affordable access to jobs, health care, and other basic human needs using automated vehicles.
  • Ensure that a sufficient number of vehicles are built using universal design and fully accessible. This includes physical and software accessibility for the consumer. Minnesota needs to pass this legislatively and push for its adaptation on the federal level. Universal design must include physical space for personal equipment (scooters, wheelchairs, walkers, companion animals, etc.) so consumers can enter and secure safety mechanisms independently within a vehicle. Universal design must also include accessible digital interfaces for all disabilities.
  • CAV systems will have to be designed to address individuals who do not have the ability to travel alone (e.g. person with intellectual disability, children) versus those who can ride independently/alone.
  • The cost for transportation must be the same for consumers with or without a disability.
  • Ensure full accessibility for all disabilities (blind, hearing impaired, developmental, cognitive) and that all abilities can participate in testing of CAV to provide feedback on the design, no matter where they live in the state.

In short, Olson said, "People with disabilities need to be at the table."

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog. 

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.