By Nadia Ibrahim, Senior Policy Advisor, and Lindsey Teel, Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy
Nadia Ibrahim and Lindsey Teel are employees of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and are both working on transportation policy as it relates to the employment of people with disabilities. They have been working closely with our partners at the Department of Transportation and the broader autonomous vehicle (AV) community to ensure the accessibility of AV, as well as its potential to increase the employment of the transportation disadvantaged. Part of this collaborative effort is the Online Dialogue on Autonomous Vehicles, in which ideas for ensuring accessibility of AV will be solicited and shared with our federal and private partners.
As policy professionals at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, we (Nadia Ibrahim and Lindsey Teel) are committed to ensuring that AVs can be leveraged to give people with disabilities access to good jobs. As people with disabilities ourselves, we know first-hand why this is so important. The following are our individual stories.
When I landed my first full-time job in Indianapolis, Indiana, after graduate school nearly 20 years ago, I had two main concerns: where I would live and how I would get to work. Cerebral palsy has affected my arms and legs since birth, making it difficult to complete a number of daily activities on my own, including driving. Where I lived impacted my access to public transportation and paratransit services, which, in turn, affected my ability to get to work, go shopping, get to medical appointments, and meet up with friends. Although I found an apartment within the paratransit service area, having to schedule rides at least 24 hours in advance limited my mobility. These experiences prompted me to return to school, accept an internship in Washington, D.C., and ultimately pursue a career in disability policy.
Many do not realize that the majority of counties in the United States don’t have public transportation, and, as such, aren’t required to have paratransit alternatives for those with disabilities. Limited access to other transportation options, such as taxis and ride-sharing services, further impacts mobility for many of the country’s 56 million citizens with disabilities. The promise of AVs has the potential to positively impact the lives of millions of people with disabilities, so it’s important that access be considered every step along the way in this technology’s development and implementation. Isn’t it better to build in accessibility from the start rather than retrofit later?
As federal agencies and states wrestle with developing legislation and policies around AVs, I can’t help but think about the very practical implications for Lindsey and me—and other Americans with disabilities. To be able to get around completely on our own without restrictions—related to when or where we can travel—opens up a world of possibilities in terms of employment, involvement in the community, and accessing health care and other essential services.
In middle school, I wanted a burnt orange PT Cruiser. My friends were all excited about learning to drive, so why couldn’t I be too? I had just been diagnosed with a rare youth form of macular degeneration that caused me to lose my central vision. Nonetheless, I was determined to drive, just like my friends. When I was 17, I did get a driver’s license with the provision that I would wear a bioptic telescope while behind the wheel. However, when I pulled into a gas station and realized I couldn’t see well enough to pump gas by myself, I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t risk the lives of others just because I wanted to be as independent as my friends.
In graduate school, I got a retail job at the mall to support myself. It cost me an hour’s wages to pay for the paratransit ride to and from work. Since paratransit offered limited hours of operation and didn’t offer trips on Sundays, I was very limited in the hours I could work. My mother (a saint) filled in the gaps paratransit left by taking me where I needed to go. I couldn’t have gotten through graduate school without her. Many people, however, don’t have someone who can fill in their transportation gaps, which creates a major barrier to obtaining a job.
It’s precisely because of people with disabilities who can’t get transportation to a job interview that we’re co-hosting this online dialogue with Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). People with disabilities need equal access to affordable, reliable and accessible transportation options. AVs could break down so many transportation barriers for our disability community, if, and only if, they are developed with accessibility baked in. Our dialogue partner, SAFE, predicted that autonomous vehicles could open doors to employment for two million people with disabilities. Let’s make that happen! Please weigh in with your ideas to help shape AV policies that are inclusive of Americans with disabilities.