One of the ways in which people with physical disabilities may become most marginalized occurs when travel becomes a problem. The freedom that comes from having the ability to travel is unmatched and undisputed. Residing in the community where one desires to live, socializing and performing meaningful and dignified work become much easier. When people with disabilities might otherwise have opportunities to work, employers still deny them employment where they might otherwise thrive, because they are unable to commute. At a time when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made accommodations in the workplace a household word, this would seem unthinkable.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities aged 16 and older was 8 percent in 2018, compared to 3.7 percent for those without disabilities. Additionally, their labor force participation rate (20.8 percent) in 2018 was much lower than the rate for people without disabilities (68.4 percent).
An estimated 25.5 million Americans report having travel-limiting disabilities, according to data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. About half of this population (13.4 million) is aged 18 to 64, and only about a fifth of this group report working part-time or full-time. These gaps in employment stem from several factors, not the least of which include significant barriers in accessing transportation needed to travel to-and-from work.
Imagine how much less of a burden and how much more freedom people with disabilities would have if self-driving cars were made widely available. There are very few areas of life in which people with disabilities do not need to face challenges posed by their travel limitations, and a car that drives itself would be an enormous step toward reducing those challenges, if not eliminating them altogether. Few would argue how this would increase employment prospects in particular and overall quality of life for people with travel-restricting disabilities.
Regarding the many benefits that autonomous transportation can bring for people with disabilities, Sheryl Gross-Glaser, director of the nonprofit Community Transportation Association of America, correctly notes in clear, timely fashion that,
“Autonomous vehicles hold incredible promise for people with disabilities to enjoy
the enormous freedom that most adults have to live spontaneously and to be
One of the most significant, overarching goals of disability liberation is for people to have experiences, enjoyment and overall daily existence with the convivence that is comparable to their able-bodied counterparts. As technology advances, so too Gross-Glaser says, can freedom and independence for people with varying types of impairments. She continues,
“But just as we need to enable someone with a walker or wheelchair to enter and exit
a vehicle, we need redundant technologies that serve people with auditory or visual impairments and technologies and designs that assist people with cognitive disabilities. Those exist, and they should be used in designing autonomous vehicles so that all autonomous vehicles will be accessible.”
In addition to personal autonomous vehicles, another way the technology can be used is in the area of public transportation, allowing for broader availability that doesn’t depend on the presence of a driver. A fleet of accessible, self-driving taxicabs, buses, and streetcars may be liberating for all. Hailing a ride from an app may not even need a driver or a dispatcher attached to it.
The essence of technology at its best is that it makes tasks easier to perform than they previously were. There are lots of ways that the infrastructure of the outside world must become more accessible. Despite the significant accommodations resulting from passage of the ADA, that larger goal has not been met. However, just as wheelchair users have the potential to be pedestrians in ways they would not without that assistive technology, the autonomous vehicle has the potential to turn people with travel restricting disabilities, for all intents and purposes, into drivers and independent travelers.