The Effects of Exclusion: How Transportation Infrastructure Reinforces Prejudices Against ‘Disabled’ Americans

In 2000, Law professor Samuel Bagenstos argued that ‘disability’ is not an inherent trait of the ‘disabled’ person. Instead, Bagenstos believes that “disability should be understood as a socially defined group status.” Some people are perceived as existing with ‘impairments.’ The subsequent societal designation of these groups of people as ‘disabled’ places them outside of the norms within which institutions and structures are formed. In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that 55.2 million people in the US had a severe disability. The people counted within this demographic vary with respect to the types and severities of their medical conditions. However, unifying the individuals that make up this demographic are the systemic, socially produced disadvantages they all likely experience in the United States. 

Transportation infrastructure is a critical component of daily life that acts as one of largest contributors to the creation of perceived impairment. For millions of people, it provides a lifeline of sustained access to employment, education, healthcare, and political participation. However, through processes of institutional exclusion, millions of people with ‘disabilities’ are denied that lifeline and excluded from basic components of community life every day.

In 2018, the US BTS reported that 25.5 million Americans of ages five and older have travel-limiting ‘disabilities.’ And while this study shows that the magnitude of issues related to transportation and ability are immense in scope, the deeply pervasive effects of insufficient transportation on daily life need to be emphasized more. Not only does non-inclusive transportation infrastructure make it hard for people to lead independent lives in the community, it also constitutes a type of structural discrimination that denies a life outside the home altogether. The study conducted in 2002 also reports that there are 3.5 million Americans who can never leave their homes and that 1.9 million (54 percent) of them have ‘disabilities.’ The insufficiency and lack of accommodating transportation infrastructure are cited as a specific reasons why more than half a million people with ‘disabilities’ can never leave their homes. 

When people think about transportation infrastructure, they only tend to picture roads, highways, and bridges. Yet, in reality, humans interact with many potentially limiting barriers like curbs and stairs; even walking from a home to a car or a subway station can present a challenge. All of these are forms of infrastructure. To be effective at granting mobility for the independence of the individual, public transportation needs an approach that accounts for the needs of every individual. This means creating infrastructure that is attentive to accessible pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks, traffic signals, street crossings); accessible terminals, stations, and stops; and travel information for people with sensory, cognitive, or linguistic impairments.

Taken together, the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 are supposed require that these standards are met so as to ensure that comprehensive public transportation is accessible and that discrimination based on ability is prevented. However, even with the passage of these two landmark federal laws, transportation services are often not accessible, in reality, to individuals with ‘disabilities’ as a result of insufficient enforcement and funding of these policies. For example, Amtrak, a contiguous passenger rail system that millions of Americans rely on, had a deadline to make its stations accessible by 2010. Since 2010, Congress mandated that Amtrak direct at least $50 million of its annual federal funds to comply with accessibility standards. However, as of March 2017, even though the president’s budget requested $350 million for this purpose, Amtrak failed to make its more than 375 stations fully accessible. 

The exclusionary discourse that is the status quo separates people with ‘disabilities’ from what is considered ‘normal’ and ensures that the majority of transportation infrastructure is not created to be sufficiently accessible. As a result, each day people with ‘disabilities’ are forced to overcome a multitude of barriers that systematically exclude them from their communities. 

"The exclusionary discourse that is the status quo separates people with ‘disabilities’ from what is considered ‘normal’ and ensures that the majority of transportation infrastructure is not created to be sufficiently accessible."

 What is perhaps most troubling is that current officials seem to lack any and all sensitivity to these systems of exclusion, and what is more, officials are actively reducing resources designated to people with ‘disabilities.’ Most recently, the Trump administration’s 2020 budget would make severe cuts across multiple agencies that serve Americans with ‘disabilities,’ depriving them of essential resources. The budget includes deep cuts to programs vital to providing access to health care and community-based services for people with ‘disabilities.’ In a statement made last month, The Arc, a leader in disability rights advocacy, said the cuts “would put the lives of people with disabilities at risk.” 

It is important to note that the failure to make public infrastructure accessible is cyclical, and will only continue to get worse if not addressed. Bagenstos argues that allowing for exclusionary public transportation infrastructure to isolate large portions of the American public perpetuates a stigma and understanding of some people as outside of the ‘norm.’ The othering categorization of people with ‘disabilities’ will remain a fundamental problem that excludes people from the ‘norm’ so long as inaccessible public infrastructure continues to create the basis of perceived impairment. 

Both a radical discursive change that incorporates people with ‘disabilities’ into one singular discourse and a policy change that makes the baseline standard of transportation infrastructure accessible must occur simultaneously in order to begin to end the cycle of systematic alienation that perpetuates systems of structural discrimination against millions of Americans.

Photo: Man in Wheelchair at Train Station

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