Disability Equity and Inclusion Within Transit – By the Numbers

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By: Ron L. Brooks, Vice President, Transit Market Development

In a recent Tuesday Transit Topics webinar hosted by the National Transit Association Alliance, Michelle Witman, Founder and Principal Consultant at Asset Based Consulting, a company that works with organizations to improve DE&I outcomes for people with disabilities, shared two statistics that offer some interesting and potentially challenging insights for the public transit industry.

First, citing US census data, Michelle stated that approximately 25% of the US population reports having a disability. This includes obvious physical and intellectual disabilities as well as not-so-obvious disabilities such as moderate vision loss and psychiatric disabilities. In 2019, the US population was estimated to be about 328 million, so this equates to about 82 million people. Second, 53% of Americans (about 174 million people) are closely connected with a disability, either because they have a disability themselves or because they are the spouse, family member or close associate of a person with a disability.

Applying this to transit: one of the goals to which we aspire is a work force that mirrors the communities where we operate. For example: we want the balance of age, gender, racial and ethnic diversity within our work force to reflect the age, gender, racial and ethnic mix of our customers. Thus, if we want our work force to reflect the proportionate share of people with disabilities as exist within the larger society, we will need to employ a total of more than 107,000 people with disabilities. It’s important to note that many people with disabilities (and especially those with hidden disabilities) do not self-report, so it is almost a certainty that the transit industry has many people with disabilities working in all locations and at all levels. But do we know how many? Do we know what roles they are playing? Do we know how many people with disabilities are serving on the front lines, as middle managers, as executives and/or as Board members? If not, this is research we should take on so that we can determine the extent to which our work force reflects the diversity of the people we serve. We should also think about learning why people do not report their disabilities, if in fact, they do not. This may tell us a lot about the extent to which we have created a culture where people feel safe to self-report.

Turning to the 174 million Americans who are closely connected to life with a disability: we tend to think of our accessibility programs—including vehicle and facility accessibility, paratransit, digital and informational accessibility, and reduced fare programs to name a few, as niche programs intended for a niche segment of the transit market. As it turns out, this niche market is anything but. As anyone involved in accessible transit already knows, our stakeholders include not only passengers with disabilities. They include spouses, other family members, friends, caregivers and service providers. As it turns out, this is the majority of people living, working and traveling in the communities served by transit. And if we accept this math, then it means that we need to set aside the notion that accessible transit and paratransit are niche services for a niche market. They are as important as any other mode we operate—not because they’re legally required or because serving people with disabilities is the right thing to do, but because these services are critical for meeting the needs of a majority of the populations in our cities, towns and country.

Given the numbers of people who are either disabled or closely connected to disability, it is time for us to reflect on the following questions.

1) Do we know how many people with disabilities are working within our organizations? If not, why not, and what can we do?

2) Is the level of disability participation at all levels of our work force representative of the general population? If not, what can we do to address the inequity?

3) Do we think of our accessible transit and paratransit services as central to our overall mission, or do we think of them as niche services designed to meet the needs of the few? And is there anything we can do to reorient them to better address the concerns of the larger community? And

4) assuming we are not completely comfortable with our answers to the foregoing, how can we strengthen our focus on disability within our organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs?

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