Tennessee Creates State Office for Accessible Transportation

/ May 5, 2020

By Lauren Pearcy

After hearing many stories from constituents with disabilities about the need for better accessible transportation, improving accessible transportation was on the minds of Tennessee legislative leaders as they entered the final year of the 111th General Assembly in 2020. The chairs of the House and Senate Transportation Committees, Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, are both leaders with experience sponsoring legislation to help Tennesseans with disabilities and their families. Legislators worked closely with our team at the Council on Developmental Disabilities and staff from Department of Transportation to introduce the Tennessee Accessible Transportation and Mobility Act of 2020 in January 2020.  The work group included a person on staff at TDOT who uses accessible transportation because of a disability.

What does the new law do?

The Tennessee Accessible Transportation and Mobility Act of 2020 creates a new office within TDOT that will focus solely on accessible transportation. Tennessee will be the first state that we know of to have such an office. The new law says that by March 31, 2021, the office will produce and share with the Tennessee General Assembly:

  • A mission statement,
  • A five-year plan, and
  • The state’s first annual report about accessible transportation in Tennessee.

Importantly: the law requires these activities to be informed by an advisory committee of stakeholders that includes experts in both transportation and aging and disability and people who use accessible transportation.

Why is the law needed?

Anyone connected to the disability community probably knows all about the critical need for accessible transportation as a precursor to … everything else. Access to health care, gainful employment, friends, hobbies, faith communities – all depend on access to transportation. Equality depends on access to transportation.

A core part of advocacy for the Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1980s was making the case that people with disabilities would always be second-class citizens without equal access to public transportation.

Accessible transportation today

Thanks to the ADA, publicly funded transportation must be physically accessible. Yet research shows that accessible transportation continues to be a top barrier for people with disabilities across the country, even 30 years later.

Individuals with disabilities live this every day:

  • The strain of scheduling the day around rides from others, with little control to go anywhere on demand and often long wait times;
  • The persistent inconvenience of physical barriers;
  • The disappointment in knowing it will be hard or impossible to travel across the county line, much less beyond — because of program limits and bureaucracy.

These types of barriers affect more than the estimated 50 million Americans who have a disability. They affect older adults, parents pushing strollers, and anyone who acquires a temporary limit to function (say, navigating your community with a broken ankle).

In response, there are now multiple programs across federal government dedicated to accessibility.  Those programs are located at the U.S. Department of Transportation and throughout other agencies. For example, Medicaid (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), Vocational Rehabilitation (the U.S. Department of Education), and American Job Centers (the U.S. Department of Labor) can all help people with disabilities pay for transportation in certain circumstances. These options are helpful, but their lack of connection to each other also makes the systems hard to use.

The state level mirrors the complex federal system. In Tennessee and across the country, local leaders and community partner organizations are the ones who get government funding to put accessible transportation programs into action. For example, this includes Human Resource Agencies in Tennessee’s nine development districts and Tennessee’s local transit authorities.  This localized structure means that accessibility looks a little different depending on where you live, and it may make it harder to find.

Two members of the Council on Developmental Disabilities with very different life experiences testified to the common barrier they face: the need for expanded and improved accessible transportation throughout Tennessee.

transportation meeting
Caption: Clancey Hopper, left, and Lauren Pearcy, center, listen as Martez Williams testifies before the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee.

Clancey Hopper of Lebanon, TN, lives in a relatively rural area. Clancey has a developmental disability called Williams syndrome that affects her spatial awareness, which means she does not drive. Martez Williams of Nashville, TN, lives in an urban center. Martez has a physical disability, which means he drives but relies on accessible parking, sidewalks, and other structures – for example, gas stations – to access his community. Both testified before the General Assembly as to their transportation needs.

Their testimony about these two very different stories highlighted the wide-ranging transportation issues Tennesseans face. It is not a rural issue or an urban issue. It’s not an issue for a certain type of disability, or age, or race. It’s not an issue one policy can solve.

Together, Clancey and Martez showed the need for exactly what this new law does. The new statewide office will work with a diverse advisory group to identify the state’s needs and solutions that can change over time. In short, this new law helps us keep attention on this issue, which we believe is the most important first step to real change. For more information, you can contact me at Lauren.j.pearcy@tn.gov.

My thanks to Lauren for taking the time to write about the creation of this new office, and my thanks to the many folks who reached out to their elected officials to let them know about this huge need in our state. My hope is that this Office of Accessible Transportation can come up with creative strategies to eliminate this barrier that so many Tennesseans with disabilities still face! If you have questions or concerns, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thanks for reading!

Lauren Pearcy smilingLauren Pearcy is the public policy director at the Council on Developmental Disabilities. In this role, Lauren works to track and help improve policies and practices affecting Tennesseans with disabilities. Lauren has a master’s degree in public policy from the George Washington University. Before moving to Tennessee, Lauren worked as a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Governors Association in Washington, DC.

May 5, 2020

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