As wheelchair-inaccessible buses show, regulation only gets us so far

A new bus service in San Francisco has caused controversy by stripping out wheelchair-accessible features from buses

In July, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will be 25 years old and it’s fair to say it constitutes a landmark piece of legislation. Having ushered in a wide range of rights and protections the ADA helped transform the lives of millions of disabled people while also sending a clear signal to society that discrimination would not be tolerated. However, even with a long-established progressive law proven to have had a positive impact, ensuring that it is fully understood and enforced is an ongoing undertaking.

This was highlighted recently in San Francisco, a city regarded as exemplary in many ways for disabled access including public transport. This month, a local media storm quickly became a national story when word got around that a disabled man, a former public transit worker who has cerebral palsy, alleged that a start-up tech/transport firm, Leap was in contravention of the ADA. The company had just launched a premium bus operation with vehicles that had accessibility equipment removed before going into service.

Yes, you read that right. The buses, purchased second hand and then refurbished into luxury alternative commuter transport complete with an app for booking seats, wifi, snacks, and bar-style leather seating, were originally equipped with wheelchair accessible features that were then dismantled and taken out. On learning this, wheelchair user Chris Pangilinan lodged a complaint with the Department of Justice (DoJ) claiming Leap violated the law by running a service for public use that failed to provide spaces for people using wheelchairs.

San Francisco is no stranger to furores to do with commuter transport. Recent controversies around private shuttle buses run by companies like Google to take employees to and from work prompted street protests amid claims the buses were emblematic of rising inequalities and soaring house prices fuelled by an influx of well-paid tech workers. Similarly, the Leap buses (they cost $6 a ride) have been criticised as another example of elitism by syphoning off white-collar customers from (cheaper) public transit. The issue of restricting disabled access is different however, not least because it runs directly up against anti-discrimination laws.

Following the DoJ complaint and the accompanying media outcry, Leap told the Guardian in a statement that it would make adjustments to one of its buses “as a short-term solution”, apologised for any offence, and said it would make disabled access a “high priority during the design process in future”. On the one hand this single episode involving a firm with (at this point) just four buses could be dismissed as a one-off, a misguided error on their part, or just small fry. However, as with other individual challenges to potential breaches of civil rights laws, what it actually does is to highlight the importance of continuous vigilance when it comes to ensuring obligations are met, be it by companies recruiting staff fairly, ramps at restaurants or adequate adjustments by bus operators.

Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at civil rights law organisation DisabilityRights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), says that while Leap’s actions don’t directly affect a large number of people and are not indicative of public transport generally, they are “symbolic”. The ADA brought about “massive” positive changes, Golden points out, but monitoring and enforcement remain critical. Sometimes it is individuals who spot when something isn’t right, she says. “[They] have tools at their disposal. They can file complaints. They can use the courts and they can also do advocacy,” but making sure people are aware of their rights under the law is “key”.

It’s not just the US where disabled people have been challenging the law on transport accessibility recently. High-profile legal cases in the UK also illustrate that, just because a law is in place, it doesn’t mean there is certainty about what legally constitutes discrimination. One of these cases brought by a disabled man, Doug Paulley, centred on a woman’s refusal to move her pushchair from a wheelchair-accessible space, which meant he had to get off the bus. Many people probably assume that a disabled person would have priority in an accessible space, yet the law as it stands is unclear. When Paulley argued that the bus company, First Bus Group, failed to make reasonable adjustments and breached obligations under the Equalities Act 2010, he was successful in one court but the decision was later overturned. In December 2014, judges at the court of appeal concluded that disabled people would need to ask for the law to be strengthened or changed to “for instance, require people to vacate the wheelchair space”.

With the backing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Paulley is hoping to challenge the decision in the supreme court this year.

What all of this shows is that whether it’s the Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act in Britain or the ADA in the US, complacency is simply not an option when it comes to protecting hard-fought for rights or clarifying the law on disability discrimination. Obstacles, including legal ones, remain.

Tuesday 28 April 2015