All Aboard the MBTA: It’s time for the next stage of accessibility

By Jessica Podesva and Josh Ostroff

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago this week. This milestone civil rights legislation has set the standard for a more inclusive nation that welcomes access and participation by everyone.

The ADA is about all of us. Everyone benefits from accessibility. A just society removes barriers and allows every individual to achieve his or her full potential. With 1 in 5 Americans living with a disability, virtually everyone has a friend, family member or coworker who can more broadly participate in daily life, thanks to this landmark law.

It’s not just people with disabilities that benefit from accessibility. The design of homes, workplaces, transportation systems and the furnishings and tools we use in daily living work best when they work for everyone. This includes parents pushing strollers, travelers with luggage, young children and seniors. Universal design serves us all.

Passing the ADA was one thing. Actually creating accessibility is something else. And among the greatest challenges has been our public transportation network, with its legacy infrastructure, including miles of rapid transit and commuter rail. People with disabilities were historically completely excluded from convenient and affordable travel.

The ADA did raise consciousness and expectations, but it did not raise revenue. Without new funding, the ADA did not make the MBTA accessible – it just meant that the T would become accessible over time, and that upgrades to stations would trigger accessibility. Improvements languished given the region’s historic underfunding of public transit infrastructure, and this failure to invest in accessible transit led to confrontation, culminating in legal battles.

In 2006, the MBTA entered into a landmark settlement agreement with Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) on behalf of the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) and 11 individuals with disabilities. Since the signing of the agreement, the parties have worked tirelessly to set the stage for greater accessibility, and made significant improvements to help ensure that funding, when available, makes a difference in upgrading the T’s fixed-route services.

Since the 2006 settlement agreement, MBTA reforms put into place include:

  • Creation of the Department of System-Wide Accessibility (SWA), reporting to the General Manager;
  • Implementation of new elevator maintenance contract and dramatically improved reliability, with 99% uptime;
  • Development of review processes to ensure universal design principals are incorporated in all design, construction, signage and communication projects;
  • Creation of Internal Access Monitoring Program and of System Orientation classes for customers;
  • Improved communication and relationship with the disability community;
  • And recently, the MBTA initiated the Program for Accessible Transit Infrastructure (PATI), which will soon commence an unprecedented access audit of the entire MBTA network and provide a framework for prioritizing improvements throughout the system.

While these changes have resulted in significant improvements, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our transit system is 100 percent accessible. GBLS, BCIL and the MBTA will continue to work to improve access for the entire region. SWA has published a list of 85 initiatives that the MBTA has committed to completing within the next one to three years. And with more than 60 rapid transit and commuter stations still lacking any access, the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition will advocate for sustainable revenue to ensure that full accessibility is funded.

Inclusive transportation advocacy and process improvements have set the table. Now it’s time to deliver on comprehensive upgrades that serve us all.

Where we really go from here depends not just on advocacy for people with disabilities, and not just on reforms at the MBTA. We need a commitment by leaders in Massachusetts to a fully accessible MBTA for all riders. Along with the well-documented backlog of State of Good Repair projects, this will require an investment of political and financial capital. But accessibility is about investing in ourselves to ensure that everyone can travel safely with dignity. That will be an achievement in which all can take pride – and take part.

Jessica Podesva of Beverly is a Law Clerk at Greater Boston Legal Services. Josh Ostroff of Natick is Outreach Director for the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition. We encourage everyone to join with advocates for people with disabilities on the Boston Common on July 22 beginning at 11:00 a.m., to celebrate 25 years of the ADA. For more information on Access and the MBTA please visit the MBTA’s Department of System Wide Accessibility web page, and follow the MBTA on Twitter: @MBTA #TAccess.