Know Your Rights, Plan Ahead and Complain!

Know Your Rights, Plan Ahead and Complain!

According to civilrights.org, “Twenty years after passage of the ADA, transportation choices for people with disabilities are still extremely limited. There are persistent gaps in compliance that continue to create significant barriers for people with disabilities.

About 560,000 people with disabilities never leave home because of transportation difficulties.” And according to a recent survey of people with disabilities, 28% encounter a barrier to a building, transportation or service once a week, 20% encounter a barrier at least once a day and many find that public transportation is too difficult to use.

Laws cannot help a person in the moment that he or she is stranded at a bus stop, trapped in a subway station, or ignored by a cab driver, but there are things that can be in advance of your trip that may help smooth the way.  

First, if you use a wheelchair or scooter, or accompany someone who does, educate yourself about the laws that protect people with disabilities so you can quote the regulations to transportation staff who are not educated and may tell you something that is not true. However, It important to understand the limitations of the ADA and other laws that apply to transportation services.

Fixed Route Service and Paratransit

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society it’s important to be a good communicator:

  • Talk to your operator about your needs.
  • Research your trip in advance, know your routes, stops, and transfers and as you are boarding, tell your operator where you are getting off.
  • Tell your operator as soon as possible if you would like to use the lift or ramp or if you require the use of the priority seating area.
  • If a lift or ramp is out of order or if the securement areas are full, participate in the decision making process by communicating your needs. If you would have difficulty waiting for another transit vehicle in the current weather conditions because of your disability, tell your operator.
  • Tell your driver as soon as possible if you would like assistance securing your wheelchair.  

And finally, program your cell phone with the transit customer service number and take it with you. That way, if you believe your rights are being violated, you may be able to resolve the issue right away.

The ADA requires most public transit systems to provide “paratransit” services for people with disabilities who cannot use the “fixed route” bus or rail service. Paratransit must provide service that is comparable to the service provided to people who use the fixed route system.

In order to qualify for paratransit service, an applicant must prove eligibility and that is often the biggest hurdle. The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund offers these tips on how to make your case and how to appeal if you are denied paratransit eligibility.

For more information, read Riders’ Guide to Public Transportation for People with Disabilities.


The ADA doesn’t regulate air travel discrimination. But, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) passenger airlines that are open to the public may not discriminate against people with mental or physical disabilities..

According to the ARC, “Airline staff are frequently inadequately trained to serve customers with disabilities, and many passengers are treated unfairly, abandoned on the plane upon landing, or are returned broken wheelchairs or other equipment. It is important for passengers to know their rights before going to the airport to ease the flying process.”

Keep in mind that an airline need not upgrade a passenger to a higher class of service in order to accommodate his or her special needs. Airlines often designate aisle and bulkhead seats (i.e., those that are more spacious and easier to access) as “preferred” — effectively making them a higher class of service. People with disabilities who used to be assigned to a bulkhead or aisle seat without question are now either required to pay extra, or relegated to a middle seat.

The US Department of Transportation’s recommends that you:

  • Contact the airline at the time you make your reservation in order to learn more about the method that the airline uses to make arrangements for a seating accommodation.
  • If you encounter a seating accommodation-related issue, you can request to speak with the airline’s Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) or a supervisor. A CRO is the airline’s expert on disability-related issues in air travel. Every airline must have a CRO available either by telephone or in person during operating hours.

Taxi Cabs

In communities where a private taxi service is provided, it must comply with some limited ADA requirements for accessibility for people with disabilities. The rules for taxis and how many should be accessible in a city remain murky. In many communities, including large cities, few taxis are easily accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

Currently, the best option is to call the local cab companies, find out what options are available, and let them know if you believe they’re not in compliance with the ADA — Equip for Equality has put together this brochure that describes how the ADA applies to Taxi Services.  

When you arrange for a cab, let the dispatcher know your needs; should you have problems once the cab arrives to pick you up, let the company know exactly what happened — be specific about dates, times and location.

The rules are even more unclear for services that pair passengers with drivers who provide transportation using the driver’s non-commercial vehicle. A recent lawsuit seeks a definitive ruling about whether the ADA applies to services like Lyft and Uber.


Educate yourself about the ADA and other laws, including local ordinances that apply to transportation services. Always let a person in authority at the transportation company know when a dispatcher, driver or other representative is ignorant of the laws, or refuses to provide accommodations that are required by law. You can also, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Joseph Piekarski (1 Posts)

Joseph Piekarski is the founder and CEO of 1800wheelchair.com. The company, founded in 1997, is committed to providing expert advice, timely delivery, value, and convenience for customers in need of wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility equipment.

One Comment

  1. I have some questions about traveling in a power wheelchair on the island of Maui Hawaii and some suggestions for hotels to stay in there, if you have been there and have some ideas? I also have some questions about getting around the island as I was told that they don’t have good public transportation and I would need to rent a wheelchair accessible van to get around.

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