Faces of Public Health: Marilyn Golden

May 16, 2014, 1:25 PM

Earlier this week the White House honored eleven transportation “Champions of Change” for their roles in ensuring that transportation facilities, services and jobs help individuals and their communities.

Champions include:

  • Wanda Vazquez, a mentor and trainer in Chicago who helps Hispanic advocates in the Chicago area become certified child passenger safety technicians, and help families understand the importance of safe transportation for their children.
  • Daphne Izer, head of the twenty-year-old Parents Against Tired Truckers.
  • Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, based in Berkeley, California, where she has advocated for greater access to public and private transportation for people with disabilities.

Research from the U.S. Department of Transportation has found that poor transportation access is a factor preventing lower income Americans from gaining higher income levels than their parents. “Transportation plays a critical role in connecting Americans and communities to economic opportunity through connectivity, job creation, and economic growth,” said U.S. Secretary of Transpiration Anthony Foxx at the event recognizing the Champions. “Recognizing social mobility as a defining trait of America’s promise, access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation is critical.”

Following the awards ceremony, NewPublicHealth spoke with Marilyn Golden about her work.

NewPublicHealth: How much more is there to be done to help people with disabilities to get easier access to transportation to take them where they need to go, whether it’s recreational, medical, or work?

Marilyn Golden: We should acknowledge that a lot has been done under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by transit agencies, with a lot of thank you to the U.S. Department of Transportation, particularly the Federal Transit Administration for enforcing the ADA in a sufficiently robust manner that transit agencies do respond.

I shouldn’t suggest that every transit agency only acts because of an enforcement action. It’s much more diverse than that, and some are very proactive on their own and really leaders in the industry, and then there are transit agencies that trail behind. We do have many challenges that remain. 

NPH: Can you give us an example?

Golden: The issue that’s hottest around the country today is a burgeoning sector in the last several years of smart phone apps that pretend they’re not for taxis, but in the eyes of the disability community are essentially another kind of taxi—things such as Uber, Sidecar and Lift. Some people with disabilities do use them and some of them enjoy using them and that’s as it should be. But these companies are not currently regulated, although there are a couple of places where I am beginning to be more optimistic about our ability to politically join with others to get local authorities to require them to be regulated as they should be.

Without regulations these services can resist the kind of service we’d like to see. For example, they don’t have accessible vehicles. Not every city’s taxi sector has accessible taxis either, which is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but a number of cities do, including San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.

In terms of publicly funded transit, there are issues ongoing. In Denver, a lawsuit was just settled that was brought by individuals with disabilities who would try to board the bus, but then found that the spaces available for wheelchair securement were often occupied by shopping carts, luggage and other bulky objects that aren’t the intended usage. [Editor’s Note: The settlement leaves it to the discretion of bus drivers to not allow some items such as bags, strollers, packages and grocery carts that can't be folded or tucked away, so that people with disabilities are not blocked from being able to easily access the bus aisles, seats and wheelchair securement areas.] Another lawsuit in Los Angeles has been filed by a young man with disabilities who rides the bus and often found that the space for the wheelchair was clogged or the bus driver might tell him he could not get on because there was no room, although other passengers would tell him there was.

In many cities getting on the bus is a relatively easy thing, but there are still some cities where even that is a problem. Other issues on the buses include stop announcements which are required by the ADA, but which aren’t always done properly. And sometimes they’re not done at all, which means people with disabilities may not have the cues they need to know when to get off.

Another issue is Amtrak, which was supposed to make all of its stations accessible by 2010, but that is not yet the case.

NPH: What potential advocates or potential partners do you need to get on board to further improve better accessibility to transit for people with disabilities?

Golden: Sometimes it’s officials at the transit agency. It makes a big difference for the leadership to support what’s going on. At the Champions of Change ceremony I talked about how the disability rights movement pressed hard in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, taking some lessons from the civil rights movement, and pushed to get federal and state laws passed that applied to schools, medical institutions, transit agencies and commercial sector organizations—whether they’re hotels or restaurants or stores or other kinds of businesses or nonprofits.

All of these entities are covered now by disability rights laws, and if they don’t comply, the laws need to be enforced. I think that there sometimes is a prevailing thought that, oh, if you only convince one more policymaker or one more manager of an organization, then you’d get what you need. But we tried that for many decades and that persuasion never really worked. We’re now using the system of laws in this country and their enforcement just as the civil rights movement did, requiring equality on the basis of race that resulted in voting rights laws.

>>Bonus Link: Read about the transportation Champions of Change.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.