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Remarks of Chairman Jonathan Young at 25th Anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


November 9, 2011
Prepared Remarks of Jonathan Young, Ph.D. for the 25th Anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act at the U.S. Department of Transportation Headquarters Building (Washington, DC)

Good morning. On behalf of the members and staff of the National Council on Disability, I am honored to join all of you in celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. I’d like to thank Secretary Ray LaHood and everyone at the Department of Transportation and the Air Transport Association for their daily efforts on behalf of all Americans with disabilities, as well as for including the National Council on Disability in planning this commemoration. I also want to thank former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, John Kemp, who joins us on Senator Bob Dole’s behalf, and Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to President Obama for Disability Policy. Disability rights advocacy is an enduring struggle, so it is fitting to be flanked by key leaders-past, present and future. Yoshiko Dart, it is always an honor to be with you, and I suspect that you and Justin have traveled by plane on behalf of disability rights more than anyone I know.

I am reminded of former Secretary Rodney Slater’s adage that transportation is the “to” in disability rights, the “to” in accessibility. In other words, when we talk about access TO employment, access TO places of public accommodation, the right TO participate fully in our social mainstream-transportation is the unspoken but critical means to achieving those goals. We can’t very well work, enjoy public accommodations, or participate in all that society has to offer if we don’t first have a meaningful opportunity to get there.

It should thus come as no surprise that transportation accessibility didn’t lag behind enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To the contrary, major milestones in transportation accessibility, including the Air Carrier Access Act of1986 as well as victories in access to public transit, preceded the ADA, helped build momentum for the ADA, and helped frame the disability rights principles enshrined in the ADA. I suspect many of you are familiar with the disability rights group ADAPT. Although their focus today is access to home and community-based services and supports, their first battle was about transportation, hence the name American Disabled for Accessible  Public Transportation.

The central importance of transportation access as the unspoken “TO” in so much of our disability policy work illustrates what has become a top priority for the National Colleague on Disability: coordination and collaboration across silos. If employment and visiting places of public accommodation depend on effective transportation, we can’t make real and meaningful differences in the lives of people with disabilities to increase job opportunities and to increase social participation without tending to transportation access. And in today’s global economy, access to air travel is indispensible.

Today we celebrate 25 years of our nation’s recognition that access to air travel for people with disabilities is a critical right. Have we made real progress during those 25 years? To provide a reference point, note that twenty-five years ago, in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 second into its flight, the Oprah Winfrey Show made its worldwide premiere, and the Iran-Contraaffair became public. In 1986, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors and inducted Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley among its first group of honorees, a new star was born: Lady Gaga. From a personal perspective, 1986 was the year I became a person with a disability after breaking my neck in a wrestling match.

Although enactment of the Air Carrier Access Act may not be recognized as a milestone by most Americans, people like John Kemp know all too well what life was like before the Air Carrier Access Act. The history of disability has been for far too long a history of exclusion. Sometimes subtle. Sometimes a consequence of benign neglect. And sometimes based on outright hostility. In the 19th century, for instance, many states had “ugly laws” that provided broad discretion to exclude people from public for no other reason than some people didn’t like having to look at certain people. These attitudes extended to air travel, and persisted well after most states repealed their “ugly laws.”

Here’s an excerpt from the Air Traffic Conference of America’s 1962 Trade Practices Manual: “Persons who have malodorous conditions, gross disfigurement, or other unpleasant characteristics so unusual as to offend fellow passengers should not be transported by any member.” This type of standard was as elastic as it is now offensive, and gave airlines license to implement subjective policies of discrimination toward passengers with disabilities. 

A 1976 study discovered one airline would not allow an unaccompanied blind person to sit next to a person of the opposite sex; another airline refused to accept people with epilepsy as passengers; at least seven airlines refused service to passengers with psychiatric disabilities; and at one airline expressly excluded individuals with intellectual disabilities from passenger service at all.

A 1970s Civil Aeronautics Board regulation was interpreted by most airlines to require an attendant to accompany all passengers who used wheelchairs, whether these passengers were capable of caring for themselves in flight or not. Most airline personnel did not even inquire about a wheelchair-user’s potential or preference for self-direction because the possibility that someone like John Kemp or countless others with mobility impairments could travel alone was probably unimaginable.

Thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act, we have repudiated these kinds of insidious discrimination. We have established expectations that all people with disabilities have the right to access air travel, so they can realize their rights to get to the business of the rest of their lives. I earnestly hope and expect that no one here has recently been turned away from an airline due to “malodorous conditions” or “unpleasant characteristics.”

Of course, establishing rights and recalibrating expectations does not mean that we realize all of our goals overnight. As I said at the outset, disability rights advocacy is an enduring struggle. Just last month, NCD recounted current statistics of airline complaints in our annual progress report. The Department of Transportation reports that airlines received 14,006 disability-related complaints in 2008, 17,068 complaints in 2009, and 21,001 disability-related complaints in 2010. More than half of the complaints received in 2010 concerned the failure to provide adequate assistance to wheelchair users.  Additional complaints alleged refusal to allow boarding, denial of boarding without an attendant, security issues concerning the disability, aircraft inaccessibility, airport inaccessibility, disputes about advance notice, seating accommodations, damage to assistive device, storage or delay of assistive device, service animal problem, and unsatisfactory information. I suspect most people with disabilities who have travelled by flight more than once can regale both positive and negative experiences.

But why are the numbers going up? Should we infer that the experiences for people with disabilities are worsening? Although I do not have data to back this up, I would wager that the answer is “no,” and here’s why. Filing a complaint is a nuisance, and most of us don’t do it unless we feel like we’ve been wronged. We don’t feel wronged unless we expect to be treated differently. So from a certain perspective, an increase in complaints filed may well reflect increases in travellers’ expectations as much as a worsening of airline conduct. The increase in complaints may also reflect higher numbers of people with disabilities travelling on airlines, which all of us would certainly commend as a tribute to the Air Carrier Act’s success.

Here are three important steps being taken to build on the Air Carrier Access Act and improve air travel for passengers with disabilities. First, a rule proposed by the Department of Transportation this September proposes greater accommodations for individuals with disabilities in air travel. It would require both U.S. and foreign air carriers to make their Web sites accessible to individuals with disabilities and ensure ticket agents to do the same.

This proposed rule would also require U.S. and foreign air carriers to make certain proprietary and shared-use automated airport kiosks accommodations. Air carriers would ensure kiosks are accessible to individuals with disabilities and that these technologies are readily available for passengers with disabilities to obtain the same information and services that other non-disabled members of the air traveling public obtain. Airport kiosks were not the mainstays they are today in 1986, and so this is an example of established policy adapting to meet current need.

Second, there is an exciting collaborative federal initiative underway among the Access Board, Department of Justice, and Department of Transportation. They have formed an informal interagency working group to coordinate their separate rulemaking activities around self-service transaction machines. This group began collaborating in 2010 on the appropriate accessibility criteria for such machines generally, regardless of the type of services and information they are designed to provide to users. NCD expects to see this rulemaking adopted in relatively short order.

Third, another clear sign of progress comes from work within the Transportation Security Administration or TSA. After NCD met with TSA’s Office of Disability Policy and Outreach last April, the TSA initiated an extensive review of its Screening Checkpoint Standard Operating Procedures sections as they apply specifically to people with disabilities and those with medical conditions as they utilize emerging technology in security screenings.

One of the concrete outcomes of the TSA’s review has been identifying the critical importance of training in better serving passengers with disabilities when traveling. TSA recently developed and distributed new informational job aids to assist with the process of screening passengers with disabilities in security checks.

We can all be proud of the progress made under the Air Carrier Access Act - and later under the ADA, but now we must turn our attention to the next 25 years. As is evidenced by the work of our great statesman, Senator Dole, and his bipartisan cohort of cosponsors who helped ensure passage of the Air Carrier Access Act, disability policy initiatives have a long history of bipartisan support.  Together, let’s reach out to and welcome the next generation of policy and decision makers as we begin to envision and create a nation where every American has equal access to travel-from booking a ticket to boarding and disembarking a flight. Let’s go from celebrating the promise of the 25th anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act to expecting 50 golden years in which people with disabilities are increasingly able to participate in every aspect of American society as full and equal partners in living, learning and earning the American Dream.

The National Council on Disability, together with our federal partners, embraces this challenge. We are excited by the inclusive opportunities that lie ahead and look forward, with great anticipation, to the next two decades and beyond.

As we’ve all heard here today, there are plenty of reasons for all of us to be optimistic-and vigilant. 

Thank you.

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