We Can’t See the Work-Forest for the Disabili-Trees!

Aug. 23, 2022
Equity for the disability community requires us to focus more on what people can do as opposed to what their disabilities might prevent them from doing.

We have known for years that a shortage of qualified transit professionals was looming, and we have seen a generation of workers retiring in great numbers. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the workforce shortage and loss of institutional knowledge has become an epidemic of its own. Meanwhile, within the paratransit discipline, we have talked for decades about “20 percent of the U.S. population consists of people with disabilities and 70 percent are unemployed,” and “many people with disabilities can succeed in the workplace with or without reasonable accommodation or assistive technology, but both are available upon request.” Clearly, there are plenty of people with disabilities with the potential to work, yet the unemployment rate in the disability community remains unchanged, even with the acute personnel shortages we are now facing.

Another ubiquitous topic in the industry right now is equity. In recent years, glaring inequities in race and gender have captured the attention of the country and the introspection on equity has extended to the delivery of public transportation services to various constituencies. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has added emphasis to this issue by pointing out the impact of inequitable highway and transit investments on disadvantaged populations and how profound and long-lasting this impact can be on economic development and opportunities for those affected. Secretary Buttigieg is attempting to channel some of his generous infrastructure budget toward righting some of these wrongs and realigning transportation investments to support economic growth and access to jobs and health care for disadvantaged populations. This is encouraging, but historically, the focus on “disadvantaged” seems to target low-income populations but without recognizing that this often coincides with the disability community.

When it comes to disability, the notion of equity is oversimplified. After all, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – so we have eliminated discrimination and architectural barriers for the disability community, right? If it were only so that curb cuts, sidewalks and accessible pathways were golden roads to employment, but they are not. They lead right up to the front door of agencies and businesses but, unfortunately, the path ends as soon as a person with a disability tries to enter. There are many reasons why the unemployment rate within the disability community remains so high and it starts with the collective perception of the community itself. Access for people with disabilities is often portrayed as furnishing paratransit service to a medical appointment or aiding people who are frail. This image suggests that people with disabilities cannot be independent, much less obtain gainful employment and thrive. When people with disabilities are seen in a work environment, they stand out because they are a super-minority and, unfortunately, this reinforces the misconception that the number of people with disabilities who can work is very small. But therein lies an opportunity.

With the significant increase in remote work options and assistive technology, people with disabilities can play valuable roles in the workforce now more than ever. Within the public transit industry, not only can they perform work, but they can also bring a much-needed perspective to organizations on how to serve customers with disabilities. In this way, we make our transportation systems more disability friendly, and we can draw from a largely untapped resource of future transit riders at a time when we really need them.

Equity for the disability community requires more focus on what people can do as opposed to what their disabilities might prevent them from doing, and when we make assumptions about people’s abilities before giving them an opportunity to demonstrate them, we are not only treating them inequitably, but we are also overlooking potential assets. It is the same concept as “having the right people at the table” – or in this parlance – “on the bus.” Speaking of which – when was the last time you saw a transit executive or board member with a (visible) disability? Some of the work that people with disabilities can do falls in the category of leadership and agencies and communities would be better served to have the disability perspective in leadership when policy and investment decisions are being made. This kind of talent is out there, but it must be a priority to find it. So how do we do this?

Looking from the outside in, we must ask ourselves, do we appear to be a disability-friendly organization? Specifically:

  • Accessible facilities and services – are they accessible and amply marked with accessible, directional signage? Are bathrooms accessible? Workspaces? Meeting rooms? Emergency evacuation plans? Transportation?
  • Accessible information – are materials for employees, customers and other correspondents produced and offered in accessible formats? Is the website accessible? Customer surveys? Emails and attached documents? Videoconferencing and other software?
  • Technology – do we have an awareness of existing assistive equipment and how to obtain it for employee use?
  • Marketing – are people with disabilities featured in images of the workforce and customer environment? As spokespersons?
  • Job advertisement – do ads include “minorities, women and persons with disabilities encouraged to apply?” Do we place ads where people with disabilities will find them?
  • Job fairs – do we have ADA personnel on site; accessibility accommodations; and/or participation of advocacy organizations?
  • Job descriptions – do they include physical/mental ability requirements? Are we asking for the appropriate skill for the job (or are we asking for more than necessary to get the job done or for skills/experience that are not relevant to the work being performed)? Are there positions available within the organization that can be held by people with disabilities?
  • Training – do we have people with disabilities participating in the training provided to the workforce for ADA compliance, sensitivity and safety instruction? Paratransit eligibility? Travel training? Emergency procedures and drills?
  • Compliance – are people with disabilities included and engaged in self-assessments of items such as 508 compliance of web sites and other materials? ADA requirements?
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion policies and programs – is disability included?
  • Leadership – does it include people with disabilities? Is there a career path?
  • Equal opportunity – although tracking of employment of people with disabilities is not required to the same extent as those protected classes under the Civil Rights Act, do we have a goal or metric for this?
  • Community engagement – do we have or use an advisory committee to vet issues that could be impactful on riders with disabilities? Do we share ridership and other pertinent data with them to highlight how many people with disabilities are using public transit? Do we continually collaborate with them to increase this number?
  • Workforce culture – do we make it clear to employees that public transit aims to be as accessible as possible, and that paratransit is the backup and not the mode of choice for all people with disabilities? Do we reinforce how our role is to facilitate independence and mobility for all customers? Do we emphasize how much this is a benefit to the agency and its workforce, both economically and socially?
  • Paratransit and other services for customers with disabilities – are people with disabilities employed in these functional areas? What could be better than enabling people with disabilities to assist and serve other people with disabilities? Who would know the customer perspective better?

If you have read this list of questions and think it is too heavy of a lift, consider that you are missing an opportunity to build relationships and add riders to your system (particularly if employees ride free or at a discount); and you are not living up to your full potential as a “world class” organization that truly seeks to be diverse, equitable and inclusive. But also – you are shutting the door on a viable option for filling vacancies in your organization – an untapped but fully capable resource that has been overlooked. If you are interested in elevating your profile as a disability-friendly organization, start with a self-assessment using the questions above, and then take action. Here are some suggestions:

  • Collaborate. Invite disability advocacy organizations in your area to meet with you – centers for independent living (CILs) are a great start. They form networks with numerous other disability-related organizations and can be an excellent resource for both providing information to you and passing on your job opportunities and organizational interests to community stakeholders. Learn about the diverse talent pool in the disability community and the various capabilities that are available. Discover where best to advertise your opportunities. Connect with the resources you need to provide appropriate assistive technology for your new employees who may need it.
  • Communicate. Convey to your various constituencies that you are taking affirmative steps to improve both the accessibility of your organization and inclusion of people with disabilities among its ranks. Host discussions with advisory groups and others to bring ideas forward and identify solutions to historical barriers to job entry. Display the accessibility of your fleet and host events that showcase this for the disability community. Host job fairs, and as suggested above, have ADA personnel on site; accessibility accommodations; and participation of advocacy organizations.
  • Celebrate. Share with your community the steps you have taken to become a disability-friendly organization and make it plain that all are welcome. Your success will build on itself as people with disabilities see others who “look like them” thriving in your organization and consider their own potential to do the same.

Following this path can be inspiring – as people with disabilities feel more welcome to join your team, they will seek to assume roles within your organization that you may not have considered could be held by a person with a disability. This is not only a means to fill vacant positions, but also an opportunity to expand our understanding and successful achievement of diversity, equity and inclusion.


 Christian T. Kent is principal at Christian T. Kent, Transit Management Consulting, LLC.

About the Author

Christian Kent

Christian T. Kent has more than 35 years of experience in the public transit industry in the private and public sectors, and 16 years in a senior executive role, serving as a charismatic change agent and turnaround specialist for numerous systems across the country. Kent is best known for his role as a senior executive at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), having been responsible for the nation’s fifth largest paratransit service and systemwide accessibility and ADA compliance for the authority’s rail, bus and paratransit services. Now in his fifth year as a transit management consultant, Kent Also serves as a principal in KL2 Connects, an executive search firm that caters exclusively to the transit industry.