Although many people tend to discount over-the road (OTR) bus transportation as a viable leisure travel option, in reality it’s one of the only transportation links to many rural U.S. towns. Indeed, it’s also a very economical and (sometimes) flexible way to travel. Additionally, it’s a great way to see the country while leaving the driving to somebody else. So, what’s the scoop on accessible OTR bus transportation in the United States? To properly answer that question, we must first look at the history that surrounds this issue.
In truth, the struggle for access to OTR buses predates the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In fact, many grass-roots disability activists fought long and hard for the access we enjoy today. At the top of the list of freedom fighters is ADAPT, the granddaddy of the disability rights organizations. Over the past two decades ADAPT has organized demonstrations, educated the public, and lobbied legislators to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. One of those rights includes the right to ride on a bus without being carried on board like a piece of luggage. Besides being very dangerous, this practice is also incredibly degrading. In 1997, ADAPT members made a series of Greyhound test rides throughout the country. Greyhound refused passage to 32% of the test riders. Of those who were permitted to ride, 35% were hand-carried on and off the bus, and 25% of the 68% that were permitted to ride were dropped or otherwise injured being “helped” on and off the bus. Keep in mind that these test rides were performed after the passage of the ADA, at a time when OTR buses were supposed to be accessible. Personally, I find it ironic that people compare the disability rights movement to the civil rights movement because, unlike Rosa Parks, many of the people fighting for the rights of people with disabilities couldn’t even get on board the bus. In any case, ADAPT fought the long hard fight, before and after the ADA was passed. Access to OTR buses was officially mandated in the ADA, although it was still an uphill battle to achieve appropriate (lift) access. The ADA gave OTR bus companies an additional 7 years before they had to buy accessible vehicles. Greyhound claimed that it was too expensive to provide lift access to their buses and that hand-carrying nonambulatory passengers on board was an acceptable alternative. Obviously, the disability community strongly disagreed with Greyhound’s definition of “appropriate” access. Finally, on September 28, 1998, the Access Board published the final guidelines for access to OTR buses. ADAPT won the battle because, among other things, the final rule states that handcarrying passengers on board a bus is not considered appropriate access. Coincidentally, just prior to passage of the final rule, Greyhound replaced a large portion of their fleet with inaccessible buses. This move outraged the disability community and won Greyhound the moniker of “the dirty dog” among disability rights activists. Furthermore, shortly after the final rule was issued, the American Bus Association sought legal intervention to overturn the rule. The case was originally heard in Washington D.C. District Court (American Bus Association, Inc. v. Rodney E. Slater), and was later appealed in Federal Appeals Court. The initial decision upheld the rule in its entirety; however, on November 14, 2000, the appellate court ruled to delete section 37.199 of the rule. The deleted section required monetary compensation for the denial of accessible services. On March 8, 2001, the DOT amended the final ADA OTR bus rule to reflect this change. It should be noted that this change does not affect ADA accessibility requirements for OTR buses, nor does it prevent people from seeking judicial remedies under the ADA.
So, what does the final rule say? For starters, it requires OTR bus companies to provide service in an accessible bus upon 48 hours advance notice. As soon as the final rule was released, Greyhound announced that it would make all 4,000 stops on its nationwide bus system accessible to wheelchair-users one full year ahead of the official compliance deadline. Of course, this didn’t come to pass, and it wasn’t until April 2000 that passengers could actually book space in advance on an accessible bus. Today, passengers who require accessible services should call Greyhound’s ADA Assist Line at (800) 752-4841 at least 48 hours prior to their departure. If you’re not able to make advance arrangements, Greyhound claims they will still make every reasonable effort to accommodate passengers without delaying their bus departure schedules. In other words, they will do what they can if you just show up, so it’s best to make advance arrangements, especially around holidays and peak travel periods. Under the new rule, it’s also considered discrimination for any OTR bus company to deny transportation to a person with a disability, or to require a passenger to reschedule their trip in order to receive accessible transportation. Greyhound does not prohibit passengers with disabilities from traveling alone unless they require assistance with personal services. Greyhound also provides personal care assistants (PCAs) with free passage, when they travel with a person with a disability. A free one-way ticket is issued to the PCA at the time of travel. If the PCA requires a round trip ticket, another one-way ticket must be picked up at the time of the return trip. Unfortunately, the new rule stopped short of requiring accessible lavatories on board OTR buses. This fact was further emphasized by Sherman Qualls, Greyhound’s Director of ADA Compliance. Mr. Qualls was a speaker at a travel conference I attended, and he proceeded to detail how Greyhound has gone out of their way to make their services accessible, because as Mr. Qualls said, “It’s just the right thing to do.” Mr. Qualls talked about how Greyhound “goes the distance to make travel a pleasant and convenient experience for passengers with disabilities.” He explained that Greyhound provided all these services for people with disabilities out of the kindness of their corporate heart. In short, he said they wanted to serve this market. I looked around at the crowd, which appeared to be falling for this fairy tale, hook, line, and sinker. Then, there was a question from the back of the room, “Does Greyhound have accessible bathrooms on their buses?” asked a travel agent. The answer was a curt, “No, we’re not required to do that under the ADA.” Mr. Qualls then went on to berate the unfairness of ADA and to explain how much this regulatory legislation was costing Greyhound. In any case, even though OTR bus companies are not required to provide accessible onboard lavatories, the new rule does require them to provide passengers with disabilities boarding assistance at rest stops. Adequate time must also be allocated for these passengers to use the restroom facilities. This rule applies at all stops that are least 15 minutes long; so if you need to use the facilities at a rest stop, be sure to inform the driver. Even though the new rule allows passengers to travel safely in their own wheelchairs, you still must be aware of the liability limitations for damage to assistive devices. Greyhound’s liability for damage to anything carried in the baggage compartment is only $250 per item. This includes wheelchairs and other assistive devices. This amount won’t go very far if there is any substantial damage to your assistive device, so be sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Check your existing insurance policies first to see if you are covered, then ask your insurance agent about low-cost options for additional coverage. In the long run, it’s better to be safe than sorry. One of the best provisions in the rule for OTR buses addresses the future. The rule requires OTR bus companies to install lifts on 50% of their fleets by 2006, and on 100% of their fleets by 2012. According to Sherman Qualls, in 2000, Greyhound already had 95 lift-equipped buses in their fleet. Each lift-equipped bus has two tie-down positions for passengers who wish to remain in their own wheelchairs. Mr. Qualls also assured me that more accessible buses are on order. I look forward to the future and hope that Greyhound will indeed be able to abide by the final rule.