Through designs and decisions, automakers are leaving behind persons with disabilities

Toyota Prius-web feature
March 3, 2022
JR Harding, Ed.D., Teaching Faculty II, College of Business

Transportation innovation has been evolving significantly for at least 10 years. But this evolution of electric, automated, and on-demand services is leaving persons with disabilities (PWDs) and many older adults on the curb.

First, we witnessed the introduction of the Prius. It was the first hybrid car that ran on both battery and gas. As the reader may recall, the Prius was not cheap. It required tax incentives that were mostly available for people in high tax brackets. Moreover, both the size and the power of the Prius prohibited the integration of PWDs who uses mobility devices and who use adaptative controls to drive. These same observations could also be applied to the Tesla. These innovative, environmentally sensitive, and low maintenance vehicles are once again being designed in a way that prohibits persons with disabilities from using them.

In between these two types of vehicles, we have witnessed a significant jump in lighter, smaller, and more technology driven vehicles. Innovative vehicles have made the full-size van less marketable, restricted supply, and hence made it less available to PWDs. Newer technology-driven vehicles have not been designed so that they have the space and power to accommodate PWDs. They simply do not have the space or power to accommodate power wheelchairs, scooters, or other mobility devices. The battery systems interfere with lifts and other control devices.

My recent trip to my dealership was not disappointing, but rather depressing. They indicated quite clearly that even if I had the $50k for a basic vehicle, it could not be modified at an additional $30-$40k expense to accommodate my adaptive driving needs. What’s the point of advancing technology if it doesn’t accommodate the needs of those who are already transportation disadvantaged? Innovation should solve a problem, not exacerbate it. To make matters worse, the auto industry is continuing to shrink the size of vehicles at an accelerated rate. As a result, I am very concerned for my future independent mobility needs. Driving allows me to work, make medical appointments, shop for groceries, recreation, and otherwise be an active member of the community.

If this problem of costs and function is not enough, persons with disabilities are also left on the curb by the non-accessible on demand transportation system available to those without disabilities.

The much-discussed hype behind driverless vehicles is going to leave PWDs and older adults with significant mobility challenges once again stranded. No one is advocating for affordable and functional transportation for PWDs and older adults. It will take a significant policy shift, new incentives, and a targeted effort to include those who have the greatest transportation needs into a future of affordable, efficient, and environmentally clean vehicles.

Until this policy shift occurs, I will remain fearful for my independence, ability to earn a living, and my community engagement. I will pray that my 2017 vehicle can last a very long time because everything available today and in the near future, leaves me and thousands of others left on the curb.