After my car accident, I was completely bedridden, battling bed sores acquired during my initial hospital stay, all while enduring significant pain and managing a series of wounds that would not heal. Those were dark days.
I moved in with my family, who provided extensive care to me at a time when my independence had been stripped away. As my condition improved and I gained the ability to sit in a wheelchair, I remained trapped — my parents live in a rural area and, at the time, I hadn’t yet purchased an accessible vehicle. The hospital was some 30 miles away, and round-trip transportation to one-hour appointments cost a minimum of $400. Those expenses were mine to bear and there was no alternative — there is no public transportation, no subway, city bus, wheelchair taxi or accessible Uber in rural America.
After I regained the ability to travel, I stayed on the road for long periods of time — to give my family a break, and to enjoy the greater levels of accessibility and independence available to me in urban areas. Eventually, I purchased a wheelchair accessible van, a purchase that saved me thousands in non-emergency medical transportation costs that I no longer had to pay. I was blessed to be able to afford such a vehicle, but that isn’t the case for everyone — most disabled people are unable to cover the cost of an accessible vehicle.
The inability to secure affordable, accessible transportation leaves countless individuals marooned — trapped amidst inaccessible environments that restrict independence and deny opportunity. It is, in my view, a problem that is largely ignored and hidden, a tragic circumstance that prevents disabled people from engaging with their communities and achieving their full potential.
During the pandemic, as the world navigated lockdowns and self-quarantines, I was reminded of the feelings I had experienced in the time after my car accident. Once again, I was trapped. We all were. Reflecting on the sadness I had experienced before and was experiencing again, I hoped that, when the world reopened, we might prioritize the inclusion of everyone in the life of our post-pandemic society. I thought, perhaps, there would be an appetite to consider those who are forced into isolation, not for any wrongdoing or fault of their own, but as a result of inaccessible infrastructure and the limited scope of accessible transportation solutions.
Regardless of where one lives, whether it be in a big city or surrounded by farmland miles away from civilization, all Americans must have access to affordable transportation. Accessibility and inclusivity are fundamental rights that should be extended to all members of society, including those with disabilities.
For disabled people, access to reliable, convenient, affordable and accessible transportation is necessary to enable participation in their communities, access to employment opportunities, education, healthcare, social and religious activities. The absence of affordable and accessible transportation in rural areas perpetuates isolation and exclusion, exacerbating the litany of challenges already faced by disabled Americans.
One of the first articles I wrote on this website used the headline, Wheelchairs Belong on Sidewalks, Not Streets. That article reported on the death of disability rights advocate and wheelchair user Frank Barham, who was killed on a Georgia roadway during a roll of 302 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, where he planned to hold concert to raise money for the purchase of wheelchairs.
The accident, which involved a semi truck and the safety vehicle following him, occurred in a rural area where there were no sidewalks. Although he lived in Atlanta and was on a charitable mission, disabled people who live in rural areas take these same risks every day — to reach the grocery or convenience store, to visit family or friends.
Where there is a roadway for motor vehicles, there should be a bike path or sidewalk that is accessible to all.
Addressing the issue of accessible transportation for individuals with disabilities in rural areas will require concerted effort from stakeholders including disability advocates, government authorities and the private sector. It is imperative to prioritize accessibility in transportation infrastructure and services, engage in collaborative efforts, raise awareness, and explore innovative solutions to ensure that individuals with disabilities in rural areas have equal opportunities to access transportation and live fulfilling, independent lives. Everyone deserves the right to inclusive transportation, regardless of their location or ability, and it is our collective responsibility to work towards a more accessible society — from sea to shining sea, and everywhere in between.
While we’re unlikely to see large scale public transportation systems spring up in rural counties across America, governments can fund paratransit services and programs that would ease the financial barriers to accessible and adapted vehicle ownership. Advancements in driverless technology and electric vehicles may create new opportunities to connect rural communities and, while I don’t have all of the answers, I am ready to get involved. If you are participating or leading advocacy that would bring accessible transportation to disabled people and wheelchair users in rural areas, let me know in the comments below. I would love to support your work and share it with my community of readers.