Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Air Carrier regulations, travel services try to improve access for people with disabilities

From The New York Times:

People with disabilities never have an easy time traveling, but a rash of recent improvements, including more wheelchair-accessible taxis and rental vehicles — and even Web sites for people with dexterity or vision problems — have made it easier.

New regulations updating the Air Carrier Access Act, for instance, extend coverage to flights by foreign airlines originating or landing in the United States, or ticketed through American carriers.

Airlines are required to provide accommodations for people who travel with oxygen and other respiratory assistance, fly with service animals or have impaired hearing or vision. If passengers are unable to use automated kiosks to check in or to print boarding passes, for example, carriers must provide assistance at the kiosk or allow them to go to the front of the line.

“In many countries, people with disabilities have very few rights,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group in Chicago serving disabled people. “It is easier to travel overseas now.” Mr. Lipp was an instructor for a recent training session for foreign commercial airlines, which his group sponsored with the International Air Transport Association.

Open Doors estimates that people with disabilities spend about $15 billion annually on travel. And as life expectancy grows, the number of people with disabilities is expected to increase, too. Mr. Lipp said that based on census data, nearly a quarter of the American population is expected to have some disability by 2030.

“It’s not charity any longer,” said Jani Nayar, executive coordinator for the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality. “This is good for business.”

Web sites are not explicitly addressed in the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed almost 20 years ago, but a growing number are accessible, experts say.

Shane Cameron, vice president for marketing at Points.com, a Web site that allows members to trade points or miles among loyalty programs, said the company recently installed software provided by the company Essential Accessibility. “Those are customers we wouldn’t have reached,” he said.

“The software effectively serves as a virtual wheelchair” said Simon Dermer, managing director of Essential Accessibility, by using technologies like a hands-free mouse, activated with a Web camera that uses face tracking.

Rental cars with hand controls are now widely available, and wheelchair-accessible rental vans are becoming more common.

Nick Gutwein, president of BraunAbility, a company that converts vans to be accessible, said it was possible to “fly into many cities across the country and easily rent a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.” But, he added, “you couldn’t do that two or three years ago.” Most of the company’s network of 208 rental dealers across the country provide rentals.

Peter Schenkman, former assistant commissioner for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, said more American cities have wheelchair-accessible taxis in their fleets. But it is virtually impossible to hail one, and rare to find one waiting at the airport in New York, he said, because, as in most cities, accessible taxis represent a small percentage of fleets.

Mr. Lipp, of Open Doors, who walks with a brace and cane and uses an electric scooter since spinal cord tumors left him partially paralyzed, recalled trying to hail a cab near the Transportation Department in Washington. “Taxi cabs would not pick me up because they didn’t want to deal with my scooter. I had to ask a police officer to make one of them stop.”

It takes time to help a disabled person traveling with equipment, he said, but with the meter off, drivers lose money.

Mr. Schenkman said many cab owners cannot afford to convert vehicles because the costs are prohibitive.

In Europe and Asia, a number of major car manufactures have produced wheelchair-accessible vehicles from scratch for taxi and general use. They are not available in the United States, but in the fall, the Vehicle Production Group of Miami plans to introduce one, the MV-1, to the American market, Mr. Schenkman said. Nissan and Karsan, a Turkish company, are expected to produce similar vehicles in the next few years, he said.

Mr. Lipp said vehicles like the MV-1 “will revolutionize taxis.”

James Weisman, senior vice president and general counsel for the United Spinal Association, a nonprofit group, said spontaneity and mobility on the road are crucial for business travelers. “Without that, they lose the competitive edge.”

Other hurdles to mobility remain.

“Right now, only 20 percent of Amtrak’s stations are A.D.A. compliant,” Mr. Weisman said, and most of those are in the Northeast.

Kleo King, another senior vice president for the spinal association, which runs Able to Travel, a travel agency for the disabled, says that while it is easier now to rent accessible vans, and the companies that provide them offer excellent customer service, they are often costly and hard to find in rural areas.

Paul J. Tobin, president of the spinal association, who is quadriplegic, spoke of problems he had encountered at hotels. Mr. Tobin said the rooms were technically accessible but were so packed with furniture, it could be almost impossible to maneuver in a wheelchair, and the extra-thick mattresses made the beds too high to reach. He said he sometimes had to call in bellmen to remove furniture.

Peter Zarba, sales manager for Bussani Mobility in Bethpage, N.Y., who is quadriplegic, said, “Hotels will say, ‘Sure, we have accessible rooms,’ but accessible means different things to different people.” Roll-in showers are rare. If they are available, the water controls are often too far from the bench to reach, and grab bars are in inconvenient places, he said.

“I can’t tell you how many times at hotels there is a lower registration desk area, required by A.D.A. law,” Mr. Zarba said, “but how often it is blocked by a large vase of flowers or a potted plant.”

Restaurants, too, are often designed to be compliant, but tables may be too close for a wheelchair to pass, or the restroom may be at the far end, requiring him to pass by almost everyone.

“Businesses often adhere to the letter of the law, but don’t understand the spirit,” he said.