Braille Monitor                  October 2021

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Transformative Innovations in Transportation: A Commitment to a Future Informed by the Blind

by The Honorable Pete Buttigieg

Pete ButtigiegFrom the Editor: Pete Buttigieg is the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden Administration and therefore is instrumental in setting the tone for policies and programs run by the United States Department of Transportation. Here are remarks introducing him by President Riccobono:

President Riccobono: There's a lot of things we could say about him. He serves currently as the nineteenth Secretary of Transportation for the United States. He has a long history of public service and a commitment to listening and enacting strong and progressive policies that are grounded in the experience of real people. That's why I'm particularly excited to welcome him to our stage this afternoon for the organized blind movement. He is someone who stays grounded in local communities, which we value in the National Federation of the Blind. As an organization, we have long had a relationship with the career staff at the Department of Transportation, and we're pleased that in a short time, just since February, the secretary has shown a commitment already to being part of that partnership with the organized blind movement. Here to talk about transformative innovations in transportation is Secretary Pete Buttigieg!

(“Life is a Highway” playing).
Life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long!
If you're going my way, I want to drive it all night long...

Secretary Buttigieg: Thank you very much, President Riccobono. Thanks for having me. Thanks for the introduction, and thanks, everyone at the National Federation of the Blind. I'm so thrilled for the chance to speak with you today. I regret that we can't be together in New Orleans, but I am, all the same, so grateful for the chance to be together for an important convening conversation like this. As the oldest and largest organization of blind Americans, as you know, you are a powerful and important voice on behalf of this community and helping all of America living up to its promises for all of its people.

Transportation policy can be an enormous engine of opportunity for Americans with disabilities, but, as you know, it can also be a major source of inequity. Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, the United States has made many important changes to improve accessibility in transportation, but we all know that there's a lot more to do. Too often when a new innovation emerges, there's not enough thought given to how it will impact or how it could be used by people with disabilities.

First, I don't want to miss this chance to thank you for the vital work that you've done on the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which finally went into effect earlier this year after more than a decade. When it comes to cars, silence can be deadly for blind and low-vision people, and, for that matter, for sighted people. This law helps to ensure that electric vehicles that are so important to achieving our climate goals don't put pedestrians at risk by running without any recognizable sound. I'm grateful for your advocacy and partnership with our National Highway Safety Administration to make sure these vehicles are safe for all pedestrians so that we can all benefit from climate-friendly technology.

Legislative victories like this are especially important today because our policies badly need to catch up to our technologies and our way of life. Here at the Department of Transportation, we have been working to apply the lens of equity to every project that we support or are involved with. We're striving to identify gaps in benefits and services for people with disabilities and supporting innovation in accessible transportation.

Take automated vehicles (AVs) as an example. AVs have the potential to help blind and low-vision riders get around more easily than ever. But if we've learned anything from the experience with electric cars, it's that we've got to design new technology with the needs of blind and low-vision riders and other users with disabilities in mind from the very beginning. That's why we're asking researchers and innovators to work with disability advocates and people with disabilities to advance accessibility in AV for the blind, for wheelchair users, and more. We're supporting that work through our inclusive design challenge, our automated driving system demonstration grants, and our partnerships with university transportation design centers. We also know accessible public transit is critically important for people with disabilities, and that's why the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) prioritizes grant applications that demonstrate a commitment to improving accessibility and ones that include local disability advocates in the plan. FTA and the Federal Highway Administration also fund the accessible transportation technologies research initiative, which helps to advance new mobility options for riders with disabilities while eliminating barriers and making transportation more accessible.

I'm pleased to let you know that we are strengthening our departmental office of civil rights, which frankly was hollowed out by inaction and vacancies during the previous administration. We're expanding our capacity to handle ADA and Section 504 oversight. We're also hiring a disability program manager to support that effort and working with Irene Marin who leads our civil rights office. So please, let your members and advocates and partners know that we are eager to engage and eager to partner with you all.

Accessibility for us isn't just checking a box. It's not just a buzzword. It's a commitment to ensuring that everyone has the resources and the accommodations they need to access opportunity. And accessibility isn't just about the technology of the future; it's also about dealing with the infrastructure of the past that we have inherited. We are relying on roads, bridges, ports, and other resources built decades if not a century or more ago, and some of it is literally falling apart, which has significant safety implications for all Americans but especially people with disabilities and other underserved and overburdened communities in this country. That's why we need a generational investment in jobs and infrastructure, and it's why we're so excited about the opportunity represented by the president's American Jobs Plan, the core of which is reflected in the historic bipartisan infrastructure framework that was announced recently. This is a deal that's going to create a generation of good paying union jobs, most of which will be available to Americans whether they have a college degree or not. It's got the largest investment in roads and bridges since the creation of the interstate highway system, the largest investment in passenger rails since the creation of Amtrak itself, and the largest investment in public transit ever, including funding to improve accessibility so more Americans can connect to jobs, education, and opportunity. It's also got the largest investments in clean energy transmission and in clean water in American history. And it contains eleven billion dollars to improve safety and a new Safe Streets for All program that would focus on safety for all pedestrians including those with disabilities.

Because the administration is looking at every program and policy through that lens of equity, we're seeing too that across the board, 40 percent of the climate and clean energy investments in this plan go to underserved communities including blind and low-vision Americans. Of course, there's much more we can do when it comes to promoting accessibility across our transportation system, from paratransit to guide dogs on aircraft to the Randolph-Sheppard Program. So you have my word that as long as I'm in this job, you will have an ally and an ear for your voices and your concerns here in the Department of Transportation.

According to the CDC, one in four Americans has a disability. While the nature of those challenges range for different Americans, what we know is that America misses out whenever somebody doesn't get to contribute to the economy, society, and culture of our country as they might. We also know that every American may age into a disability, especially those that impact the interface with the transportation systems across our country.

We know with a country full of Americans ready to do so much more, that no country will succeed if a quarter of its population isn't able to fully participate. Disability is also something that cuts equally across race, gender identity, income, language, and more. This means it's one of the most diverse communities of advocates and activists, internally diverse in such rich and important ways. Many young Americans are stepping up to respond to the call that you have put out to become involved and engaged.

We know also that the innovations that often begin as an accommodation for Americans with disabilities wind up benefiting everyone in ways that hadn't been fully appreciated at the beginning— curb cuts first made for wheelchair users that also now make life easier for people with strollers or roll aboard bags. Closed captioning that was designed for the deaf community today is used by many hearing people as well. Again, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act that you played such an important role in shaping is protecting everyone in this country. All of this is to say that investments that we're making right now are so important to every American, whether they realize it or not. While transportation can be a barrier to accessibility, it can also help break down barriers. That's the spirit we're bringing to this department during this administration with your help.

I'm grateful for your leadership, I'm grateful for your partnership, and I'm looking forward to continuing to work together to make sure our transportation system is safer, cleaner, and more accessible to everybody in the years ahead. Again, I thank you for the chance to be with you today. I look forward to continuing to work with you in the years to come.

President Riccobono: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I know you have a tight schedule; do you have time for any questions?

Secretary Buttigieg: Yeah, let's at least sneak in time for one.

President Riccobono: Okay, we're going to Raul for a question, but while Raul is getting unmuted, let me just say that we appreciate you being here, taking the time, and we know that you're just at the beginning of your journey at the Department of Transportation. We look forward to many years of being able to work collaboratively. Raul, are you out there?

Raul: I'm here, sir.

President Riccobono: Go ahead and introduce yourself and ask your question.

Raul: Thank you for this time. I'm Raul Gallegos from Houston, Texas, and I serve as the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, one of several divisions of the National Federation of the Blind. I travel quite a bit, and that travel happens on buses, Uber cars, Lyft cars, etc., and also on airplanes. Earlier this year, on January 11th, as you know, the Air Carrier Access Act was amended, so it went through quite a few changes in an effort to make it so that people stop bringing their counterfeit service dogs on planes. Unfortunately, this has had a weird and burdensome side effect on guide dog users who have legitimate service dogs that have been trained to guide us around, because that is our preferred mobility tool. Some of these provisions involve filling out forms that the airlines may require us to fill out to attest that these dogs that are traveling with us are legitimate service animals. These forms are not accessible. Sometimes they have to be filled out twice: Once might be the PDF itself, and another time to the airline itself, and they're not consistent.

Furthermore, my dog is right around eighty pounds, and there's language in the Air Carrier Access Act that says that if the airline staff determines that your dog may not fit or doesn't fit within that foot space, the blind traveler either has to allow the dog to be put underneath or has to reschedule their plans until there's more room available. While I have every confidence in the flight staff to be able to handle the things on the plane, I don't know that I have that same confidence that a flight person can determine whether my dog can fit there or not when I'm the one who has the training to be able to make that determination. I can guarantee that my eighty-pound dog, with my size twelve shoe, can fit very comfortably in that seat underneath.

My question for you is to ask, would you consider having the Air Carrier Access Act amended so that these types of provisions just go away? We would like them not to be there.

Secretary Buttigieg: Well, I appreciate your raising this, and I do want to take a close look at how this situation can be improved. I know this is an area of concern, and obviously there were some public policy goals that rule was intended to achieve, but as you're describing, clearly there are consequences that may not have been fully understood as it was brought together. It's a good example of how we're really relying on your advocacy and voice and ability to educate us on lived experiences of travel to make sure that we're getting this right in understanding the needs of blind and low-vision travelers in our aviation system.

I know that there are ongoing discussions about this, and I will make sure that my team will be in touch with the Federation and other advocates to provide updates. I'll tell you, it's very helpful to hear you describing in a more direct and specific way how this can create that kind of challenge. I'll be sure that in those conversations I carry that story with me, and again I appreciate your shining a light on that challenge.

Raul: Thank you very much.

President Riccobono: Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here. We're looking forward to following up. I do want you to know that we were going to have Mr. Ron Brown, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana ask you a question, bring a little home feel to it.
(Laughter.) But we know you have a busy schedule, so we'll be following up with you and your team, and we appreciate your partnership with the organized blind movement.

Secretary Buttigieg: Thank you, Ron, happy to be in the company of a fellow Hoosier, and this is our first conversation, not our last. We look forward to the continued partnership.

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