Transformative Innovations in Transportation: A Commitment to a Future Informed by the Blind; The Honorable Pete Buttigieg, Secretary, United States Department of Transportation; Washington, District of Columbia

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you very much to our virtual choir for that presentation. I'm sorry I'm going to have to skip a door prize for the moment. We're going to get back to you, door prize team, but we're running a little bit behind and I want to give time to the next presenter so I'm also going to cut his presentation short. There's a lot of things we could say about him. He serves currently as the 19th 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. And that's why I'm particularly excited to welcome him to our stage this afternoon for the organized blind movement, he is someone that stays grounded in local communities, which we value in the National Federation of the Blind. And 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... 

MARK RICCOBONO: We need you to unmute yourself there, Secretary... 

PETE BUTTIGIEG: There we go! 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. And I regret that we can't be together in New Orleans, but 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. 

The 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 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. So, 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. And 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. So I'm grateful for your advocacy and partnership with our National Highway Safety Administration so we can all benefit from technology. 

Our policies badly need to catch up to our technologies and way of life. So 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. 
And take automated vehicles 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 of electric cars, it's that we've got to design the technology with the needs of blind, 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 for users who are blind, wheelchair users and more. We're expanding that through our inclusive design challenge, our auto design grants, and our partnerships with university transportation design centers. We also know transit is critical for people with disabilities, which is why we prioritize grants to systems that demonstrate a commitment to improve accessibility and include local disability advocacy in the plan. FTA and the federal highway administration also fund the technology research initiative which helps to advance new mobility options for riders with disabilities while eliminating barriers and making transportation more accessible. 

And 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, and we're expanding our capacity to handle ADA and Section 504 oversight. We're also hiring a new 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 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 in 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, largest investment in rails since the creation of Amtrak itself, and largest investment in transit ever, including to improve accessibility so more people can connect to education, jobs, and community. It also has the largest investment in clean water in American history, and a new safe streets for all program that would focus on safety for all pedestrians including those with disabilities. And because the administration is looking at every program and policy through that lens of equity, we're seeing too that across the board, 40% of 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 Shepherd program. So you have my word that as long as I'm in this job, you have an ally and an ear for your voices and your concerns here at the Department of Transportation. 

According to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans has a disability, and 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. 
So 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. It's one of the most diverse communities of advocates and activists, internally diverse in such rich and important ways. And 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 more wheelchair users that also now make life easier for people with strollers and roller bags. Closed captioning, designed for the deaf community but today used by many hearing people as well. And again the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act that you played such an important role in shaping is now making life better for everyone. That's why this is so important to every American whether they realize it or not. And 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. So I'm grateful for your leadership, I'm grateful for your partnership, and looking forward to continuing to work together to make sure our transportation is safer, cleaner, and more accessible to everybody in the years to come. 
And again, thank you for the chance to be with you today. I look forward to continuing to work with you in the years to come. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I know you have a tight schedule, do you have time for any questions? 

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, let's at least sneak in time for one. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Okay, we're going to Raul for a question, but while Raul is getting unmuted, let me just say, 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, and we look forward to many years of being able to work collaboratively. Raul, you out there? 

RAUL: I'm here, sir. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Go ahead and introduce yourself and ask your question. 

RAUL: Thank you for this time. I'm Raul from Houston, Texas, and serve as the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, one of the many 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 very 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. 
And then furthermore, my dog is right around 80 pounds, and there's language in the Air Carrier Access Act that says 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. However, 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. And I can guarantee that my 80-pound dog, with my size 12 shoe, can fit very comfortably in that seat underneath. And so I would -- 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 don't -- we would like them to not be there. 

PETE 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 the consequences that may not have been fully understood as it was brought together. So 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. 

So 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. And 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. 

RAUL: Thank you. 

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So 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. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here and we look forward to following up. I wanted to let you 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. 
But we know you have a busy schedule, so we'll follow up with you and your team and we appreciate your partnership of the organized blind movement. 

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

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, appreciate it.