An equitable transportation system is a system that works for everyone. It’s now been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, promising inclusive systems and infrastructure that work for people of all abilities. This groundbreaking legislation has indisputably improved people’s lives—and transportation choices—for the better. And, at the same time, its vision is still being realized decades later. Here in Minnesota and across the nation, inaccessible streets and inadequate transit continue to create barriers for people with disabilities. More progress is needed.
Community Organizer, Finn McGarrity sat down with Move Minnesota’s Board Chair, Ken Rodgers, to reflect on the positive impacts of the ADA, his experiences, and why the fight for accessible transportation continues.
Watch part one of their interview, or read the full transcript below. Stay tuned for part two!
Finn McGarrity: Well thanks so much for joining us. I’m super excited for us to have this conversation about the intersection of accessibility and disability rights and transit in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the ADA. So, we know each other from Move Minnesota board events, but as you know I’m the community organizer on the team. My pronouns are they, them, theirs, and I do a lot of work in the advocacy sphere of our work, showing up at the Capitol, and getting folks plugged in to the initiatives for advancing mobility here in the Twin Cities and across our state. Can you remind me [and everyone watching] what you’re involved in and what different buckets of work are you working on right now?
Ken Rodgers: So, my role at MnDOT is, I work in the Office of Equity and Diversity, and I am the ADA Coordinator for Title I, and Title I is all employment related reasonable accommodations. I help employees when they discover that they have illness or disability or a medical condition that interferes with their ability to do their job. Oftentimes, they think that they’re going to come to me and learn that they can’t do their job anymore and they’re going to lose their job. I get to work with them and brainstorm, problem solve innovative ways for them to continue to be able to do their work through reasonable accommodation. So, I absolutely love the work I do. I get to do it all day long everyday, and it’s never the same – it’s always different – and I just love that work.
FM: Framing up our conversation, 1 in 5 Metro Transit rider’s identify as a person with a disability. It is clear that our fight for equitable transportation and mobility justice needs to include people of all abilities. I know this is something I really care about. I grew up with a single mom and my mom is a person with a disability. We did not have a car and she was also not able to drive. So, as a child navigating the world and accessing all the things we needed, I got a very intimate view on how resourceful she was in accessing transportation and taking care of us, but also a lot of the barriers that were in place. From the length of time for Metro Mobility and medical cabs, and just struggling with two kiddos on the bus trying to get groceries home. So, it’s something I feel really passionately and care about. Also as an advocate in the transit world, I noticed it’s something that often falls to the wayside when we’re having conversations about the transit system that we’re looking to build…or conversations about bike lanes and scooters…from my perspective, it is definitely something that can be marginalized in those conversations. That’s why I’m here and care about this work, so thanks so much for joining me, Ken.
FM: Our first question is:
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago, promising inclusive systems and infrastructure that work for people of all abilities. How has that goal been important to you both personally and professionally?
KR: I was not born with a disability. I acquired my sight impairment – I’m totally blind – I have no light perception, my eyes just don’t work. In my mid-30s I discovered I had a rare retinal eye disease, and besides that shock, the other shock was that there was no treatment for that particular disease and there was no way to slow it or stop it. About six years into my medical career, I learned about my eye disease and a year later was blind. Previous to that, I’m almost ashamed to say, I probably had no idea and would have had no idea about this whole concept of disability and accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It didn’t have much meaning in my life at that time. After I lost my sight and tried to pick up the pieces later to figure out what the heck I was going to do, I discovered this whole world of all kinds of people with all kinds of disabilities that seemed to have managed to pick up their life and continue. At the time, that gave me motivation to move forward.
I literally was scared still. I never left my house after I lost my sight. I was afraid to go outside. I didn’t want to go with anybody because I thought I was going to be that extra burden on somebody, and there were many examples of people taking me out, I’m holding on to their arm, and they run me into jams because they’re not used to having somebody on their arm. All of that led me to deciding I just needed to be with myself for a while. That gave me a lot of time to think and once I learned that I could learn how to live in my new world, I went to vocational rehabilitation programming school. I call it ‘blind school’ – to learn how to be a blind person, how to cook, how to use public transportation – which I had never used before, never. I’m almost embarrassed to say that, but as a young healthy person there was no need to rely on public transportation. I lived from my car, as many people do. That was my awareness at the time. Through my disability, I learned a whole different awareness, and the beauty of it is that we can be independent. We have the ability to get where we need to go using public transportation. It was just a whole new thing that I had to learn, but it was there – infrastructure was in place and learning how to master that gave me a new sense of independence.
People with disabilities are experts at problem solving. Not because we have a gene that gives us extra ability to problem-solve, but because of moving around in a world that wasn’t designed for us with our disabilities. We have to constantly recreate how we do things. If I can’t access a transit platform in one direction, I can’t look around and see another way. I got to figure it out. That constant practice of doing something differently to get my needs met really creates this problem solving ability that’s not foreign to me, and that really has been a positive force in my life as I continue to exist in both worlds. Because of my long-time of living as a person – sighted and able-bodied – to now living in a different world, I have perspectives of both of those environments that I think gets me to see things a little differently. [I can] provide advice, suggestions, and help our system be better accessible to everybody.
FM: Thanks for sharing. I really liked how you talked so eloquently about the resilience factor with developing those problem solving skills. It’s just such a beautiful way how you phrased that.
We have our second question here, which is that:
In your experience, what has changed since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed? Is transportation more accessible today?
KR: Absolutely. Are we where we completely need to be? No way, but I can remember when I first moved here to Minnesota, fully alive. My eyes worked, I drove everywhere…[it wasn’t] until I was now faced with this ability of needing to learn how to use this system.
I remember…if you can imagine losing your sight, learning how to walk on the sidewalk so that you could walk on the sidewalk so you could walk fairly in a straight line and not end up in someone’s yard, and learning to cross streets. It seems like an undaunting task, but you start up in really quiet areas, gain confidence, and then slowly go to more complex intersections and just keep building onto your education. I guess my point is that at some point we started riding the bus, and what an exhilarating experience that was to be able to know that I could board the bus and go somewhere eventually on my own and get somewhere that I wanted to go. At the end of my training, my instructor would give me an address on a piece of paper, and he would read it to me, and I put it in my device that would speak to me. I had to meet him at that address in an hour and that address was somewhere across town. I had no idea which bus got there, how to get there, how many transfers I would need. So, I had to learn how to research. Call the bus information line. Learn what routes I needed to take and the directions I needed to go. Commit that to memory or put it in my device that read to me, and off I went. Half an hour later I would meet my instructor at that location. That was the true test that you were independent, you could take the bus. And I could really get anywhere I needed to go. It might take several transfers sometimes, but I could get there, and learning that was really important to me for all the obvious reasons, but again coming from a person who had no experience with public transportation to all of a sudden relying on public transportation for my Independence gave me an appreciation that few people have.
But today, like I said, we have some ways to go but our transportation system is generally accessible and getting better all the time. I think one of the really critical pieces is that people with disabilities are now on advisory committees to help make sure that individuals’ needs within the disability community are spoken and identified so they can be addressed. So, people collectively can come together and try to address that. I think we’re at a point now where many many people with all kinds of disabilities have come forward to share their experience to try to make our system a better system. We’re getting there slowly.
FM: Definitely. I think similar to so many issues, when we’re in the fight for equity, it’s that seat at the table [that] is so invaluable – and not just invaluable but essential – to meaningful and real progress moving forward because we can’t do it without it.
Obviously, we talked about how we’ve come leaps and leaps from where we were, but more progress is still needed. What barriers are still making it hard, and at times impossible, for folks living with disabilities to get to where they need to go, and how is that impacting folks?
KR: Part of the barriers that exists, [is due in] part [because] of the way our transit system just does business. We have a [current] transit system, I think, that comes first and then everyone else – citizens with and without disabilities, have to figure out how they plan their life around our transit system. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s a huge barrier. Not everyone can change the way they do things based around making it fit in a pre-existing system. I do a lot of work in the Saint Cloud area, we have another district office in Saint Cloud, and in order for me to get to places that I need to go to have meetings with employees, I have to travel well. I can’t just jump in the state car or drive myself somewhere. I have to rely on other forms of public transportation to do my job. I thought, well I’ll just take one of those trains back up going the other way – because people always come to the Twin Cities in the morning – and I’ll just take one of those back and have somebody pick me up closer to my meeting location. I learned that at that time there was no ability to ride back. They only had one way commutes. So, people from the Big Lake area could commute down to the Twin Cities in the morning and then commute back in the afternoon, but there was no ability to ride one of those empty trains that was going back to pick up more people to bring them to the Twin Cities. It didn’t make sense to me. Why couldn’t somebody ride on that train that was going back to the Big Lake area anyway and get off where they needed to go? But that just wasn’t the way it was done at the time. Today, we have both direction routes, but we didn’t in the beginning, and that’s what I mean by our system oftentimes creates a system or a timetable that works for the system and doesn’t really address the needs of people all the time.
I think COVID-19 is an interesting phenomenon with our transit system that is allowing us the ability to rethink our transit. Some of this, I understand, is part of the discussion now to figure out how our transit system can be reimagined to be more receptive and and respectful of people’s needs, as opposed to let’s create this infrastructure, and let everybody else figure out how to work with it. It’s creating us some new opportunity.
FM: Yeah, definitely. I think you’re totally spot-on about how the rigidity of the system can leave a lot of people who don’t, for whatever reason, have a lot of personal flexibility. Like what you were saying, my work schedule doesn’t necessarily coordinate with one of the last bus of a particular route. How does that bar me or someone else from employment? Or when schedules or buses are there delayed when they go to Sunday hours or holiday hours – like hours and hours. And the time penalty for people without that flexibility. It’s a real challenge. How can we, at the same time, run this macrosystem while making sure that we’re serving people with dignified routes and commutes that work for them?