For Persons with Disabilities, Accessible Transport Provides Pathways to Opportunity

December 3, 2015


An access ramp for wheelchair users at a light rail station. Photo: Rafael Castillo/Flickr

  • Around the world, a large proportion of urban and inter-urban transport systems remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities
  • Mobility constraints are a serious impediment to disability-inclusive development, as they exacerbate the personal, economic, and social isolation of persons with disabilities
  • To break this cycle, the World Bank's transport experts are helping client countries deliver transport infrastructure and services that can be accessible to all users, including those with disabilities

If your daily commute forces you to waste precious hours stuck in traffic or to elbow your way into overcrowded public transit vehicles, you probably need little convincing about the importance of good quality, reliable transport. Now, imagine your frustration if, instead of simply dealing with less-than-perfect transport, you had to make do with no transport at all.

For many persons with disabilities, this is not just fiction, but a daily struggle that is all too real: a large proportion of urban and inter-urban transport systems remain either completely off-limits or incredibly difficult to use for passengers with disabilities, turning even the shortest trip into a logistical nightmare.

Mobility constraints are a major obstacle to disability-inclusive development, as they exacerbate the economic, social, and personal isolation of persons with disabilities, and tend to push them further into poverty.

But the opposite is also true: coupled with interventions in other areas, mobility improvements can go a long way in changing the lives of persons with disabilities for the better. “You have to think of transport as an equalizer, a catalyst that facilitates access to many other sectors,” said Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, the World Bank’s Global Advisor on Disability. “Mobility improvements are key because transport gives you access to jobs, schools, healthcare, markets, leisure.”

Supporting disability-inclusive transport through infrastructure financing and knowledge sharing

As a key financier of transport infrastructure and a global thought leader on inclusive development, the World Bank has been in a unique position to promote universally accessible transport through a variety of interventions:

  • Lending operations: transport is the World Bank’s largest sector in terms of overall lending (21% of the institution’s active portfolio), and is also one of the most active when it comes to disability inclusion. The Bank’s experts have been working hand in hand with client countries to integrate the principles of “universal design” into transport projects, especially physical upgrades such as access ramps, elevators, tactile surfaces on platforms, braille signage, low-floor vehicles, audio and visual announcements, etc.
  • Analytical work: in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Word Bank released the first-ever World Report on Disability, and will soon be launching a new flagship study on mental health, an issue that is often overlooked in the global conversation about disability. In the transport sector, our experts have developed an extensive knowledge base to help stakeholders understand the technical aspects of universally accessible transport.
  • Training and capacity-building: “Capacity issues can be a serious hurdle in moving from words to action,” pointed out Senior Transport Specialist Julie Babinard. “Many countries do not have specific standards about universally accessible transport. In other cases, transport engineers may be unfamiliar with the complexities of universal design. Finally, it is essential to educate bus drivers, station agents and other staff about the needs of passengers with limited mobility.”

Legislation and mentalities are changing

With the demand for transport infrastructure and services at an all-time high, now is the time to make sure that accessible transport becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Fortunately, awareness of disability is growing and mentalities are changing. “Overall, it has become easier for us to make a case for accessible transport, as our clients understand that, if you want to create sustainable communities, you need to include everyone,” noted Ramón Muñoz-Raskin, Senior Urban Transport Specialist at the World Bank. “In many of the countries we work with, universal access is now pretty much a no-brainer, at least for mass transit systems like metro, light rail, or Bus Rapid Transit.”

The legislation has evolved as well. The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in particular, provides that: “States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, […] to transport” (art. 9). The Convention has been ratified by and is legally binding in 160 countries. At the national level, countries across regions and income groups have passed legislation to protect the rights of persons with disabilities.

Data: the new frontier for disability-inclusive transport

Of course, challenges remain; chief among them is the lack of reliable, disaggregated data on disability and disability-inclusive transport. “Without statistical evidence, it is much harder to drive policy change and to measure the impact of accessible transport projects,” noted Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo. “Hopefully, the 7 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that include disability will create an impetus for more and better data, as progress toward each of the SDGs will have to be clearly measured,” she added.

Concerns about cost are another persistent hurdle. However, experts agree that the incremental cost of providing universal access is usually minimal in new or “greenfield” projects, whereas retrofitting existing systems comes with a much heftier price tag. “That is why accessibility should be factored into projects right from the start; for older systems that can’t be retrofitted, we need to find creative and realistic alternatives,” said Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo.

“When considering the cost of accessibility, you also need to keep in mind that universal design does not just improve the mobility of persons with disabilities, but brings co-benefits to many others: you have to think about the elderly, parents pushing strollers, and all those who may be dealing with temporary physical impairments,” she added.

Local communities hold the key to successful projects

Involving Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) has been instrumental in securing buy-in from local authorities, for governments tend to pay closer attention to grievances coming from their own constituents (read about Liaoning Medium Cities Infrastructure Project for an interesting example from China).

In addition, working with CSOs helps ensure that new projects truly meet the needs of persons with disabilities: when it comes to making transport universally accessible, the devil is most definitely in the detail, and a simple oversight or minor construction flaw can render a whole system unusable.

Input from local associations of persons with disabilities is critical to making sure that transport systems designed to be accessible have been “used and approved” by those who need them most.