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Motor Coaches Gearing Slowly Toward Federal Disabilities Law : Access: The act will not take full effect until 1997, and exempts older buses from retrofitting to accommodate wheelchairs.

August 29, 1993|JACK ADLER

While many provisions of the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act are already in effect, it's still unclear exactly how the legislation will work to make motor-coach travel more accessible to passengers with disabilities.

(The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a broad-based civil rights measure signed into law in July, 1990, that forbids discrimination against people with disabilities in many areas of society, including public facilities.)

Implementation of the provisions of ADA were to be phased in on a staggered timetable. Thus, regulations affecting motor-coach travel for the disabled are scheduled to be finalized by the Department of Transportation in May, 1994. But the new rules won't go into effect for large motor-coach operators until July, 1996; for small operators, it'll be July, 1997. (The DOT will determine what companies can be classified as large or small.) In the meantime, the industry is operating under a set of interim rules that went into effect in September, 1991.

Last May, the DOT received a 151-page report providing analysis and recommendations on the subject from the Office of Technology Assessment, an analytical arm of Congress.

The OTA study defined an accessible motor coachas one that allows persons with disabilities to board and remain with their wheelchair or other mobility aid with minimal assistance from bus company personnel. The motor coaches must have access to lifts or ramps.

Fully accessible coaches would need a sufficiently wide door to accommodate persons with mobility impairments, plus two "tie-down" devices to secure wheelchairs and their users, and movable armrests on some aisle seats. Unless all armrests are movable, signs must indicate priority seating for persons with disabilities.

In addition, there needs to be a way to communicate with persons who have sensory (such as visual and hearing) and cognitive (i.e., learning disabilities, mental retardation, emotional or mental illness) impairments, and an accessible bathroom, or operational provisions--such as frequent rest stops--for use of accessible restrooms.

One significant note is that the ADA doesn't require the retrofitting of existing coaches to bring them up to the new standards. Since the lifetime of a coach can exceed 20 years, the OTA figures that operators may take at least that long to turn over their fleets and to complete the phase-in of accessible coaches. While some operators may replace a vehicle in 10 or 15 years, it's also possible that disabled passengers could face a lack of fully accessible coaches well into the 21st Century.

"We're going to try and convince the DOT to do something about this loophole," said Yvonne Nau, an agent for Carlson Travel Network in Northridge who specializes in travel for the disabled. "The OTA study indicated that outfitting a new coach with lifts costs from $18,000 to $40,000, but I think that these figures are inflated. The cost is more like an average of $13,000." Nau is also co-publisher of TIDE (Travel Industry and Disabled Exchange), a Los Angeles-based newsletter for disabled travelers.

"Coaches used for tours tend to be newer, so they're more likely to become accessible sooner," said Phil Otterson, director of product operations for Tauck Tours of Westport, Conn., which operates many motor-coach packages.

The OTA concedes that the area in which technology is currently able to provide the least amount of help is with accessible on-board restrooms.

"Motor-coach companies don't want to make on-board lavatories wheelchair-accessible since this would mean less seats," Nau charged.

Among the technological developments on the way that could solve the accessible bathroom problem are portable walls, said Ginger Croce, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based American Bus Assn. (ABA). With portable walls, a movable partition on the coach separates the restroom and the lift. "While use of these portable walls do replace seats, they only have to be used on those trips with disabled passengers."

Tie-down systems that allow disabled passengers in wheelchairs aboard buses to secure themselves rather than require assistance are also under development, Croce said.

The ABA, which counts about 600 members, including operators and tour organizers, has been holding nationwide seminars to discuss the interim rules and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Croce said.

Under the interim rules, motor-coach operators must service the needs of any disabled traveler who provides at least 48 hours' advance notice of his or her intention to travel.

"As matters stand, there are few motor coaches used for tours in the U.S. that have lift devices, and that's the biggest problem for disabled travelers," Nau said. "Yet when American travelers in wheelchairs go to overseas countries like Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Western European nations, there are motor coaches with lift devices. These countries are way ahead of the U.S. in this aspect of travel."

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