Regional operator panel addresses difficult ADA issues
By George Spencer
“When it comes to ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] compliance, education is key,” said Brian Sours of ABA member Richards Bus Lines in Luray, Va. “Whether it’s with drivers or office or mechanical staff, make sure you’re following the policies and procedures you need to follow.”
Sours spoke as a panelist at a seminar on ADA compliance at the regional meeting of the Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina Motorcoach Associations held in Roanoke, Va., on Sept. 16–20. Also on the panel were Heather Paul and Mellonee Owenby of ABA member Christian Tours in Maiden, N.C.; Godfrey LeBron of Paradise Transportation in Elmont, N.Y.; Bob Crocker of ABA member Eastside Transportation Service in Greer, S.C.; and Laurel Van Horn of the Open Doors Organization, a national group that works to empower people with disabilities.
“The challenge is when we don’t know about a situation,” said Sours. He spoke for many operators when he said his hope is that customers with disabilities will “tell us so we can come up with a solution ahead of time.”
The panel addressed numerous ADA-related issues. Below are highlights of their discussion:
1. What should an operator do if a blind person wishes to travel without a guide dog?
“They have to be allowed to travel as long as it’s not a safety issue,” said Van Horn. She noted that many blind people get along very well using only a “white cane.” “These individuals are fearless. If someone shows up on a 5- to 10-day tour and he’s blind, and you didn’t know that ahead of time, you must ascertain how much help he’ll need and what is a reasonable accommodation.
“With tours, it goes beyond transportation. It’s one of those gray areas,” she said, noting that when a passenger enters a museum or casino, those entities have their own responsibilities toward visitors.
2. What if a person on a tour has cognitive issues?
Heather Paul told the audience about a tour passenger whom her team immediately recognized had self-awareness issues. He couldn’t pack his bags, was unable to remember his room number, got lost in restaurants, and would leave his room in the middle of the night and get lost. Before the trip, her company had no knowledge of this elderly person’s special needs. It turned out he lived in a nursing home, just not in the full nursing care area.
Her company’s solution? “We graciously managed this customer for the entire week.” At the same time, her company closely documented what it saw and experienced. When he sought to travel again with her company, her company discussed the matter with the nursing home, and a staffer there told the resident he wasn’t capable of going.
A transportation company is only required under ADA to provide “reasonable accommodation” for travel, and in this instance, a motorcoach operator would have been able to legally decline service—if such a customer sought to book a second trip. (Seek the advice of your company’s legal counsel in this situation.)
3. What if a couple is traveling and one person is the caretaker for the other?
In this event, the panel agreed that an operator should have the caretaking spouse provide multiple emergency contacts in case the caregiving spouse becomes unable to care for the special needs partner.
4. What if a traveler only wants to pay one fare for herself and her caregiver?
“A carrier has no obligation to provide a free second seat,” said Van Horn. The panel noted that some airlines will charge for the second seat but refund its cost if the plane is not full.
5. How can an operator (and its driver) ascertain whether pet is a “service animal”?
An operator can only rely on the passenger’s “credible verbal assurance,” according to Van Horn. “That’s why drivers must be trained to know what questions he may legally ask. Ask what the animal has been trained to do.” She reminded the audience that the animal must remain with the person at all times and under his control.
The panel observed that Amtrak now allows passengers to bring pets on its trains, and this poses a problem for bus operators because there is no legal requirement that buses must allow pets on board.
6. What issues arise when a passenger or passengers are traveling with oxygen tanks?
“The person with the disability should be able to go on your website and see what your policy is,” said LeBron. He noted that in some circumstances the ADA conflicts with hazardous-materials transportation regulations. If an operator believes multiple travelers will have oxygen tanks, the operator should closely evaluate how to handle this to conform with hazmat regulations.
This is because hazmat rules only permit a carrier to transport 99 pounds of oxygen that is not being used. “I recommend that a carrier put on their website that folks are allowed to bring oxygen aboard on a first come, first served basis,” he said, because once a vehicle is carrying more than 99 pounds, highly restrictive hazmat rules come into play.
7. What if someone books a year in advance but only tells you 48 hours ahead of time that he needs a lift?
“You must provide a lift-equipped bus,” said Van Horn. She said hotels and school buses operate under different rules. For example, if a hotel runs out of ADA-compliant rooms, it has no obligation to find such a room for a late-arriving traveler, even though it has promised an operator such a room.”
“Educate your customers on what you can and cannot do for them,” said Paul.
To learn more, contact Open Doors at www.opendoorsnfp.org.
George Spencer is a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ABA media.