How to Best Serve Passengers who Have Disabilities

Published on: February 22, 2021

Transit operators must have good people and problem-solving skills to effectively communicate and serve all passengers, regardless of the passenger’s purpose for using public transportation.

You should never assume to know what a passenger’s needs may be and, as such, should offer assistance to every passenger who who boards the transit vehicle. No passenger should ever have to ask for assistance because the operator fails to offer it. When passengers accept your offer for assistance ask how you can best assist rather than assuming to know what their needs are.

For example, if a person with a visual impairment wants to board your vehicle and the passenger has accepted your offer of assistance, you should offer them your arm rather than taking theirs unless they request something different. Keep in mind sometimes a passenger’s request may not be appropriate or reasonable so you should be prepared to offer an alternative. This level of service is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA is legislation that prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities.

The ADA implication for serving passengers, and the need to understand the applicable requirements, requires transit programs to invest in training programs that address these requirements. Examples of some of the requirements include:

  • Permitting standees to ride the lift, regardless of physical appearance or concerns about the individual’s steadiness.
  • Professional training programs teach that the passenger should be boarded on the lift platform in the rear-facing position to provide the greatest measure of safety; however, the ADA mandates that if a passenger wishes to board the lift with their mobility aid in the forward-facing position, it must be permitted.
  • Service animals must be permitted and proof of certification or use of a service animal vest is not required. Two questions may be asked:
    • Is that a service animal?
    • What life function does the animal serve?
  • A Personal Care Attendant (PCA) must be permitted for a passenger traveling with a PCA even if there is less room for other passengers.
  • Persons who use mobility aids cannot be required to wear the occupant restraints if all passengers are not required to wear them

These are just a few examples of the implications that the ADA has on transit services, which dictates the need for adequate training to ensure all personnel is serving each passenger appropriately and professionally. These service requirements must be met, but the requirement extends beyond simply providing the service as required.

49 CFR §37.173 – Training requirements states:

Each public or private entity which operates a fixed route or demand responsive system shall ensure that personnel is trained to proficient, as appropriate to their duties, so that they operate vehicles and equipment safely and properly assist and treat individuals with disabilities who use the service respectfully and courteously, with appropriate attention to the difference among individuals with disabilities.

The language identifies the need for transit programs and transit personnel to obtain training and focus on the people skills necessary to serve their community, which includes showing appropriate attention to differences among individuals with disabilities, but while communicating and treating them in a respectful and courteous manner at all times.

This requires transit operators to be patient and accepting when interacting and serving passengers who may need assistance or need additional time to board comfortably and safely. Attention should be given to how transit operators communicate by using person-first language.

For example, rather than referring to a passenger as a blind person, refer to them instead as a person with a visual impairment. This approach recognizes the individual as a person first and then if necessary, references the disability.

There are numerous disabilities, including hidden disabilities, where the individual may not appear to have a disability but could be suffering from kidney failure, heart or respiratory failure, stroke, or diabetes. No one boarding your bus will be wearing a label indicating if they have a disability, and assumptions should never be made for those passengers who are using assistive devices or mobility aids. As such, quality customer service should be equal for every passenger served.

Passengers are a transit system’s most valuable asset, and each operator must recognize the need to ensure quality customer service for every passenger served. Training is a great way to address known issues, learn new techniques and broaden our understanding of regulatory requirements, policies, and procedures necessary for transit operators to perform their duties. It is also necessary to educate personnel about persons with disabilities and how to best serve them, with attention to individual differences.

National RTAP has a great reference tool outlining best practices and procedures for passenger assistance and sensitivity requirements, which can be found at this link:

This article was published by RLS & Associates.

Learn more! Register for Disability Etiquette: Best Practices for Communicating with Older Adults and People with Disabilities, which takes place on March 31, 2021. 


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