Common Wheelchair Not So Common Any More

Published on: November 23, 2020

Over the years what once was known as a common wheelchair has evolved into a state of the art mobility device.

Some of these new era mobility devices can travel at speeds over 11 miles per hour and have the ability to elevate the passenger to a standing position, therefore enabling individuals to be much more independent. The evolution of the wheelchair combined with other considerations prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to redefine the definition of a common wheelchair. In 2011, the USDOT eliminated the term “common wheelchair” from its regulations for implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and revised Section 37.3 of the regulations to redefine a wheelchair as a device with “three-or more wheeled devices.” Previously, the definition read “three- or four-wheeled devices.”

What does this mean to public transit and specialized transportation providers and drivers? It means that a wheelchair and its occupant must be transported if the lift and vehicle can physically accommodate them (the wheelchair lift’s load capacity is sufficient to support the weight of the wheelchair and its occupant), unless doing so is inconsistent with legitimate safety requirements. Legitimate safety requirements have been defined to include, but are not limited to, such circumstances where a wheelchair:

  1. Is of such a size that it would block an aisle;
  2. Is too large to fully enter a vehicle; or
  3. Would interfere with the safe evacuation of passengers in an emergency.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was explicit in the requirements that any safety concern must be based on actual risks, not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities or about the devices they use for mobility purposes.

Also, these concerns do not apply to securement; a transportation provider cannot impose a limitation on the transportation of wheelchairs and other mobility aids based on the inability of the securement system to secure the device to the satisfaction of the transportation provider or driver. Service cannot be denied to individuals who use wheelchairs just because particular devices may be problematic from a securement point of view. Note that this is not a new requirement, but has always been a part of the original FTA rules.

When considering the wheelchair lift load capacity, it is important to remember the ADA does not permit you to ask an individual how much they weigh or what the combined weight of the occupant and wheelchair is. You can, however, inform the individual of the lift’s load capacity and the potential lift failure risks if the capacity is exceeded. If the individual does not self-disclose the over-capacity weight, you must attempt to board the passenger. Drivers should be aware of their company’s policy if the lift will not operate and you cannot transport the passenger.

If You Want to Know More
This article was developed based on information developed by FTA. To find out more, FTA has developed an excellent “question and answer” resource on this topic which can be accessed at . You can also read the full text of these regulatory changes in the Federal Register/Vol. 76, No. 181, available at the FTA website,


This article was published in the RTAP December 2019 newsletter, published by RLS & Associates.

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