Office Hours: Marilyn Golden

“Why does anyone take heed of disability access? Nobody handed out civil rights laws on a silver platter.”

Maddy Ruvolo
June 21, 2021
Illustration: Allan C. Carandang

If you’ve taken public transit in the United States, you may have seen the bumpy yellow tiles on a subway platform. When you’ve crossed at an intersection, you may have heard an automated voice saying, “Walk sign is on” as the light turned green. Crossing, you’ve entered the sidewalk at a point that slopes down into the street. 

If you’re not disabled, these details of daily life probably fade into the background. But if you are blind, those detectable tiles and spoken cues make navigating public space possible. If you are a wheelchair user, you notice when the curb ramp slope is too steep—or worse, when there’s no curb ramp at all. These are crucial systems that enable disabled people to move through the world. 

Marilyn Golden, a longtime disability rights activist and now a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), played a key role in the development and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, and has spent the past three decades fighting for its implementation. As a disabled transportation planner, I see how often the people who design our communities and transportation systems treat access as optional rather than essential. Marilyn’s work stands out for her commitment to getting the details of accessibility right. I spoke with Marilyn about her work on access battles with the ride hail apps Uber and Lyft, obstacles to ADA enforceability, and where the disability community goes from here. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Maddy Ruvolo: What has changed in transportation access since the ADA was signed, and what work remains to be done?

Marilyn Golden: Before the ADA, outside California and a smattering of cities elsewhere, city buses were simply not accessible to wheelchair users. Now they are, across the country. There were no announcements of bus stops, which particularly aid blind people, nor was there bus-stop signage giving the upcoming stops, which particularly aids deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

But serious problems remain, particularly around enforcement. A central issue is access to the public right of way—that is, streets and sidewalks, which in many locations are full of obstacles to people with disabilities. For example, abandoned rental scooters lying across the sidewalk would block me using a wheelchair. My blind friends risk their lives when they cross streets without sound cues that indicate the direction of traffic. 

MR: I know you’re now working on accessibility issues with ride hail apps. What kind of resistance have you encountered from Uber and Lyft? 

MG: Uber and Lyft argue that they’re not covered by ADA. They argue that they just provide an electronic platform, and it’s really the drivers that provide transportation. A new California law more or less requires wheelchair-accessible service from these companies, and they have done everything possible to get out of it. They don’t want to spend the money. 

The real question is: Why does anyone take heed of disability access? Nobody handed out civil rights laws on a silver platter. The disability movement worked very hard to attain these mandates, including through direct action—blocking buses all through the ’80s—and civil disobedience. We have to persuade business-friendly legislatures that the civil rights of people who are often segregated and excluded from society are important enough to make them a requirement.

Something astonishing to me is that 15 or 20 years back, the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco developed a program to provide free high-quality architectural analysis to small businesses about how they could improve accessibility, ranking obstacles in terms of importance and writing up specific technical recommendations that the businesses didn’t have to pay a penny for. You know how many businesses used the service, despite the fact that it was heavily marketed to them? Zero.

MR: Wow.

MG: There’s an astonishing resistance. Before the ADA became law, for example, the transit industry claimed that if buses had to be wheelchair accessible, bus systems would be thrown off their schedules because wheelchair users would take too long to board. This turned out to be completely false. Bus schedules have run just fine in the wake of the ADA mandates; trained drivers have easily accommodated the change. 

MR: Many of the people providing direct accessibility support to disabled folks are themselves in precarious economic situations, like home health care workers or ride hail drivers. How can Lyft and Uber meet their responsibility to the disability community without transferring the cost to drivers?

MG: The disability rights movement strongly rejects the notion that providing disability access comes at workers’ expense; the allegation sounds more like something industries claim to try to keep laws from passing. Most of the accessibility requirements we’ve demanded from Uber and Lyft do not fall on the drivers. To the extent that they already provide accessible transit, Uber contracts for wheelchair-accessible vehicles with a company called MV Transportation, and Lyft uses a company called First Transit, both of which run paratransit services in many cities. Uber and Lyft, not their drivers, are paying for those vehicles and their upkeep.

In the Uber and Lyft battle in California, taxi drivers have become real allies. For example, the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance has worked with us to petition CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission] to require regular inspections of wheelchair-accessible vehicles—countering claims by Uber and Lyft that each vehicle needs just one single inspection over its entire lifetime. 

MR: What has your experience been in the Jewish community as a disabled person?  

MG: Truthfully, in some ways it’s been more of a challenge to find a home in the Jewish community that didn’t exclude other key parts of me. It’s been difficult for me to find synagogues and other Jewish organizations that address the issue of justice for the Palestinian people, and that’s been extremely alienating to me as a Jew.

MR: We are currently in the middle of a pandemic, and many folks who have had Covid-19 are discovering that their symptoms are long-term, possibly permanent. You and I both acquired our disabilities. How should the disability community welcome these new potential members, who may not see themselves as disabled?

MG: The disability community has largely done a good job in saying that disability encompasses a wide circle. As to whether these newly disabled people will see themselves as people with disabilities, that shift often happens for people in the process of seeking accommodation. For example, if someone has compromised lung function due to Covid, they may need to park close to their destination in a disability access parking zone.

When an adult acquires a disability, as I did, it’s all too easy to take on prejudiced social attitudes toward disability—like the idea that people with disabilities must have miserable, unbearable lives—and apply these ideas to ourselves. I worried I wouldn’t be able to do things that bring me joy, like hiking, or that my disability would get in the way of relationships. But after about a year, I realized my fears were wrong. I had great friends, I could get out into nature, I could do important and fulfilling work. I could enjoy my life perfectly well. 

Maddy Ruvolo is a Bay Area – based disability activist and transportation planner.