It wasn’t easy, but Congress finally passed the much-debated bipartisan infrastructure bill last week. As we noted two months ago, when the Senate passed its version of the legislation, this bill includes some significant gains for amputees and other people with disabilities. The biggest of those is the $1.7 billion All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP), which will bring all bus, train, subway, and other mass transit stations across the country into (belated) compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. We believe this is the largest federal infrastructure appropriation in history that’s specifically geared toward people with disabilities.
Amplitude was able to grab a few minutes on Zoom last week with ASAP co-sponsor (and bilateral amputee) Tammy Duckworth, the only amputee currently serving in the US Senate. In her view, the value of this bill goes well beyond dollars and cents. In addition to its direct investments on behalf of people with disabilities, the law establishes a new policy model for addressing disability concerns. That same model can be replicated to address issues such as insurance reform, employment, health care equity, access to technology, and other priorities for improving quality of life for people with disabilities.
Here’s a recap of our conversation with Sen. Duckworth, lightly edited for clarity:
For people who aren’t that familiar with federal budgets, what’s the impact of $2 billion in new federal spending on disability infrastructure. Has Congress ever made an appropriation of this magnitude before on behalf of people with disabilities?
Never. It’s historic. It took me five years, but here it is. I asked for $2 billion over ten years, we got $1.75 billion over five years. We’re going to come back. Once this gets going, I’m going to come back and get the remaining five years. Legacy transit systems across the [country], whether it’s Oakland or Boston or New York, are going to see this [money] right away. But this is meant to make all mass transit stations accessible eventually.
How big an increase does this represent over the status quo?
The status quo is zero. The status quo is that individual transit authorities will put some money aside—one million, ten million, whatever it is—but there’s nothing at the federal level. And that’s the key thing. This money [in the new bill] can only be used for ADA access. You can’t touch that money for anything else.
Every senator from both parties has a lot of constituents who would be helped by this. Was there any significant opposition to it?
It was pretty easy to sell. Because we had to draw down the size of the bill, it really was about making sure that I got at least half of what I asked for, and making it clear that I’m going to come back and get more. [It was also important to] put in the Amtrak provisions as well, because I wanted to make sure we serve rural communities. I’m an Amtrak user throughout Illinois and on the Northeast corridor, so I understand the frustration of being stuck on a train and not being able to get off at the station because it’s not accessible. [So] there is a provision that requires Amtrak to budget at least $50 million per year over five years for accessibility upgrades to stations across the system. I’m tired of it being discretionary. I’m tired of it being at the whim of the board. When push comes to shove, the first thing that gets cut is disability access.
Another Amtrak provision in this legislation is the creation of a dedicated disability advocate on the Amtrak board. Are there other federal boards of this type that have disability advocates, or does this establish a new precedent?
This is a ground breaker, and it came directly out of my frustration with the Amtrak board leadership. I have talked to many, many Amtrak board presidents over the years, and they’re always very welcoming to the idea of becoming ADA accessible and appointing a disability person to the board. But it’s always at the discretion of the board president, and it doesn’t guarantee that the person who’s appointed is actually a true disability advocate who’s trained in this issue. Now it’s a requirement. It’s going to always be there. It’ll be consistent across administrations and across different board presidents, and I think now you’re going to see momentum gained and sustained.
Now that we have a disability advocate on the Amtrak board, will we ever see a disability advocate on, let’s say, federal election boards? Or on the Medicare board, or in other areas of interest to people with disabilities? Could this model be replicated to ensure that people with disabilities are better represented in other realms?
Absolutely. That’s a priority for me. That’s something I will be working on as long as I’m here int he United States Senate. In fact, the last time I went to vote in a municipal election, there wasn’t a single voting machine that was wheelchair accessible, even in my own home precinct — even though it’s supposed to be. I will be working on this.
I was talking to a disability advocate the other day, and when I talked about going to vote in municipal elections, she said the one wheelchair-accessible voting machine was just in Chinese. There happened to be a woman there who spoke Chinese and helped her translate it so she could vote. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” We can do better than this.
If I was going to position this as a win not just for people with disabilities, but as a win for the whole country, what would the message be?
Two things. One, it will be cheaper for taxpayers. Because what happens is that this funding will be available at the beginning of this capital decision-making, instead of Amtrak building a station and then having to come back and retrofit it. It’s cheaper in the long run when disability access issues are planned into the facilities from very beginning. That will happen, so it’s going to be cheaper for taxpayers in the long run.
Second, hopefully every one of us will live long enough to grow into an old age, and we’re going to have some sort of mobility impairment at some point. In fact, the Baby Boomer cohort is going to be the largest cohort of people with disabilities. When Boomers hit their 80s and 90s, we’re going to see a huge growth in the population of people with disabilities in this country. So we have to be ready.