Sarah Kaplan didn't have many friends as a child—she almost never left the house. Access, or the lack of it, has been constant in her life for as long as she can remember. She schedules nearly every part of her day around how she'll get from point A to point B. Kaplan has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that has made her a wheelchair user for most of her life.
More than 56 million people in the United States, nearly one in five Americans, identify with some kind of disability, according to Census Bureau statistics from 2010. People with disabilities often have fewer job opportunities, spend less time in school, and make less money than average working-age Americans.
Many of these problems are attributed to systemic barriers to transportation, according to a recent report by the Ruderman Foundation, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. "Being able to access transportation is the difference between being part of the community and not," Kaplan said.
To solve these problems, the technology needs proper design.
Now the Ruderman Family Foundation is arguing that new transportation technology, including ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, can transcend traditional transport systems and allow people with disabilities to get to school, jobs and other opportunities. And the promise of autonomous vehicles gives people with mobility barriers a glimmer of hope.
But to solve these problems, the technology needs proper design. That could mean some kind of audio communication between the driver and the vehicle (like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa) for people without vision or an automatic ramp that can judge curb heights for people in wheelchairs.
"By incorporating accessibility in the front-end of development, the [disabled] community will not be forced to fight for accessibility on the back-end," the Ruderman Foundation said of self-driving cars.
Still, Alexander Stimpson, a senior research scientist at Duke University's Humans and Autonomy Lab, said only a few autonomous vehicle developers have seriously considered how this technology could improve access for people with disabilities.
"They're aware that it's a market, but that's not the focus," Stimpson said. "The focus is how can we get these driving on the roads."
But Ryan Moton, a senior research engineer at Ford, thinks the design can be more universal. "Whether you're picking up drunk frat boys or a group of blind kids, the technology is essentially the same," he said. The company is one of the most ambitious automakers in the field of self-driving cars, hoping to launch its fleet by 2021.
Kim Charlson was diagnosed with glaucoma at age eight. By 22, she was blind. Now 60, Charlson, president of the American Council for the Blind, travels the country to advocate for changes in policies, practices, and laws that impede opportunities for people who are blind.
"Transportation is probably one of the top three barriers that people who are blind face—being able to get anywhere and do it independently," said Charlson, who usually uses ridesharing services when she needs to get around. "We think that when [autonomous vehicles] are at a point when they can be deployed safely for everyone, there should be a way—there has to be a way—for blind people to use them as well."
But this could take some time. And industry professionals don't agree about how long it could take, or even what they mean by 'autonomous vehicles.'
Kaplan, meanwhile, is hesitant to even talk about how self-driving cars could affect her life. She has too many questions: What happens if the car breaks down? Will state laws allow unlicensed drivers (like her, and many other disabled people) to operate a driverless car? Will the entire idea be scrapped?
But when she allows practical questions to give way to dreams of how this technology could benefit people like herself, she's more hopeful.
"People with disabilities are a huge population, and we are the most ignored," Kaplan said. "If all these issues could be addressed, I do think it would change the world for people with disabilities."
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