Richard Devylder recently called a cab to make a quick trip across town, a wholly unremarkable occurrence in a city with 10,600 taxi drivers and 116 cab companies.
But he could not have done that with confidence a few years ago because his basic mode of transportation is a motorized wheelchair that can’t be folded up and placed into the trunk of a cab.
“It’s often assumed that those of us with disabilities need to use specialized services,” said Devylder, who was born without arms or legs. “In fact, it’s just the opposite. Our primary goal is integration.”
Devylder, who is senior adviser for accessible transportation at the U.S. Department of Transportation, came a bit closer to that goal this month as 20 taxis equipped to serve those in wheelchairs began operating 24 hours a day in the District.
“To have the flexibility of a taxi means you have a service that’s always going to be available,” Devylder said. “You’re not bound by the schedule of a shuttle service or the bus or train.”
The 20 wheelchair taxis — operating under the banners of Yellow Cab and Royal Cab — were put into commission with a $1 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and an additional $200,000 from the D.C. Taxicab Commission.
The taxis are regular minivans that have been modified so that a ramp drops out of the back and the passenger can roll right into the vehicle. The cabs cannot accommodate oversized chairs or weights of more than 600 pounds.
Passengers pay normal taxi rates, based on the same meters found in any other cab, but drivers receive an additional $2 per trip from the grant funding. The cabs also provide regular service.
Each of the drivers has received special training and a special license from the taxicab commission.
“The thing I learned the most is to understand the obstacles that they have because they’re wheelchair-bound,” said Saleem Abdul-Mateen, who began driving one of the special taxis for Royal Cab when a pilot program was launched last year.
He now has a group of regular passengers who rely on him for trips to Sunday church services and family gatherings.
The ability to call a cab in the District any time of the day is another small advance in opening the world to those who travel in wheelchairs, a population said to number 3.3 million nationwide and more than 12,000 in Washington. Changes range from putting ramps in sidewalk curbs to mandating accessible bathrooms, wheelchair ramps into buildings and other public facilities, and enhancements to almost all modes of transportation.
One of the services that grew out of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act is MetroAccess, offered by Metro. People with disabilities can schedule transportation at a fare determined by the time and distance of their trip (service hours vary by day). The maximum one-way fare was increased to $7 this year — a significant financial drain on Metro because each trip costs the transit system about $40, and use of MetroAccess continues to increase. The service provided 2.1 million trips last year, and Metro projects it will increase to 3.6 million trips by 2014.
The taxi program and funding for it came together through the efforts of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in response to requests from disability advocates. One of those advocates, Robert “Bobby” Coward, came Thursday to a ceremonial announcement of the program.
“It’s a major triumph bringing accessible taxicab service to the District of Columbia,” said Coward, who uses a wheelchair. “Transportation is a major component to independent living that will allow us to re-enter the work force and society.”