The weekend she was supposed to be presenting a plan to improve transit service for people with disabilities using self-driving shuttles, Jen Schlegel was confronting her own problems getting around.

The Ohio State University engineering student had opted for a rolling walker over the wheelchair she sometimes uses, but nonetheless she was late.

“The running joke among my friends is that if you can’t find me, I’m waiting on either a bus or an elevator,” Schlegel said.

Schlegel, 27, never planned to become an engineer — math was not her strongest subject in school, and her family did not expect her to go to college. But as she learned to manage with her cerebral palsy and other health problems, she took up engineering inadvertently.

“You learn to adapt and accommodate to the world,” said Schlegel, a senior. “You start to realize the world is not likely to accommodate for you.”

And in college, she turned her attention to transportation because it was consuming so much of her day and her money. She developed her plan for an automated paratransit system in the hope it would one day be more reliable and more humane than today’s bus networks.

The presentation eventually led to an internship at a division of the Ohio Department of Transportation tasked with preparing the state for a driverless future. Her boss, Rich Granger, said he had heard about Schlegel before the event and made a point to keep in touch after it was over.

“We just needed her perspective in everything we were doing,” he said.

Access from the start

Advocates for people with disabilities are pushing for a major say in how self-driving cars are developed, concerned that if their voices are not heard, they won’t realize the technology’s promise to unlock new economic opportunity and personal freedom. They see opportunity, too, in organizing now, getting involved early to avoid the kind of protracted battles for access to transportation they had to wage in the past and the inelegant designs that often resulted.

“Retrofitting things is always just clunkier,” said Claire Stanley, an advocate at the American Council of the Blind. “If you make something accessible right out of the box, you’re not going to have the flaws with retrofitting.”

The advocates’ efforts have drawn support from senior officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation and among the companies pushing to get self-driving vehicles on the road. In January, the Transportation Department outlined plans to further encourage inventiveness, proposing a $5 million competition to entice teams to design accessible prototypes, part of what the department says is a boost in attention and money for accessibility research.

Finch Fulton, a senior transportation official, told an audience of researchers in Washington that the government wanted to “use all the excitement around technology and all the excitement around automated vehicles to ensure that we’re bringing in the communities of people with disabilities.”

The Labor Department attributes wide disparities in employment rates between people with disabilities and those without at least in part to a lack of access to reliable transportation. About 25 million Americans report having a disability that limits their travel choices, and only about a fifth of those who are of working age hold a job, compared with three-quarters of the rest of the population, according to the Transportation Department.

Problems, solutions

Schlegel, who was born three months premature, has health problems that fluctuate day to day. Sometimes she can walk, sometimes she uses a wheelchair, although she said she prefers a kind of rolling walker called a “rollator.” On days when her mobility isn’t so good, her options for getting around town are winnowed, she said.

At one point, Schlegel began learning to drive, but she decided not to get a license — she wasn’t confident she could always safely keep control of a car.

In many places, cars are the only reliable way to get to work, but federal data shows that people with disabilities drive at much lower rates than those of the rest of the population. So Schlegel said she looks forward to a self-driving future where a computer would be in charge, and she has been envisioning what it ought to look like.

At a frustrating moment in her college career, when her health problems were especially bad, Schlegel was seeking a way to “blow off steam on the weekends.”

Of all the options on offer to college students, she settled on going to events for would-be entrepreneurs and inventors.

“I would pitch one of the problems I was experiencing, that I was trying to solve, and started talking about the solution,” Schlegel said.

It was an approach to life she had turned to before. When she was in high school in Coshocton, Ohio, a small city east of Columbus, an unexplained loss of feeling in one hand threatened her role as a xylophone player in the marching band. So, with a friend, she designed a duct-tape glove that would let her still hold a mallet and play.

“That’s very much how I got into working on accessibility,” Schlegel said.

In the fall of 2018, she turned her attention to paratransit, thinking through the design of an accessible self-driving shuttle and the system that would connect it to riders.

“I don’t necessarily want people to get the impression that all we need for a paratransit system in an autonomous future is to take the current vehicle and make it autonomous,” Schlegel said.

She said she has experienced the seeming thoughtlessness in the designs of some vehicles that are adapted to serve people with disabilities and the severe drawbacks of public paratransit services. For example, service has to be booked well in advance, and limited scheduling information makes it hard to plan. On board, wheelchair restraints are confining.

“Sometimes you can feel very dehumanized,” she said.

An on-demand service in a vehicle that is not constrained by the layout of today’s cars is enticing to people with a range of disabilities. But advocates say there is a broad set of problems that will need to be solved if self-driving vehicles are going to be truly accessible: How will wheelchair users get aboard and secure themselves without help? How will a blind person know exactly where the vehicle is?

And how will the vehicle know whether the drop-off point is safe and accessible? It is no use letting people out in front of a roadside planter that they can’t see or get around.

Uber and Lyft, which are serving as a model for the kinds of robo-taxi services envisioned by the developers of self-driving cars, have opened up new opportunities for blind people, but they have drivers who can provide assistance.

“We do have a way to go before I would fully trust an autonomous vehicle,” Stanley said.

The best hope advocacy groups see for guaranteeing accessibility is having people who have undergone the challenges themselves working on the solutions. But they say the blend of expertise and experience is in short supply at the big automakers.

“If you have somebody with a disability who is an engineer inside, they’re going to get it,” Stanley said.

'Live the challenge'

Part of the job of the Ohio Department of Transportation unit where Schlegel works is helping groom a generation of engineers to work on autonomous vehicles, and she has teamed with other groups of students who are trying to solve accessibility problems. Schlegel said she urges them to impose limitations on themselves — advising them to use a wheelchair all day, rather than for just an hour, so they know what it’s like to be in one when you’re tired.

“I really try to compel them to go live the challenge,” Schlegel said.

The companies developing self-driving cars say they are keen to engage with people with disabilities to ensure that their designs are accessible, and a major auto industry trade group has sponsored get-togethers for engineers and advocates. Schlegel shared ideas last year with May Mobility, a company that is developing low-speed shuttles.

Sarah Abboud, a spokeswoman for Uber, which is testing autonomous vehicles, said the company aims to build on the success it has had helping disabled people get around with its current service. The development team is focused on accessibility, Abboud said, and has been talking to advocacy organizations to get their perspective.

“There’s much more to be done here, and we realize we’re just scratching the surface,” she said.

Several advocacy groups, which have formed an alliance called We Will Ride to present a united front, say they are encouraged by the attention from the U.S. Transportation Department and hope that the new competition will spur innovation. But Carol Tyson, a government affairs liaison for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said the law might have to be changed to guarantee access.

The Americans With Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that guarantees accessible transportation, does not apply to automakers’ vehicle designs. Whether Uber and Lyft — and by extension future self-driving taxi services — have to comply is in dispute.

“It’s unclear whether we’ll see a wider commitment to building fully accessible autonomous vehicles unless it’s required,” said Tyson, pointing to a decade-long battle before the law’s passage to overcome resistance to getting lifts on buses.

Schlegel, whose college work earned her a $100,000 prize from the university, said she is still figuring out what role she wants to play after graduating. She has long dreamed of going to medical school, an ambition she knows will come with yet more problems to solve.

“I’m going off script,” she said. “I’m seeing where this all takes me.”