Charter for Fun: Private Bus Companies and the ADA

Joe Zesski April 26, 2020

For people with disabilities, travel often involves much more planning and preparation than for someone without a disability. This is no less true for travel by charter or tour bus, such as a bus operator that is hired to take a group to New York City for the day or to Atlantic City for some summer fun.

Private providers of on-demand transportation using over-the-road buses (OTRB) are covered under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When you are getting ready to use this type of service, it can be helpful to know what should be expected of the bus operator under the ADA. For our purposes, I will touch just on where the ADA intersects with the actual experience of riding this type of bus. There are other obligations for Title III entities under the ADA that apply to these companies as a whole, but I will not address all of these here.

First, it is important to realize that not every vehicle of one of these carriers may be accessible. A large OTRB company should have had all lift-equipped accessible buses as of October 29, 2012. For a small OTRB company, however, it is possible that not every bus will be accessible. It may be a financial burden for some of these small operators to immediately replace their older inaccessible vehicles with new accessible ones. Under the Department of Transportation regulations, such companies should be purchasing or leasing accessible vehicles as they retire old vehicles.

If you are a traveler who uses a wheelchair, it is important to plan ahead and to call 48 hours in advance to request a lift-equipped bus to guarantee accessible service. A company that cannot offer a lift-equipped bus for a requested reservation with advance notice is still obligated to provide equivalent service. An operator might do this by contracting with another company to provide a vehicle or to perform the trip.

Note also that it is important for the traveler using a wheelchair to know if their chair fits the Department of Transportation’s ADA regulations definition of wheelchair. “Wheelchair means a mobility aid belonging to any class of three- or more-wheeled devices, usable indoors, designed or modified for and used by individuals with mobility impairments, whether operated manually or powered.” (CFR 37.3) As per the Department of Transportation’s Final Rule, 9-28-2011: a transit provider must carry a wheelchair and its user if the vehicle and its lift can physically accommodate them unless to do so would pose a legitimate safety risk. Consequently, if you use a particularly large mobility device, it could be wise to speak with the provider prior to the boarding date to eliminate any potential issues.

Beyond the basic requirement of access to its services, an OTRB operator does have several obligations under the ADA. It must make annual reports to the Federal Motor Coach Administration (FMCA) on its services, vehicles, and requests for accessible transportation. Another requirement is for OTRB companies to train their staff, including drivers, on the ADA. Drivers should know how to properly interact with a customer with a disability as well as how and when it is appropriate to assist a passenger with a disability. Yet even with this training, a traveler with a disability must know to ask for any needed assistance or accommodations. Yet another ADA regulation is that an OTRB company is responsible for maintaining wheelchair lifts and securement equipment in proper working order. A driver should check any equipment prior to a known trip with a passenger using a wheelchair. And if a traveler uses a service animal, it must be permitted to accompany the individual on the bus. The handler must make certain that the service animal behaves appropriately as with its work in other public accommodations. 

All these requirements support the principle in Title III of the ADA that a covered entity not discriminate against an individual on the basis of his or her disability in the equal enjoyment of services. With pre-planning and knowledge of their rights and responsibilities, a traveler with a disability should be able to access service on a charter or tour bus trip. For additional reading on the ADA and intercity OTRB bus companies, you can read the Motor Coach Operator’s ADA Pocket Guide produced by Easter Seals Project Action. It is a valuable resource for both individuals with disabilities and for transportation providers.

Joe Zesski became the New Jersey affiliate of the Northeast ADA Center in 2009. He provides ADA technical assistance and conducts trainings as needed. He is the Community Education Coordinator at Resources for Independent Living, a disability advocacy organization in Burlington, New Jersey. In this capacity, he builds community relationships between Resources for Independent Living and other disability related organizations. He develops and delivers presentations on a variety of disability related topics to interested groups. He has an extensive background working with youth with disabilities to prepare them to enter the workforce or college, to know about community resources, to understand their rights, and to learn how to self-advocate. He serves as the Chair of the Burlington County Disability Issues Committee. Prior to his work in the disability field, Joe received his Bachelors degree in English Communications from Cabrini College and a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University.