Senate committee advances bills to improve transportation services for persons on the autism spectrum and with intellectual and developmental disabilities

The Senate Transportation Committee on Monday unanimously released two bills designed to make transportation services more accessible for all residents and to enhance the ability of persons on the autism spectrum and with intellectual and developmental disabilities to travel independently.

Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, sponsored the bipartisan legislation along with Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic.

“Public transportation is vital for so many New Jerseyans, especially for those in our disabled community,” Diegnan said.

“These individuals deserve to travel independently, and it’s up to us to do everything we can to identify ways to increase their access and familiarity with various public transportation services.”

The first bill, S146/A3328, which Assemblywoman Shama Haider, D-Bergen, sponsored in the lower house, requires all transportation research contracts into which the New Jersey Transportation Research Bureau enters to include a provision that the transportation and mobility needs of state residents with physical, sensory, intellectual, and developmental disabilities be considered.

The second bill, S147/A116, of which Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson, is the first prime sponsor in the lower house, would require the New Jersey Department of Transportation to implement a complete streets policy to:

  • Consider and implement design elements and infrastructure improvement projects that promote the ability of persons diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities to travel independently through universal design concepts that advance mobility options for those individuals. 

  • Plan, design, construct, maintain, and operate new and rehabilitated public highways and public transportation projects to provide safe access for the aforementioned individuals and all other users including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and individuals with mobility impairments. 

  • Develop guidance and policies for the incorporation of the aforementioned universal design concepts into the planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operation of new and rehabilitated public highways and public transportation projects.

  • Encourage regional and local entities that apply for funding through the complete streets local aid program to adopt a policy consistent with the bill.

Both bills are headed to the full Senate for a vote and have been referred to the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.

“These new requirements for our transportation agencies have the potential to change the lives of people with disabilities who have difficulty navigating our current public road and transit infrastructure,” Corrado said.

“(This) legislation will make sure that anytime new public infrastructure projects are proposed, or modifications to existing ones are considered, we will put the mobility needs of disabled New Jerseyans front and center. All New Jersey residents, especially those with disabilities, should feel safe and confident when using the roads and public transit systems in this state.”

The Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, The Arc of New Jersey (ARCNJ) and Devereux New Jersey are among those who have expressed support for the legislation.

“Transportation challenges are among the top issues we hear about from individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Sharon Levine, director of governmental affairs for ARCNJ, testified during Monday’s Senate Transportation Committee meeting.

“For those with IDD, living independently, trying to maintain competitive employment in the community, socializing with friends and family – that’s only possible with the right transportation. That means that it has to be affordable, accessible and reliable. Without that type of transportation, family members and direct support professionals are forced to fill the gaps when it comes to transportation.”

The bills are fittingly being considered during National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, a campaign designed to heighten consciousness about inclusion and understanding and to help individuals with developmental disabilities lead productive and fulfilling lives.

Based on national estimates, approximately 178,000 children and adults in New Jersey have an intellectual or developmental disability, according to a proclamation from Gov. Phil Murphy declaring March Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in the Garden State.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 1 in 6 children 3 through 16 years of age nationwide have at least one developmental disability.

Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas, according to the CDC. The conditions may impact day-to-day functioning and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.

Intellectual disabilities limit a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life, the CDC states. Levels of intellectual disability vary greatly in children and can originate any time before birth or prior to a child turning 18 years of age.

One in 44 children nationwide has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC. New Jersey has the country’s second highest rate of autism with 1 in 35 children identified.

New Jersey adults on the autism spectrum face significant challenges getting to and from their jobs, schools, medical appointments, and social and community engagements, according to a Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT) study.

The CAIT study found “transportation barriers of adults with autism spectrum disorder are not limited to public transportation issues but are also related to walking, driving, the locales where they reside, the schools and day programs they attend, the training they receive on various aspects of life, and also certain limitations that are imposed by their disabilities.”

Diegnan said those same barriers exist for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Of the hundreds of adults with autism surveyed as part of the two-year CAIT study, 68 percent relied on parents or friends for transportation, with 72 percent of those individuals reporting they missed some activities due to the unavailability of rides.

The study also found adults on the autism spectrum don’t have access to public transit or lack the familiarity and/or skills to safely use such services.

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