Workshop on independent wheelchair travel, in collaboration with DREDF

What does independent wheelchair travel look like today, and how might it look in the future with rapidly changing vehicle technology?

Workshop facilitator speaking to group

May 22, 2019
Contributed by: Lillian Xiao and Hamish Tennent

Last November, we explored this question by hosting a workshop in collaboration with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF). Attendees who use power wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs and other mobility aids joined us for a full day of interactive discussion at the Ed Roberts Campus, a uniquely accessible center for disability organizations located above the Ashby BART accessible transit hub in Berkeley, California.

As part of our Inclusive Mobility initiative, the workshop served as an examination of independent wheelchair travel today. By understanding this, we can begin exploring what independent wheelchair travel might be like in the future with advances in vehicle technology, including automated vehicle technology.

Before the workshop, one of our biggest questions centered around automation versus human assistance for those who want to travel independently using a wheelchair. When it comes to entering, exiting, and securing wheelchairs and their occupants, which aspects can be automated and which aspects may still require the assistance of another person?

Our workshop was a way to explore this question, through a series of semi-structured activities to inspire discussion around the use of privately-owned vehicles, public transportation, ride hailing services, and paratransit services. By drawing upon different modes of transportation, we hoped to identify opportunities for improvement when designing automated vehicles and services.

Below, we share some of our learnings:

Both wheelchair and occupant securement are key areas of focus when designing future wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs)

There are a variety of wheelchair designs—across categories of power and manual wheelchairs—and a diverse range of human physiques. Therefore, a major focus will likely be designing securement systems that are simple to use and, at the same time, will address important safety considerations for a variety of passengers and their wheelchairs.

Some attendees viewed their mobility aids as an extension of their body, describing concern for how manual wheelchairs, for example, were folded, stored, and occasionally damaged by drivers and vehicle operators. Additionally, some securement systems today require specialized training to use correctly, but it is often unclear whether these systems are used properly and, therefore, could benefit from additional feedback mechanisms.

Finally, some possible solutions exist for more automated wheelchair securement. However, many of them are only suitable for specially-outfitted vehicles or particular kinds of transportation solutions and are not able to be used by everyone or in every type of vehicle. As such, we think there is room for many of them to be refined or improved.

Designers and engineers will need to keep these, and many other, factors in mind when designing future securement systems.

There’s a need for on-demand mobility services for people who use wheelchairs

With on-demand mobility, wheelchair users find that few mobility providers offer vehicles and services that fit their needs. In fact, many on-demand mobility services do not offer comparable service for wheelchair users. In order to help make independent travel possible, we need to consider both vehicle solutions and service models that adapt to changing schedules and are able to efficiently get passengers to where they need to go.


We are grateful for the support of DREDF in making this workshop a reality. We would additionally like to thank everyone who attended and who shared their experiences with our team.

This workshop is part of our Inclusive Mobility initiative to engage community members in the different stages of research, design and development.

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