In part 2 of a special 2-episode series on mobility access for people with disabilities, Anna Zivarts of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington recognizes the limitations on data in her advocacy by complementing it with lived experiences and stories.
Episode 129: Data Is Not a Constituent
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Zivarts: Anna Zivarts
Cohen: A quarter of Washington State residents cannot drive. How does that impact their ability to go to the store, to work, to see friends? The stories of these individuals aren’t always valued. That’s why Anna Zivarts does what she does. You’ll meet her coming up next on this special episode of The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: Anna Zivarts is the director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Program with Disability Rights Washington. And Anna played an important role in helping to make last week’s episode a reality by introducing us to last week’s guests, Zack, Micah, Tanisha, and Krystal. So thank you, Anna, and welcome to The Movement podcast.
Zivarts: Thank you. And thanks for reaching out and interviewing all our Storymap folks. It was wonderful to hear their voices.
Jensen: Well, Anna, we’re excited to have you, and we are going to get into a little bit more about last week’s episode and your thoughts on it. But why don’t we go ahead and start by introducing you and the work you do at Disability Rights Washington?
Zivarts: Awesome. So, yeah, I’m the director of the Disability Mobility Initiative. And we’re a new, newish program housed within Disability Rights Washington. We’re a statewide program, and we do advocacy around transportation access, in particular focused on folks who can’t drive. We know that a quarter of our state, our state’s population, are folks who can’t drive either because they don’t have a driver’s license, they’re too young, they’re too old, they can’t afford a car, they’re disabled or chronically ill, and so we want to ensure that everyone in our state can get where we need to go, and those of us who can’t drive are included in that.
Cohen: Yeah, I think that definitely was a theme that came up in the episode last week, and we’ll turn to that in a minute, but I want to dig into that a little bit. So you mention a quarter of the state—did you say can’t drive or doesn’t drive?
Zivarts: Yeah, I mean, so from what we can pull based on driver’s licenses, that’s a quarter of our state population, doesn’t have a driver’s license.
Zivarts: And so we wish we had better information than that. Unfortunately, you know, the Census and American Community Survey look at cars per household, but that erases a lot of, you know, the detail of who within a household has access to a car. And so—you know, or individuals, you know, households that have multiple cars, more cars than individuals.
Zivarts: You know, you just—we don’t actually know. And part of it’s that we’re not actually counting and paying attention to that, even though it can really impact someone’s ability to have a job, go to school, have friends, be involved in their community. And we just—we’re not really looking at that carefully.
Jensen: And I guess it doesn’t really matter whether they can drive or choose not to drive. At the end of the day these are people who are not using cars to get around, so they need to have access somehow, someway.
Zivarts: Exactly. Right. Yeah, I mean, and some people, you know, like me, I can’t drive. I can’t get a driver’s license, but there’s other folks who, you know, may have a driver’s license and have decided, you know, because they have a progressive health condition or something just temporary, they can’t drive. There’s folks—right—who can’t afford to drive, can’t afford to drive all the time, can’t afford the parking, can’t afford the gas, can’t afford the insurance. You know, there’s lots of reasons people don’t have access to the system that we’ve, you know, designed our entire communities around for the most part.
And it’s a system that’s failing us, and this is something that we sort of bigger-picture believe. You know, it’s not only failing those of us who can’t access it because we can’t drive, but it’s also failing us as far as climate, and it’s failing us as far as public health, air quality, and water quality, and traffic collisions and crashes and deaths. So we really think that there is a better system out there and we can be the leaders in helping us develop that rethought-of transformation transportation system.
Cohen: I don’t think this actually—part of this didn’t make it into the episode last week because we had so many good conversations that we couldn’t include everything, but I know, for instance, Micah lives in a much more kind of dense part of Seattle. And Zack, I think, has moved to a more rural area. And I believe I saw a video. I think he might have posted a video on one of his social media channels about his experience walking to the—it was either the bus stop or the local store. I can’t remember which. And it just—you know, it was just so harrowing just to kind of see the experience that he had to make just to walk there along a very busy, not grade protected place to walk.
So he, as a visually impaired person, is having to walk along a busy road with no way for him to know when
he might accidentally veer into traffic because there’s no sidewalk, there’s no protection whatsoever. And that’s just—that’s astounding. So, I mean, I think we have different challenges depending on where you are in the state. Right?
Zivarts: Exactly. Right. And, I think, in Seattle and in Washington State and so many places in our country right now it’s become increasingly desirable to live in dense, walkable areas that are served well by transit. And what that means is that the housing prices in those areas, frankly, are unaffordable to a lot of low-income folks, and a lot of disabled folks are low income. And so, you know, in talking to Zack—and this didn’t make it in the video that I did with him either, but he used to live in Olympia. He’s lived in Seattle. He would prefer to live in a more dense, urban area, but he can’t afford to.
Micah, you know, pays a huge rent cost for living in the walkable part of Seattle that he lives in. You know, when I went out to visit Zack I biked along that highway, and it’s a highway to the nearest Safeway, which is also where the transit stop is. And it’s close. It’s less than, I think, half a mile, but it’s a shoulder of this road, and there was all this debris from car crashes that you kind of had to skirt around, like broken, you know, pieces of whatever. And I saw other people walking along, because it’s this park-and-ride. It’s a big, big center area, and yet, you know, there’s no sidewalk. And so much of our state is like that. Right? There’s no sidewalks and yet there’s people who live and who can’t drive currently. And there’s other people who maybe can drive but would like to be able to walk or roll to the nearest grocery store, to go for a run, to go for a bike ride, to be able to ride transit, and we just haven’t made those investments to make it possible.
Cohen: Do you have a sense on what the cost of those investments would be? I mean, obviously, finding the money is one thing, but even just to say, like, to have a safe place for Zack to walk. We talked with, you know, with Tanisha and Krystal about their experiences using wheelchairs to get around and how they’ve gotten stuck in different places and have to navigate gravel or navigate hills, so forth. Do you have any sense on, like, I don’t—it’s not even deferred maintenance, it’s just, like, to get up to a state of good repair almost or a state of good access. I don’t know. I don’t know the right way to describe that.
Zivarts: So we have a little bit of an idea. The state actually did this analysis recently, an active transportation plan, where they looked at all the gaps in access on state-owned roads and bridges. And so that is, the total to fix those gaps as they define them, is $5.7 billion, which is not really that much.
Zivarts: But that doesn’t look at all the county and local roads. And so, you know, we need to do that kind of analysis for the local jurisdictions as well, but we’re, you know, we don’t have that information. One thing that we’re actually pushing for is there’s also no analysis at the state level of where all the missing curb ramps are, where are all the missing accessible pedestrian signals for crossing intersections, like, and for the first time our state has actually started to require local jurisdictions to submit their ADA transition plans. Right?
It’s been 30-plus years since the ADA passed, and yet jurisdictions haven’t figured out or haven’t published how they’re going to get their right-of-ways into compliance with the law. Right? And so as a state we’re finally starting to require them to be submitted to the state, and then we’re really hoping the state can do some sort of analysis combining that with where are we missing sidewalks—right—where are we missing safe crossings, for every right-of-way through the state, not just the state-owned ones.
Jensen: Well, I’m really surprised. I didn’t realize that the ADA only passed 30 years ago. I feel like, “Wow. So we’ve only started caring about people with disabilities 30 years ago? That’s absurd.” But you mentioned, you know, curb cuts and sidewalks. This was something that came up a lot in our conversations last week, so thank you so much for introducing us to Zack, Micah, Tanisha, and Krystal. Again, those were such amazing and insightful conversations that we were able to have. Now that you’ve had a chance to listen to the podcast, what were your reactions?
Zivarts: First of all, I was just—it was so exciting to hear them all and hear—I think, you know, that disabled people often get condescended to and don’t get included in conversations and aren’t taken seriously as experts in the things that impact our lives. Like, our lived experience doesn’t get counted as knowledge. And hearing them all share what they know about the transportation space, I think, is revolutionary in some ways because I think that’s what it’s going to take to get us to a more inclusive place. Right? Both, you know, bringing people in but also just transforming the way we make investments and what we prioritize. And so I think that was the first step.
And, you know, part of our work, we’ve been—you know, we did this Storymap where we interviewed over 120 people now from Washington State to have those stories highlighted. And the folks that you spoke to last week are all people who got brought into that process. And we’re hoping to ensure that that knowledge, like, goes beyond just people sharing their stories in this feel-good way but is actually seen as expertise in the transportation planning world. That should be valued and should be—you know, if it’s not there in the conversation, it’s missing, and that is a failure. And so we need to start ensuring that people can be brought into those conversations, so.
I have some thoughts about ways to do that, but, you know, thank you guys for starting that here, because I think it should be the standard. Right? It shouldn’t be acceptable to leave those—to leave our voices out anymore.
Cohen: Well, we want to get some of those ideas in a minute, but before we get there, I wanted to maybe circle around something, which is we’ve—L’erin, you and I have kind of circled this a little bit over the course of the last couple weeks, which is this balance between data and stories. And, I guess, you know, obviously it’s super important that, you know, we have important data about, you know, the number of places that are missing curb cuts or missing sidewalks. Right? Data is important. Right? It’s a good way to keep track of what’s working and what’s not. But what’s also important are stories—right—because data doesn’t have that oomph. Right?
Data doesn’t make you feel emotional. Right? Stories make you feel emotional. Stories bring you to that. And so I’m glad that you’re doing the Storymap project because I hope that that is a way to kind of, again, pair some of the data that you already have and that you collect through your work but also pair that with those stories. Is that kind of part of that value as well?
Zivarts: That is. Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, data isn’t a constituent, and someone with a story is. Right? And that starts to allow us to build political power. And for us that’s what we’re trying to do here.
Cohen: Hmm. That’s a good way to put it.
Zivarts: And, you know, I mean, one thing we thought about, you know, after—we started this, you know, being a very qualitative story mapping thing because we saw it as an organizing tool and as a way to bring people in and get them involved and, you know, get their voices starting to be heard. And then after the fact we realized that, “Oh, my gosh. This is a lot of knowledge, and we should be using this in other ways,” and having it be sort of institutionalized. And so we’ve actually—and we’re just about to release in the next week or two a whitepaper based on the knowledge that is in those stories. And it’s not necessarily quantitative, but it’s still—there’s so much detail and so much insight that we think there’s a lot to be learned and a lot of recommendations that can be drawn from that.
And the other thing about data too and in talking about disability, you know, I think there’s still a ton of stigma around identifying as disabled. It was something that I struggled with, you know, until my 30s even though I’ve had, you know, my same eye condition my whole life. And so I think it’s important to be able to talk about access needs in a way that people can feel like they can share their stories and don’t necessarily have to identify as disabled or part of the disability community, because there’s a lot of reasons people don’t want to do that, and those are fine. And so we—it’s important to, I think, be able to think about this broadly and not try to make boxes where people may or may not fit, because when we can show that what we’re doing has broader impact, that’s how we can build more power.
Cohen: Mmm. Yeah, I mean, I think that definitely came up in a conversation I had with Chris Pangilinan who works at Uber now and used to work with TransitCenter in New York City. And while he was there he did a report about elevator access in the New York City subways and obviously how important that is for folks who might need a wheelchair. But—man—anybody with a cane, anybody with a stroller, like, there are tons and tons and tons and tons of people that need access to those platforms without using stairs. And, you know, and unfortunately there’s been obviously fatalities. A woman was carrying her stroller and, I believe, fell down the steps. And it’s just horrible. But I think you highlight kind of that point, which is if it can work for someone who has a disability, it also works for everybody. And, like, I guess I’m just flummoxed that we haven’t yet internalized that as a culture.
Zivarts: Yeah. No, and I think it’s also, you know, in folks who work in sort of the disability space, because of the ADA—and I think there’s this desire to be like, “Well, we have these special rights, and we want to make sure that they get protected,” to not think more broadly and not try to build those sort of coalitions and fight for bigger things that benefit all of us or not frame it that way, even though that’s what it’s actually doing.
And so I do—I think politically and tactically that we absolutely have to be building those coalitions and working with—you know, for us that means working with environmental justice groups here in Washington State that also see how cars are impacting low-income and BIPOC communities through air pollution. Right? And we can work together to ensure that we build the infrastructure so less people have to drive and more people have access to walking and rolling and transit. But, you know, that isn’t sort of the traditional approach to access for, you know, disability advocacy.
Jensen: I mean, and I guess if we need a more self-serving reason, I believe it was Tanisha who said last week, you know, the disability community is the one community that any of us can become a part of at any time. So if we’re unable to look beyond serving our own needs, that’s another way to flip it and say, “Hey, like, no, this is—yes, helping the most marginalized in our communities doesn’t just benefit those groups; it benefits everyone.” But if we don’t have the capacity for empathy, well, think about it, “This could happen to me.”
Zivarts: Yeah. No, I think that’s true. And I think, you know, one thing we’re not talking about very much as a society is how, as folks are aging out of driving, how do our communities serve them. And we know it happens to most folks. I think, you know, AARP, livable communities folks talk about how most folks have 10 years of their life where they’re not able to drive. I think that’s the average. And so, you know, how—but people who do drive—like, I think of my parents—the thought of not driving is so terrifying that they’re not really willing to think about or plan or advocate for spaces, you know, build environments, communities where that could work for them and they could continue to live, you know, as part of community.
And so I really think it’ll be interesting to see as the demographic shift in the next couple of years and many in, you know, that generation age out of driving what does that mean. Will it give us as non-drivers more political power or will they choose to, you know, sort of self isolate in retirement communities where, you know, someone drives them and they lose that freedom?
Cohen: Mmm. Or what kind of impact it has on the built community as far as housing and so froth? Like, do we choose to prioritize more, you know, mixed housing kind of or infill or something like that in order to kind of make it easier for us to take advantage of some of the existing infrastructure that’s already there, existing transit service, existing social service? And potentially if we get enough of that, that might blunt a little bit of the cost issue that you raised earlier.
Zivarts: Yeah. No, exactly. And, yeah, I mean, but it really is, like, “How do we get that housing?” Because it is not affordable, you know, for many folks to move into cities right now where there is that walk and roll ability. And so how do we get there, and how do we get there quickly?
Jensen: So, Anna, what else do we need to be doing in order to bring about, like, this, the needed change that gives equitable access or to allow for more equitable access for all people with disabilities?
Zivarts: Well, first, I guess a little bit of a disclaimer on all people with disabilities. Because, so we are very much focused on non-drivers. And there are many folks with disabilities who can and do drive. And we chose, you know, strategically and politically to work in this space of folks who don’t drive because it allowed us to work in coalition with folks, other kinds of folks who don’t drive who aren’t necessarily disabled. Right? And we felt like it was the space that we wanted to work in.
And frankly, you know, the folks, you know, who can drive tend to have more privilege in our community, in the disability community just because they can afford, you know, a vehicle that’s—it’s really expensive to get a wheelchair accessible van or a van that has, a car that has, you know, hand controls. Like, those things aren’t cheap. And so that’s the space we’re working in.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Sure.
Zivarts: I would frame this as, like, non-drivers just broadly, because the changes that we’re advocating for are, you know, are really beneficial to anyone who doesn’t drive. And frankly, you know, we know that if we’re going to try to get our carbon emission levels to a more survivable level, more of us need to be non-drivers—right—or non-drivers more of the time. And so, you know, we think that we’re doing this not just for us but for everyone really and that this leadership that we can bring can serve public health and climate goals much more broadly.
But I think, you know, what we need—[SIGHS]—I mean, mostly it comes down to funding, but I think it comes down to political power, and I think it comes down to inclusion, those three things. And so, you know, for political power, I think, part of it is being counted. I think people don’t realize how many people within every community don’t drive. I think there’s this assumption that, “Well, okay. If you live in New York City or another big city, maybe there’s a lot of people who don’t drive, but otherwise almost everyone drives.” And that really isn’t the case. When you look at—you know, when you count disabled folks, when you count seniors, when you count young folks, when you count folks who can’t afford to drive, there’s a lot more of us out there. But our voices aren’t being heard because we tend to be, you know, isolated at home, not wealthy. We’re mostly invisible, and we have to change that.
And then I think the other part is inclusion in transportation planning. And that, you know, that’s kind of easier in some ways. Like, it’s not that hard for transit agencies to stop requiring driver’s licenses for jobs that they don’t need to—you know, transit and transportation agencies. We keep on finding examples of jobs here that are like planner jobs, you know, data jobs that require driver’s licenses for transit agencies and transportation departments. And we’ve been pointing them out. And it’s illegal technically. But it’s also, you know—if you have that requirement in there, automatically you’re excluding a lot of people that have a lot of really brilliant lived experience that could come to your transportation agency and, you know, bring that to the job.
So that’s a very low-bar, easy thing that folks in the transportation world can do. And we’ve heard that, you know, a lot of times it’s just like a default in the HR settings. And so go in and change the default. Don’t have that driver’s-license box checked. Don’t have the requirement-to-lift-50-pounds box checked. Uncheck those, and maybe that will start to allow you to bring more people into your organization.
Cohen: You know, it makes me think that, like, how much of this, these barriers are just people not paying attention, for lack of a better word—right—like, not realizing that you’ve got these checked boxes that are checked on your HR software. And, again, that stuff has real cost. Right? Like, when people see job postings and they say, “Well, I don’t qualify for everything,” then they say, “Well, I can’t apply,” when in reality, you know, I think there’s some research that says, like, men tend to look at that and say, “Sure, I’ll apply,” and women tend to look at that and say, “I won’t apply.” Right? That’s why we need to make sure that only the stuff that really matters should be on there. Right? Holy smokes.
Zivarts: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I mean, folks have pointed out, like, “Well, you can apply and request a reasonable accommodation.” And it’s like, I don’t know. Every time I’ve seen it on a job posting, I’m just like, “Well, they don’t want me.” [LAUGHS] Right? So, yeah.
Jensen: The thing about driver’s licenses on job applications is really interesting because when I worked at NC State I actually had to have a driver’s license to work there as well. Like, they called me about it because my North Carolina driver’s license was, like, not that old or whatever. And they were like, “They usually want someone with a license history longer than this.” I’m thinking, “What the heck do I need a driver’s license for? I’m sitting in an office all day.”
Cohen: What were you doing? Oh, you were sitting in—
Jensen: I was a communications coordinator.
Cohen: Oh, wow.
Jensen: Yeah. I thought that—you know, and for me, like, the consequences were different, but for someone who can’t get one, like, they would have been out of a job, like they wouldn’t have been able to do that, for no reason, because there’s no reason why I needed to have a license for that job. I literally just sat in an office.
Cohen: Who—somebody’s job was to call you and hassle you about that?
Jensen: Yeah. Yeah.
Cohen: Holy smokes.
Cohen: I’m blown away by this. That’s insane. I—you know, but Anna, to get back to your point before, I actually think that might be the most insidious part of this, which is that that feeling that, “Oh, I don’t belong here because they don’t care about me.” Right? Like, to me, that’s the most insidious part of this, because that’s the kind of thing that goes home with you. Right? I mean, that’s not just, “Oh, well, okay, well, that’s not a job,” but, like, that feeling of not even being wanted, I think, even if it’s, like, accidental, even if we give everybody the benefit of the doubt and say, “Oh, they just screwed up that checkbox,” that’s still a horrible feeling to put people through.
Zivarts: Yeah, and I think that’s the feeling, you know, non-drivers have when we’re out experiencing the infrastructure in our communities so often. Right? Like, if there’s not a sidewalk, if you have to try to dash across, you know, six lanes of highway or whatever suburban road because there’s not a crosswalk for a mile—right—like, it’s that same feeling and that feeling that you feel every day where you’re kind of invisible. And, I think—yeah, I mean, part of and a big part of the work we’re doing is connecting people to each other so that people are like, “Oh, yeah. I’m not the only one in my community who doesn’t have a car,” that there are a lot of other folks out there as well. And, you know, in that, we can start to have more of a voice and shape things.
And, you know, the other thing too is that, I think, when you’re always in, you know, experiencing that, you know, waiting at a bus stop where there’s no bench or no shelter or, you know, like, these daily—for people who can drive, for the most part the transportation system—right—works pretty well. I was a part of these planning calls with our state department of transportation, and somehow I got randomly assigned to one with a bunch of agriculture folks. And, you know, the person who was asking questions was like, “What are your big issues?” You know, and they’re like, “Well, I don’t think we have—transportation is great. We don’t have any problems.” And I was like, “Yeah, because it’s designed to work, you know, for you.” And for those of us who it’s not designed to work for, you know, there’s a million things we could suggest to change that would be easy and that would make it a little bit, you know, more pleasant and more comfortable.
And because of that I found that, you know, often transportation kind of, you know, it’s seen as this super nerdy, wonky thing and maybe not the most exciting thing to engage in. But if you talk with non-drivers, it is so critical and people are so passionate about it. And that’s true for me, and that’s true for everyone, I think, you guys interviewed and everyone in our Storymap. Like, transportation access, if you can’t drive, becomes something that you think about a lot and you care very deeply about and are very knowledgeable about. And it’s—you know, that knowledge and that excitement and that energy should be tapped to transform our, I think, our transportation system.
Cohen: Hmm. Wow. Wow. Anna, this has been amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for being a part of this special series here to make sure we focused our efforts on the lived experiences of Zack and Micah and Tanisha and Krystal, as well as kind of bringing in your perspective as an advocate and someone who is looking at the experiences of non-drivers there in Washington State and thinking about what can we do to make this experience as equal or better than the experience that drivers have. So I am grateful for your time and effort and to helping tell these stories in the Storymap and through the rest of your work with the Disability Mobility Initiative. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
Zivarts: Thank you. Yeah, it’s been wonderful to chat, and—yeah—get to share the work that I am so excited about.
Jensen: Thank you. This has been a great conversation.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
Read more about how improving access for persons with disabilities improves access for everyone in this blog post on barriers to freedom of movement.