Passenger Assistance and Customer Service

This section of the toolkit provides an overview of passenger assistance and sensitivity requirements under the U.S. DOT ADA regulations, as well as good customer service practices and tips for serving customers with various disabilities.  The information is organized into the following subsections:


Unless stated otherwise, the information in this section is based on U.S. Department of Transportation regulation 49 CFR Part 37 - Transportation Services for Individuals with Disabilities (ADA), FTA Circular 4710.1, Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA): Guidance, and the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center’s (NADTC) Transit Operator’s Pocket Guide.


Personnel Training Requirements

Customer service and sensitivity are very important when serving persons with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations include specific training requirements for assisting these customers. From Section 37.173 – Training Requirements: 

“Each public or private entity which operates a fixed route or demand responsive system shall ensure that personnel are trained to proficiency, as appropriate to their duties, so that they operate vehicles and equipment safely and properly assist and treat individuals with disabilities who use the service in a respectful and courteous way, with appropriate attention to the difference among individuals with disabilities.”

For example, drivers need to be able to properly operate wheelchair lifts, ramps, and securement equipment, and know what to do in emergencies when serving passengers with disabilities. Personnel also must be trained on how to assist these customers respectfully and with sensitivity to their different abilities and needs.

The training requirement applies to all public and private transportation providers. Transit agencies that contract for services need to ensure that the employees of contractors are trained to proficiency. 

Section 2.9.1 of the FTA ADA Circular provides examples of personnel training topics appropriate for different responsibilities.  The following examples are related to passenger assistance and sensitivity:

  • Drivers – Properly operating all accessibility equipment and features; providing appropriate assistance to individuals with disabilities with boarding, alighting, and securement; communicating effectively with individuals with different types of disabilities; making stop announcements and route identification announcements; and positioning the bus so that the lift or ramp can be safely deployed and used.
  • Customer service agents, designated employees who respond to complaints, and call-takers – Communicating effectively with individuals with different types of disabilities; explaining the complaint-resolution process; and providing service information (e.g., routes, schedules, and fares) with special attention to the needs of individuals with disabilities.  This includes use of text telephone (TTY) relay services to communicate with individuals with speech and hearing disabilities. 
  • Vehicle dispatchers – Understanding all operating policies and procedures to effectively and properly assign and route vehicles, assisting drivers on issues that arise pertaining to accessible service, and communicating effectively with individuals with different types of disabilities.
  • Managers and supervisors – Understanding all operating policies and procedures and supervising employees to ensure they provide proper and consistent levels of service to individuals with disabilities.

As discussed in Section 2.9.2 of the FTA ADA Circular and Appendix D to 49 CFR Part 37, FTA encourages transit agencies to collaborate with local disability organizations for assistance with employee training. Involving individuals with disabilities in agency training programs helps to demonstrate appropriate types of assistance and provides a forum for discussion of what does and does not work in practice.

A.C.C.E.S.S. Matters, a sensitivity training video for transit operators developed by Easter Seals Project ACTION, can be obtained from the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center.   Note that this video has not been approved or endorsed by FTA.


Customer Service Guidelines

Here are some important customer service guidelines for serving passengers with disabilities, adapted from the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center’s Transit Operator’s Pocket Guide unless otherwise noted.

General Guidelines for All Customers

  • Treat customers with disabilities with courtesy and respect.
  • Give customers with disabilities the same information and choices you give other customers.
  • Never make assumptions about your customers’ physical or intellectual abilities.
  • Ask customers if they need assistance—don’t assume. 
  • Do not touch customers without their permission.
  • Speak directly to customers, not their companions. 
  • Speak clearly with a normal tone and speed, unless the customer requests otherwise. 
  • If you are asked to repeat or write what you said, do so calmly and pleasantly. 
  • Be patient and allow customers to take their time.  Respond in a calm, professional manner.

Communication Tips

As stated in the Transit Operator’s Pocket Guide, communication with people with disabilities follows the basic rules of customer service and good manners.    

  • Emphasize the person, not the disability.  Use person-first language, such as “people with disabilities” instead of “the disabled.” 
  • Greet passengers and inform them of your bus route and destination.  Announcing both the route and destination at stops served by multiple routes assists customers with visual impairments as well as customers unfamiliar with the route, bus stop or general area.  
  • Refer to landmarks or other visual cues to help the passenger understand direction.
  • Be willing to repeat information and break information down into smaller pieces.
  • When passengers are disembarking, alert passengers to any barriers or obstacles around the bus stop.

There are also specific guidelines that personnel should be trained on for assisting individuals with different types of disabilities. Here are some tips for staff to keep in mind when serving the following populations, adapted from the Transit Operator’s Pocket Guide except where otherwise noted. 

Serving Customers who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Face customers when speaking to them, and don’t let objects obstruct their view. 
  • Do not raise your voice – doing so distorts your lip movement and makes lip reading difficult. 
  • Be sure to notify the customer of schedule changes or audible announcements.

Serving Customers with Vision Disabilities

  • Identify yourself and ask how you may be of assistance
  • Respond verbally when customers give you information so they will know that you have heard them.
  • Remember to announce the customer’s stop.
  • If handling a monetary transaction, count the customer’s change out loud.

Serving Customers Who Use Wheelchairs and Other Mobility Aids

  • Ask customers how you can assist them.
  • Wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and other mobility devices are part of the customer’s personal space. Do not hold or lean on them without the customer’s permission.
  • Make no assumptions on how to operate mobility aids.

For more information, see the Accommodating Riders Who Use Mobility Devices page of this toolkit.

Serving Customers Who Use Service Animals

  • If drivers are unsure that an animal is a service animal, they may inquire if the animal is a pet or a service animal required because of a disability. If the customer responds that the animal is a service animal, drivers may ask what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. Drivers cannot require special identification for a service animal, inquire about a customer’s disability, or ask for a demonstration of the tasks that a service animal has been trained to perform.
  • Never touch or talk to a service animal—it is working!

For more information, see the Service Animals section of this toolkit.

Serving Customers with Intellectual Disabilities

As noted on the Job Accommodation Network’s website, intellectual disabilities vary in degree and effect from person to person, just as individual capabilities vary considerably among people who do not have an intellectual disability. Do not make generalizations about the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities. 

The following communication tips are adapted from the Job Accommodation Network’s Effective Accommodation Practices (EAP) Series:

  • Consider the environment and what is going on around you.  There may be multiple background noises and voices that can be a distraction to the person with whom you are talking. 
  • Speak slowly and pause while talking to allow more time for the information to be absorbed. 
  • Speak directly to the individual and make eye contact to ensure you have their attention.
  • Speak in clear short sentences, avoiding words or terms that are complicated, technical, and difficult to understand. 
  • Don’t raise your voice.  Sometimes when people are making a special effort to ensure the other person in a conversation understands what they are saying, they tend to speak louder. 
  • Ask the individual you are speaking with if they have any questions. Questioning is an effective way to monitor comprehension.
  • Allow individuals plenty of time to formulate a question in their mind before verbalizing it.  You may need them to repeat the question or ask them to clarify what they are asking. 
  • Ask only one question at a time and allow plenty of time for a response.  Expressive language skills are often limited.
  • Be patient.  You want to make sure that the person understands you, and that you understand him in return.
  • Allow plenty of time for the conversation to take place and for the individual to hear and process what you are saying and then to respond.  
  • Ask the individual to repeat back the information you have given.

The following guidelines from United Spinal Association may also be helpful:

  • Remember that the person is an adult and, unless you are informed otherwise, can make decisions.
  • People with developmental disabilities often rely on routine and on the familiar to manage work and daily living. Be aware that a change in the environment or in a routine may require some attention and a period of adjustment.

Serving Customers with Psychiatric Disabilities

The Job Accommodation Network offers the following considerations for interacting with individuals with psychiatric disabilities:

  • Avoid stereotypes and assumptions about the individual and how she may interact with others. In most cases, it will not be obvious that someone has a psychiatric impairment.
  • Recognize and respect the differences in people. People with psychiatric impairments may behave differently than other individuals, may have trouble interpreting social cues, or may have different ways of coping with their impairment.
  • Respect personal space and do not touch the individual or his personal belongings.
  • Provide support and assistance, as appropriate.
  • Be patient. Allow the individual time to think and answer questions independently.

As noted on United Spinal Association’s Disability Etiquette web page, people with psychiatric disabilities may at times have difficulty coping with the tasks and interactions of daily life.  This web page offers the following tips.

  • Stress can affect the person’s ability to function. Try to keep the pressure of the situation to a minimum.
  • People who have psychiatric disabilities have varying personalities and different ways of coping with their disability. Some may have trouble picking up on social cues; others may be supersensitive. One person may be very high energy, while someone else may appear sluggish. Treat each person as an individual. Ask what will make the person most comfortable and respect those needs to the maximum extent possible.


Section Sources

Updated June 2, 2020