Accessibility in an Uberized World

uber app

Living and working in the techy startup infused world of Silicon Valley, I’m acutely aware of the growing number of “on-demand mobile services” (ODMS). ODMS have been defined as “apps which aggregate consumer demand on mobile devices, but fulfill that demand through offline services”—in other words, these apps bring the things you need and use directly to you, IRL. Think of services like Uber and Lyft for car rides, Homejoy and Task Rabbit for household chores, Seamless and Doordash for food, and Airbnb and Hotel Tonight for travel and hospitality. All of these apps start out as a mobile experience—just you and your smartphone—but then translate that experience into something tangible, whether that’s getting a ride to the airport, a hot meal for dinner, or a hotel room waiting for you. Either you live in a major metropolitan area, where apps like these were created and launched, and have experienced the ease and convenience that they bring, or you’ve dreamed of how much simpler your life could be if only Uber operated in your city. ODMS all tout themselves as making lives easier—and for many, they do—but there is a distinct failure when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities (PWD).

As a PWD myself, I know firsthand the daily frustrations that come with doing anything outside my house. I have a genetic disorder that makes it nearly impossible to stand for longer than a few minutes, so I use a wheelchair if I’m going to be out for more than a few hours. I always need to plan my schedule carefully so I don’t unexpectedly run out of energy before I’ve gotten through my day. This planning involves a lot of detail and a lot of control. I sometimes have to call ahead if I’m going out to make sure a venue is wheelchair accessible. I  have to know exactly how I’m getting there, down to the timing, so I don’t spend valuable energy waiting for a bus on a cold street corner or arrive late due to faulty wheelchair lifts. I have to know how long I’ll be out, and what the scene will be like, so I can decide whether it’s worth taking my wheelchair at all. This level of taking control is definitely time-consuming but, for the most part, fairly straightforward. I know how to check real time bus schedules and I’ve got a map of all the blue parking spots in the city. The influx of ODMS services should make all this planning even easier for me—I can see on my phone exactly how many blocks away my ride is!—but ironically, it makes it much harder by ignoring my needs and driving out more helpful competition.

So far, ODMS have not taken much, if any, time to cater to the disabled population. Uber does not make any mention of accessibility on its website or blog. Neither do Lyft, Sidecar, Airbnb (no way to check if a residence is wheelchair accessible), or many of the other well-known ODMS. A quick Google search for “Uber accessibility” brings up a slew of negative press, including a story about a blind man who was consistently treated poorly by drivers, who either refused to give rides to his service dog, or just straight-up cancelled when they saw him waiting. Uber responded to that story, insisting that drivers who refuse rides to those with service animals will be deactivated from the platform, but they and others have conveniently ignored or made only half-hearted attempts at redemption with similar stories in the past. Lyft made a recent statement saying it would work to “engage and educate the handicapped community”—but not necessarily pick them up or give them the tools within their app to get the rides they needed. A nondiscrimation clause buried in their legal agreements doesn’t just make everything okay, it only protects them from legal action.

Lyft car with that obnoxious pink mustache in the front

A legal agreement won’t keep Lyft cars from looking butt ugly either.

Recently, I planned a date night out to see a live comedy show. Because this show was standing room only, I knew I had to take my wheelchair. Normally when I go out, I take Sidecar—that way, I don’t have to worry about finding a parking spot, dealing with expensive parking lots, or staying sober enough to drive. Sidecar lets users request a driver nearby, but doesn’t give the user the ability to pick a driver or car model. With my wheelchair, Sidecar was out of the question. If I got stuck with a hatchback, it wouldn’t fit; even if I got a larger car, I worried that drivers might keep personal stuff in their trunk, and not have room for it. We decided to call for an accessible taxicab, but after calling several cab services a few hours before we had to leave, we found out that there were only three wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in rotation across all of San Francisco that night. I later learned a quarter of wheelchair-accessible taxicabs are now off the streets due to a lack of drivers, and that a number of taxi drivers were switching to ridesharing services due to better income and more flexible hours. I didn’t want to risk getting a too-small Sidecar and I was vehemently opposed to using Uber, for obvious reasons at this point. We called regular cab and just hoping that it would have room for my chair—luckily, it did, but we could have easily ended up with a driver with a tiny hatchback, a full trunk, or an ableist viewpoint.

ODMS are clearly growing in number and popularity. Where we once had just Uber, we now have Lyft, Taxi Magic, Flywheel, Scoot, and more. These services are gaining ground, and for good reason—they do make life easier for most of the general population. However, it’s worth noting that many are not yet subject to the same laws as their more established counterparts. Cab drivers have to pay a special fee for every trip they make out of the airport, and also have to pay extra permits to operate out of the airport at all. Up until recently, ridesharing ODMS weren’t subject to these same fees. Hotels have to abide by certain accommodation laws but the Airbnbs of the world don’t—at least not yet. In New York City, 50% of cabs in the city will have to be wheelchair accessible within six years. Will such regulations ever be adopted by—or imposed on—ODMS?

Not only is there a major gap in regulations, there is a disconnect between what’s advertised and what’s provided to PWD. What’s “easy” is not always “accessible,” and there are some very simple ways to fix this. Impose regulations on ridesharing apps and other ODMS. If they are going to truly compete with the longstanding traditional services, they should be on an even playing field, and not given an arbitrary advantage just because they’re new. Add a feature that allows users to filter available cars by which ones are wheelchair accessible. Give new drivers training in accessibility laws and even hospitality.

PWD are being completely forgotten and left behind in this new Uberized world. It’s been said that “all technology is assistive technology;” it would be very easy for these apps to be more inclusive and forward-thinking. Until regulations are imposed and accessibility is universal, ODMS have no right to claim themselves as the better option.


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