Accessibility in an Uberized World

This story was originally published by Be Young and Shut Up, an independent blog, on May 29th, 2014. You can read the original version here.

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, Handy and TaskRabbit 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. If you live in a major metropolitan area, where apps like these were created and launched, you have almost certainly experienced the ease and convenience that they bring. ODMS all tout themselves as making lives easier — and for many people, they do — but there is a distinct failure when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities (PWD).

Image courtesy of RRE Ventures/SlideShare

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 often use a wheelchair or cane 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. I have to know exactly how I’m getting from A to B, how long I’ll be out, how crowded a given place will be, if the bathroom is accessible, how many stairs there are,…etc. This level of control is time-consuming but manageable. The influx of ODMS 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 things much harder by ignoring my actual needs and driving away more helpful competition.

The influx of on-demand mobile services should make all this planning even easier for me, but ironically, it makes it much harder by ignoring my actual needs and driving away more helpful competition.

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 would refuse to give rides to his service dog or cancel the ride without a word when they saw him waiting. Uber responded to this very publicized story, announcing that drivers who refuse rides to those with service animals will be deactivated from the platform, but they and other ODMS have conveniently ignored or made only half-hearted attempts at redemption with similar stories in the past. Lyft made a 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. Airbnb finally released a much-requested feature to allow users to search for wheelchair accessible rentals, but still have no requirement that their hosts provide an accessible experience. A nondiscrimation clause buried in their legal agreements only protects these companies from legal action, it doesn’t just magically make everything okay.

Uber also recently announced “UberACCESS,” which will filter down to available drivers who drive accessible vehicles and are trained and knowledgeable of accessibility needs. This is a great idea in theory, but any user who turns this feature on will find their map sadly empty. In San Francisco, there don’t seem to be any drivers who match this criteria. And why should there be? Why would a driver voluntarily find and buy an expensive accessible vehicle and undergo extensive training when they can sign up and starting earning money with able-bodied passengers right away?

Recently, I planned a night out to see a comedy show. Because this show didn’t guarantee seats, I knew I would have to take my wheelchair if I wanted to avoid standing all night. Usually I take Lyft when I’m going out, but with a wheelchair, it’s not really an option. Lyft doesn’t give users the ability to pick a specific driver or car model, so if I were to be matched with a hatchback, the wheelchair wouldn’t fit. Even if I got a larger car, I would have no guarantee that the trunk would have the space I need. I decided to call for an accessible taxi, but after calling several cab services a few hours before I had to leave, I 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 ended up calling for a regular cab and just crossing my fingers that it would have room for my chair.

I decided to call for an accessible taxicab, but after calling several cab services a few hours before I had to leave, I found out that there were only three wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in rotation across all of San Francisco that night.

ODMS are clearly growing in number and popularity. Where we once had just Uber, we now have Lyft, Curb, Flywheel, Scoot, Getaround, and more. These services are gaining ground but most are still not yet subject to the same laws as their more established counterparts. Taxicab drivers have to pay extra permits to operate out of an airport, plus a special fee for every trip they make out of an airport. Up until recently, ridesharing ODMS weren’t subject to these same fees, but even now they aren’t strictly monitored. 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 taxicabs in the city will have to be wheelchair accessible by 2020. 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 actually provided to PWD. What’s “easy” is not always “accessible,” and there are some very simple ways to fix this. First, we need to impose more 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 newer and feature a slicker UI. Rideshare services should also require all drivers to undergo training in accessibility laws and even general hospitality, rather than leave it up to drivers to opt-in.

I am not the first person to write about this — not by a long shot — but the more people share their experiences and put pressure on fighting inaccessibility, the better. 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.

My thanks to Heather Kelly and Sunday Parker for their contributions to this article and coverage of this issue.

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