“We can go anywhere”: Understanding Independence through a Case Study of Ride-hailing Use by People with
Visual Impairments in metropolitan India
A large percentage of people with visual impairments in the world live in the Global South and struggle with social and economic participation. Transportation services are known to play a key role in allowing people with disabilities including those with visual impairments ‘independent’ access to health, education and job resources and consequently fostering increased participation and thus, inclusion.
However, public transportation services in large parts of the Global South, especially in metropolitan cities can be overcrowded, chaotic and largely inaccessible (due to the lack of infrastructures like public announcement systems). These include urban mass transit services like buses and trains (Image 2a) and auto-rickshaws (Image 2b), door to door three-wheelers in large parts of the country, which have to be hailed from the side of the street. Ride-hailing services like Uber and its Indian competitor Ola, are relatively new entrants to the Indian transportation scene and allow people access to private fleets of vehicles through mobile apps. In 2016, we discovered multiple posts online describing how these services were having a positive impact on the lives of people with visual impairments in India, which motivated this study. Consequently, we set out to understand how people with visual impairments experienced these services. To do so, we conducted a qualitative study with people with visual impairments from across India. We interviewed 30 people from eight metropolitan cities and also conducted eight observations of them using Uber and Ola. We detail some of our findings below.
Positive impact on sense of independence
The services had a huge impact on our participants’ sense of independence. This is because with public transportation services, participants often relied on human assistance on different legs of the journey. For instance, in the case of fixed route mass transit services like buses, the challenge was knowing when a bus arrived and the exact location of a stop, a problem exacerbated by the lack of predictable pavement structures. Hence, respondents relied regularly on people assisting them to the bus stop or train station. On the other hand, in the case of ride-hailing services, they noted that they were no longer contingent on the availability of others to get to bus stops or train stations thus increasing their sense of independence. As one of our participants put it,
“We have to take sighted assistance, most of the times it was normal travelers who helped us (in accessing transportation) […] But when this service is available, it is really very, very much freedom (sic) for us because we can do what we want, we can avail anything, we can go anywhere, we don’t need to take sighted assistance […] it unveils a new door, a new world for us, the world of independence”
Ride-hailing services also made it possible for them to travel to/in unfamiliar locations. People with visual impairments are comfortable travelling on familiar routes even using public transportation services because they know they will receive help along the way whether it is from known acquaintances or strangers. However, trips to unfamiliar locations are rarely accomplished without a sighted companion — and with ride-hailing services people reported travelling alone and in new cities — the consistent way in which they operated across contexts making them a convenient option on travels.
Advantages over other modes of transportation
Ride-hailing services offered several advantages over other modes of transportation. Due to traffic and the lack of standardization of both mass transit and flagged taxis, predictability of transportation access was a major challenge. This meant that to use buses and trains participants had to plan well in advance and even account for missed buses, as the lack of public announcement systems made it difficult for them to tell when a bus or train arrived. On the other hand, ride-hailing services were on-demand and their perceived ubiquity and availability within minutes helped reduce the advance planning for the trips themselves. The relative advantages of ride-hailing over buses was expressed by another of our participants, who said,
“I may have to go quickly to my office or I have to come back home immediately. In that case I cannot use walking stick, go to bus stop — ask people about bus numbers, those things will not be possible if I have to travel in a hurry […] or if I have to go to the places where buses wont go easily […] very very small streets […] So these are the conditions I take Uber […]”
The logistics of accessing autos had several challenges as well. To locate an auto, one has to go to the main roads negotiating streets with potholes and lacking sidewalks and listen carefully for the distinct sound of the auto. Thereafter to actually start a journey, one has to negotiate with the driver about the destination and the price of the journey, a process which often has to be repeated multiple times. Our participants noted how this process often entailed a great deal of emotional work, which ride-hailing apps reduced significantly. The formalization of certain aspects like payment and routes meant that people with visual impairments no longer had to bargain before undertaking a trip. In the words of a participant,
“The saving of the time when we go out and bargain with the driver […] These types of things we don’t have to do and to save your energy, saves your time, saves your you know; gets upset due to the fact that you are not getting any transportation. So […] it has become quite easy”
In spite of these advantages, using ride-hailing services was not without its challenges. While the service and the app were largely accessible, participants did face issues with both, which infringed on their perceptions of independence. We now list some of these challenges.
Although people were able to use ride-hailing by and large by themselves, they did rely on some assistance along the way, often from the driver. For instance, finding the precise location of the cab once it arrived within vicinity was something that participants found quite challenging to do by themselves (Image 3a) and they often worked around this by instead asking drivers to find them. Likewise, they needed assistance in finding the entrance to their final destination and in identifying currency in the case of cash payments (Image 3b). However, many participants noted instances where drivers did not always help or provide assistance.
“I just ask the driver mostly because that way it is easier […] I am a blind person, I am wearing such and such color of shirt, so you know — can you see me I ask the driver […] Most of the times the drivers have cooperated with me but there have been some cases where the drivers have been sort of little rude, because first of all if you are travelling in a shared taxi the driver also has you know time issues.”
As with the above participant, the lack of assistance was particularly evident in pool or shared rides, which many participants preferred due to reduced costs. However, they were unable to use them frequently because drivers were less flexible and helpful. This can, in part, be attributed to the rigid Uber and Ola workflows which do not allow drivers to be compensated for the additional time they spend with riders (shared rides are fixed price). Further, the disability movement in India is rather young; there is little awareness about the needs of people with disabilities including those with visual impairments. Companies like Uber and Ola can play a big role in raising awareness among their drivers, specifically by providing training about the ways in which they can assist and help people with disabilities during the trip, which in turn will improve their overall ride-hailing experience.
Though mobile apps were by and large accessible, there were some serious challenges that confronted our participants while using them. The mobile apps relied heavily on maps, a visual resource which is not accessible to the screen reader. As a result, participants could not glean details presented on the map such as if the cab was moving and which direction it was moving in. They relied on proxies like expected time of arrival (ETA) to determine where the cab was. Further, the unlabeled buttons on the Ola app proved a barrier; participants had to rely on sighted help to determine the function that a particular button represented. Software updates too often resulted in interface changes that participants found difficult adapting to, and were associated with a steep learning curve.
Overall, ride-hailing had many benefits for people with visual impairments, most notable of which was the increased independence they offered. The idea of independence is woven into much accessibility literature, primarily as a means to evaluate the effectiveness of technology interventions targeting people with disabilities. However these representations are often one-dimensional, absolute and deterministic and overly focus on self-reliance. With our study, we challenge these interpretations and find that notions of independence are situated and relative. We also find that there is a strong social dimension i.e. the demonstrability of independence to their friends, family, peers and strangers was important to our participants who felt that this outward face of independence to an extent helped combat the stigma they faced on a day to day basis and went some way in establishing them as competent members of society.
Kameswaran, V., Gupta, J., Pal, J., O’ Modhrain, S., Veinot, T., Brewer, R., Parameshwar, A., Yellareddy, V. & O’ Neill, J. (2018) “We can go anywhere”: Understanding ‘Independence’ through a case study of ride-hailing use by people with visual impairments in metropolitan India. Accepted to PACMHCI. 2, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2018).