Disability rights groups hammer Uber’s accessibility efforts

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Uber Needs to Up Accessibility in NYC

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Uber reached an agreement July 22 to study a range of concerns pertaining to the company’s rapid growth in the city. Despite the agreement, disability advocates intend to continue pressuring the company to improve its accessibility policies.

The announcement came one day before the NYC Council was set to vote on a bill that would cap the number of new for-hire vehicles by Uber and other ride-sharing companies, such as Lyft and Sidecar. According to a statement from First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, a vote on the bill will be delayed to study the companies’ policies toward “accessibility for people with disabilities,” traffic patterns, pollution and worker protections, among other issues.

Uber operates about 20,000 of the city’s estimated 63,000 for-hire vehicles. This figure has risen 60 percent since 2011 and now far surpasses the number of city-operated yellow cab taxis in the city, especially in the outer boroughs.

Almost none of the San Francisco-based company’s vehicles are wheelchair accessible, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by advocacy groups such as the United Spinal Association, which mailed-out thousands of flyers in the city throughout the week leading up to the now-canceled vote. The flyers contained messages such as “Uber to wheelchair users: Take a hike!” and “If Uber won’t stop for wheelchair users, maybe it’s time we stopped Uber.”

It also began airing a 30-second television advertisement.

“Getting around the city in a wheelchair is hard — people look the other way. We worked hard to get half of New York City taxis accessible, then Uber came along,” disability advocate Dustin Jones, who uses a wheelchair, said in the television ad.

In September 2014, NYC signed a comprehensive legal settlement with disability advocacy groups, agreeing to install in half of its fleet of yellow cab taxis ramps, lifts and other tools to make them wheelchair accessible by 2020.

The catalyst for the settlement was a 2011 class-action lawsuit against the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission under the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the time, just 1.8 percent of the city’s 13,237 taxis were wheelchair accessible.

Unlike buses, subways and other forms of transportation, the ADA explicitly exempts taxis from its accessibility requirements. However, in a first-of-its-kind ruling, a federal district found that the TLC, as a de facto city entity, violated the ADA by failing to ensure people with disabilities have “meaningful access” to these services.

Although the decision was overturned on appeal, disability advocates kept up the pressure on then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, leading to the settlement in the waning days of his administration.

Uber, in a statement to Capital New York, defended its efforts to serve people with disabilities. Specifically it pointed to its new UberWAV service, which allows users to summon one of the company’s green taxis, which are larger and easier to access for wheelchair users. Uber operates about 300 of these vehicles.

“We are proud that UberWAV provides the most reliable accessible ride in New York City but we won’t be satisfied until service is expanded, and we would be eager to work with City Hall towards that goal,” Uber spokesman Khan Shoieb said.

New York is far from the only place where Uber is being criticized by disability advocates.

Reuters reported July 20 that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office is probing both Uber and Lyft for accessibility violations. Uber is also the subject of lawsuits in California and Texas, among other states, for potential ADA violations.