by: Ezra Schwarzbaum, Benzinga Staff Writer
Uber is facing yet another controversy: this time regarding the rights of disabled users.
The Equal Rights Center, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, is suing Uber in Washington, D.C., for not adequately serving handicapped individuals, particularly those confined to wheelchairs that cannot be folded up and stored.
In tests, disabled persons with non-foldable wheelchairs waited as long at 44 minutes for a ride and paid about $4 more than normal riders.
The lawsuit alleges that Uber intentionally discourages the incorporation of wheelchair-friendly vehicles in its service, therefore violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which stipulates that no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment by transportation services.
The suit also claims Uber is in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act.
Uber’s Current Accessibility Status
Uber already has policies in place to accommodate a range of disabilities, including blindness and deafness.
For riders with ambulatory disabilities, Uber has two options: UberWAV and UberTAXI.
Both services connect riders with a third-party driver service that provides vehicles capable of carrying non-foldable wheelchairs using a ramp or lift, operated by drivers trained to handle wheelchairs.
UberWAV utilizes existing private companies partnered with Uber that specialize in handicap accessible transportation. Uber’s website says.
UberTAXI connects riders with a local taxi, which can be specified to be wheelchair accessible.
Why Is Uber Being Sued?
The ERC’s lawsuit claims that not one of the 30,000 vehicles in Washington, D.C., used by Uber drivers is capable of transporting people with non-foldable wheelchairs.
What’s more, the suit claims Uber actively prevents prospective drivers from using vehicles that are capable, by requiring that UberX cars have four seats besides the driver’s.
“Uber has told at least one individual that he could not drive for Uber if he used a wheelchair accessible vehicle. As a result, the driver replaced the wheelchair accessible van he had been driving with a non-accessible vehicle in order to drive for Uber,” said the ERC in the suit.
UberWAV and UberTAXI do not actually increase the number of wheelchair accessible cars available, they only make it more convenient to hail one already in service from a third party. Uber also adds on a $2 surcharge.
The ERC claims that Uber is capable of increasing the number of accessible vehicles used by its drivers via the specialized rental programs already used to help drivers obtain regular cars.
“There is no technological or other practical reason why Uber cannot incorporate wheelchair accessible vehicles, nor would doing so fundamentally alter Uber’s service or pose an undue burden, financially or otherwise,” the lawsuit says.
Can Uber Even Do Anything?
The short answer is yes, but it would likely come at a significant cost to the company, which even after making $6.5 billion in revenue in 2016 has still not reached profitability.
A key aspect of the lawsuit is the claim that there are zero wheelchair accessible cars “Uber’s 30,000-vehicle fleet.” But Uber does not own any of the cars used by its drivers, making it questionable whether the company is responsible those numbers.
While Uber could dictate that some of its drivers use cars that are accessible, and pay for the cost of acquiring the needed vehicles, but it would likely deter new drivers from signing up.
The market for riders needing wheelchair access is simply much smaller, and most compatible vehicles cannot carry enough people to meet the full demand of fully-abled riders — decreasing the driver’s income.
The lawsuit accounts for this, by highlighting that in Chicago, Uber arranges for drivers participating in UberWAV to rent accessible vehicles for $450 per week, and noting that Uber drivers that spend at least 35 hours on the road are guaranteed at least $20 per hour.
In the worst-case scenario, those drivers would be left with $250 at the end of the week. But a study found that only 20 percent of Uber drivers drive over 35 hours per week, and more than half drive under 15 hours.
The simplest option would be for Uber to eliminate vehicle requirements that would prevent a wheelchair accessible car from being used, but that still would not necessarily increase the number available by a significant amount.
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