Sometimes it slips Kristin Parisi’s mind that she’s disabled. After 25 years in a wheelchair—the result of a car accident when she was 5 years old—her means of transportation no longer registers as abnormal.
“It’s one of those things I forget—that I’m disabled—until someone tells me I am,” the 30-year-old public-relations executive says.
That reminder came in early April, when she left her office in Boston on a rainy day to meet an Uber she’d ordered on her phone. When the driver pulled up in his Mercedes sedan he took one look at her and said, “No, no, no.” He indicated her wheelchair. “That’s never going to fit in my car.” It would, Parisi replied—it fits easily into the trunk of her own compact car. After an extended argument, she gave up. She ended up getting a ride with a passerby and his teenage daughter.
A twice-weekly Uber customer of two years, Parisi was surprised by the slight. “The first incident was, I thought, a fluke,” she says. Two weeks later, she ordered another car on Uber. The woman behind the wheel again told Parisi her chair wouldn’t fit in the trunk. This time, Parisi didn’t take no for an answer. She says she loaded herself and her chair into the back of the car without help from the driver, only to receive an earful of abuse for the entire trip to the airport.
Parisi says the driver called her an “invalid” and said she “must not be a Christian” and needed to “develop thicker skin.” At the end of her ride, Parisi says the driver asked her if was going to give her a bad review. “I said, ‘It has nothing to do with bad review, it has to do with illegal practice,’” she says. “‘You have to understand what you’re doing is not only mean—it’s against the law.’”
The Americans with Disabilities Act was voted into law in 1990 to ensure equal rights and prevent discrimination of people with disabilities. Under the ADA, transportation providers are required by law to accommodate wheelchair users if the equipment can fit in their car.
But Uber has launched a war to make itself exempt from the anti-discrimination law.
In three ADA-related cases over the past eight months, in California, Texas, and Arizona, Uber has been slammed with lawsuits that allege the company discriminates against blind and wheelchair-using passengers. The suits demand Uber abide by the ADA, but Uber claims that because it’s a technology company, not a transportation service, it doesn’t fall under the ADA’s jurisdiction.
Lawyers for Uber wrote: “Defendants deny that Uber offers a taxi service or that Uber has a fleet of drivers.”
“This was the worst transportation experience of my life,” Parisi wrote in a complaint to Uber after her second ride. “I’m humiliated.” She was refunded and sent away with a $100 gift card, but has no plans to use it until Uber announces some changes. In her interactions, the company was apologetic, she says. But it’s not enough.
She says she told Uber, “You need to do something about this and do it publically. Say, ‘We see this as a problem and we’re not going to fight the public on this and do the right thing.’” Instead “what they’re doing is saying is, ‘We’re not a public service; the ADA does not apply to us.’”
An Uber spokesperson says the app “was built to expand access to safe, reliable transportation options for all, including users with visual impairments and other disabilities,” and the company’s non-discrimination policy “seeks to make transportation options available to all individuals.”
But activists say Uber and other ride-sharing applications like Lyft and SideCar, called Transportation Network Companies, have abused a gray zone they operate in between technology and transportation without clear federal regulation or oversight. The disability-rights movement is urging the courts and lawmakers to end the impunity.
“Uber’s arguments against [following the ADA] are the efforts of a private company to evade regulation, regulation which is there for the public good, regulation that other companies offering similar services for many years have always been required to comply with,” says Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley, California.
Uber is currently settling a suit brought by the National Federation of the Blind in California last September. The complaint outlines “systemic civil rights violations” committed by Uber against blind passengers who require guide dogs. It mentions 40 cases in which UberX drivers refused to pick up people with service animals, as well as instances of animal abuse, including one case where a woman’s guide dog was locked in the trunk of a car.
“Uber representatives often respond to these complaints by denying responsibility for the discrimination,” the filing reads. The practice, it continued, was a violation of both the ADA and state law, as Uber functions as a taxi service.
But Uber describes its drivers as independent contractors, and says it therefore is unable to control their actions. In its response to the complaint, lawyers for Uber wrote: “Defendants deny that Uber offers a taxi service or that Uber has a fleet of drivers.” It added that Uber does not have the legal or contractual duty to control compliance with the law.
In December, the U.S. Justice Department weighed in, urging the court in a brief not to throw the case out because the allegation “goes to the very heart of the ADA’s goals.” The judge obliged, denying Uber’s motion to dismiss the case in mid-April, and noting that the plaintiffs had a “plausible claim under the ADA and state law.”
As the DOJ notes, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations for transportation outlines that the ADA doesn’t just apply to taxi services. The code’s wording says it “ensures that, while a public entity may contract out its service, it may not contract away its ADA responsibilities.”
Uber’s claim that it’s not a taxi company ties into an adjacent legal battle with its drivers that would force it to consider them as employees, rather than independent contractors. There’s a class-action suit playing out in California court. And mandatory driver training or other measures to prevent disability discrimination could imply its drivers are employees and undermine Uber’s ability to argue otherwise.
Instead, there’s a voluntary training where drivers are told they must serve customers with wheelchairs or guide dogs. Uber’s Code of Conduct notes that violating laws pertainig to transporting disabled riders “constitutes a breach of the parties’ licensing agreement.” And an Uber spokesperson says that reported discrimination typically ends with a driver’s suspension or deactivation.
When asked about the training its drivers receive, a spokesperson for Uber used strong wording, saying that the company informs its drivers “about their obligation to comply with ADA requirements.” Regarding whether or not Uber falls under the ADA’s jurisdiction, the spokesperson said that it could not comment “due to pending lawsuits,” and would not disclose the specifics of the suits it has been involved in.
States are also struggling to deal with companies like Uber and Lyft that exist outside the realm of regulation. Over the past few months, an act regulating transportation services has been introduced in at least a dozen state legislatures. But disability activists are concerned about a line it includes that they believe could exempt Uber from the need to comply with the ADA or confuse drivers about their responsibility to take wheelchairs that fit. It says: “If a transportation network company cannot arrange wheelchair-accessible transportation network company service in any instance, it shall direct the passenger to an alternate provider of wheelchair-accessible service, if available.”
In a public Facebook post addressing this bill’s introduction in Texas, Angela Wrigglesworth urged this be changed. “This is unacceptable to push aside legal and moral responsibilities to provide transportation for customers with disabilities,” she wrote. “I have just as much of a desire and a right to ride in a readily available, fare-friendly Uber vehicle as anyone else.”
Lawmakers are also urging for disability-focused regulations to be in place. In Massachusetts, the governor has introduced legislation to regulate Uber and Lyft as transportation services, and state Senator Thomas Kennedy, who is quadriplegic, has promised to submit a measure that would require a certain percent of cars be accessible to mechanized wheelchairs in each fleet.
Lawmakers in Connecticut are also working on regulations. “These companies need to be doing a much better job accommodating the needs of all people,” state Senator Ted Kennedy Jr. told The Boston Globe. “This issue is not going away. It’s a question of fairness and equality.”
Though the ADA doesn’t require drivers to accommodate motorized wheelchairs, ride-sharing programs may be contributing to a decline in the number of ramp vans.
Taxi services provide accessible vans in accordance to piecemeal local ordinances rather than a blanket federal law. With the rise in ride-sharing programs, disability activists note that drivers are leaving behind taxi companies with these ramp-outfitted fleets, and are instead taking their own cars on the road. In San Francisco, a quarter of the ramp taxis are sitting unused because of a lack of drivers.
“I get it, people are using their own cars,” Parisi says. “But even if [Uber] invested in a few—this is a company that just got a valuation of $50 billion—that would be a really great thing for a company to do. That’s a really great business decisions. I don’t think anybody’s asking for a handout.”
Last year, Uber launched UberWAV, which is partnering with drivers in nine cities who own their own wheelchair-ramp vans to serve those in mechanical chairs. Uber also launched a service called UberASSIST at the beginning of the year. It uses drivers who are specially trained to assist seniors and people with disabilities (though not including ramp cars) and is in the midst of setting up across the country. But activists are worried that the separate program for people who should be legally accommodated into the main car fleet under the ADA will segregate disabled users.
Eric Lipp, the executive director of the Open Doors Organization, a disability travel network, said he had the same initial thought. But he was convinced by a need to ensure people with disabilities would get preferred access to the specialized drivers, and has been consulting with Uber to develop the ASSIST program.
“I think that many in the community do not understand that Uber has nothing against access and the ADA,” says Lipp. “The big problem is that until the courts settle whether Uber is a software company or transportation company the disability community will just have to be patient and try to work with Uber, not against them.”
But Golden, with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, doesn’t think Uber’s going far enough with the ASSIST program. “We would like to see something like a robust version of uberASSIST in locations where it’s not just a reaction to political pressure on Uber, but rather, to expand it to everywhere they operate because it should be done, politics aside,” she says.
When Kristen Parisi was in high school, she says another student in a wheelchair was told by the administrators that he had to arrange his schedule to adapt to parts of the campus that were handicapped-accessible. It was shortly after the ADA was put into law, and Parisi’s dad made the effort to inform this boy’s mother that the school was legally obligated to provide him with full access to any classroom.
“My dad would say, ‘If everybody did that, nothing would change for anybody, don’t you want it to be better for the next person?’” Parisi says of sharing her story. “That was such a lesson—if I can help someone else I’ve got to do it.