NADINA LASPINA IS looking up from under her wide-brimmed hat at the heavy grey rain clouds overhead, watching the blazing July sun play peekaboo behind them, and worrying about whether she’s dressed appropriately for the weather. It’s too hot and humid for a raincoat when the sun is out, but when the clouds break open, as they have intermittently throughout the day, the rain pours down by the bucketful.
What to wear? It’s a question that most New Yorkers—who spend so much of their daily commutes outdoors—ask themselves on a day like today. But for LaSpina, it’s especially important to get it right.
Unlike most New Yorkers, LaSpina can’t just duck into the subway, hail a cab, or hide under scaffolding until an Uber arrives. LaSpina had polio as a child and has used a wheelchair for most of her adult life. She can’t transfer herself into a regular cab, so she requires a taxi with a ramp. Those are pretty scarce, though, especially since she has to share them with the millions of other New Yorkers who don’t use wheelchairs.
So if the clouds part and let loose another one of those furious summer storms, the only way LaSpina can get back home is the same way she got here in the first place: “I just rolled.”
“Here,” as it so happens, is Uber’s New York City headquarters, which is located all the way on Manhattan’s west side, between 11th and 12th Avenues. It might as well be Siberia for the average Manhattanite. No subways run this far west, and it’s tough to find any taxi, let alone one that’s wheelchair accessible. Which makes it a fitting—if somewhat ironic—place for LaSpina and about a dozen other wheelchair users from the advocacy group Disabled in Action to gather in protest of what they say are discriminatory practices by the car-hailing giant.
Uber’s issues with the disabled community have been widely covered. Uber drivers have been accused of refusing to pick up wheelchair users, as well as blind passengers traveling with service animals. Stories have surfaced of Uber drivers putting guide dogs in the trunk, and both Uber and its smaller rival, Lyft, are now facing several lawsuits in states across the country.
But the protesters gathered at Uber’s headquarters say those admittedly awful stories of misbehavior by individual drivers mask a much deeper, much more complex, systemic issue that cuts to the very core of how Uber runs its business. The problem, as they see it, isn’t just that Uber drivers won’t pick them up. It’s that they can’t.
More Than Skin Deep
Few if any vehicles in Uber’s network are wheelchair accessible. That’s because Uber considers itself a technology platform, not a taxi company, and so it doesn’t require any of its drivers to have wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Instead, to accommodate disabled riders, Uber has begun partnering with third party groups who do operate these vehicles in select cities around the country. In New York City, for instance, Uber has partnered with the Taxi & Limousine Commission on a feature called UberWAV, which hails a wheelchair-accessible city taxi. But the protesters say there’s an issue with this approach.
New York City taxi medallion.
The fact is, as Uber has grown, the taxi industry has taken a major hit. In New York City, the Commission has seen a drop in the price of taxi medallions, which allow taxis to operate in the city, and a serious uptick in the foreclosure rate for medallion owners. And that, disability advocates say, is a problem because it’s only these medallion and permit owners who have any kind of mandate to put wheelchair accessible vehicles on the road.
Back in 2013, following a class action lawsuit that charged the TLC with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Commission agreed to make 50 percent of its taxis wheelchair accessible by 2020. Meanwhile, back in 2011, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of 2,000 new medallions for wheelchair accessible vehicles. To people like LaSpina, who have been fighting this battle for decades, it felt like progress. And yet, now that Uber is making it less desirable to get into the traditional taxi business, the majority of these new medallions are going unclaimed.
In other words, the protesters say, in New York City, Uber is using the taxi industry to serve wheelchair users, even as it threatens to overthrow the taxi industry altogether.
“Buying a medallion now is like buying a buggy in 1920,” says Jim Weisman, CEO of the United Spinal Association, who was part of the Uber protest and has been fighting for equal rights in the transportation industry since the 1970s. “You just don’t need them.”
It wasn’t long ago that Weisman and his organization were battling the taxi industry for similar rights. Now, he admits, the Taxi & Limousine Commission is a backer of United Spinal, which is aligned in its fear of what could happen if Uber is continues to take over New York City’s transportation industry. As Weisman put it, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Which is why Weisman and the others are here today, calling on Uber to stop relying on third parties to deliver services to the disabled and to start taking on the responsibility themselves. What disabled riders need, they say, are more wheelchair-accessible vehicles on the road, not more access to an already limited supply. They want to see Uber offer incentives to new drivers joining the network, urging them to to invest in wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Until accessibility is baked into the core network, they say, Uber will never be truly equal.
Of course, there is one tiny detail standing in the way of such a future: Uber’s entire business model. That model hinges on the fact that Uber is not a fleet operator capable of handing down mandates to its drivers. Rather, it’s a platform on which a loose network of independent contractor drivers can connect with riders. It’s this structure that enables Uber to compensate drivers as contractors, not employees, while also enabling Uber to skirt some of the laws that would apply to a traditional transportation company.
“Sometimes people from the outside think that Uber drivers are full-time drivers like taxi and limo drivers, that this is their career, and as you know, that’s not the case,” says Uber advisor and strategist David Plouffe, who managed President Obama’s 2008 election campaign. “The vast majority of our drivers come from every walk of life. They do it for a limited amount of time, in terms of hours per week.”
Uber’s strategy to accommodate disabled riders until now has been to partner with third parties who do this work full-time. And it does have a long list of initiatives to tout as outreach to the disabled community. For its UberASSIST product, for example, it’s partnered with a group called Open Doors Organization to help train drivers in select cities on how to accommodate drivers with folding wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters. UberWAV, which hails accessible city taxis, is fully operating in New York City, and the company says it has an average wait time of 7 minutes. Meanwhile, another feature called UberACCESS is being piloted in Austin.
Meanwhile, Uber has updated its app so that it works with voiceover iOS to accommodate blind riders. The company is also testing a feature that uses light instead of sound to signal new ride requests for deaf and hearing-impaired drivers.
“The organizations we’re partnering with, they do this for a living, and what we’re doing is matching our technology and our efficiency,” says Uber advisor David Plouffe. “That’s pretty powerful.”
But for Weisman and other members of Disabled in Action, these small scale, one-off projects don’t suffice, especially for a company that now has a $51 billion valuation and seems to raise another billion dollars every few months.
“Uber’s quite sensitive to the disability issue, but it’s way more sensitive to its way of doing business and its bottom line,” says Weisman. “As soon as they give in, it’s a chink in the armor.”
A Community Divided
And yet, for all the enemies Uber has made in the disabled community, it’s also made plenty of friends, who say that Uber gives people living with disabilities flexibility in transportation that they never had before. Former Congressman Tony Coelho, one of the pioneers of the Americans with Disability Act, for one, says that Uber is “the technology advancement I dreamed would happen.”
Coelho, who has epilepsy, takes issue with the argument that Uber’s impact on the traditional taxi industry is bad for the disabled community. “If the medallions were doing the job, they wouldn’t be hurting,” Coelho says.
Uber isn’t perfect, he says, but the solution to its shortcomings isn’t to rely on an also imperfect taxi industry. “That’s the past,” he says. “The right way to go is to urge Uber, who is technologically advanced, to solve this problem.”
And, for at least some disabled riders, Uber already has solved a major problem. Christy Landefeld, for instance, who lost her vision due to complications with pregnancy, says that having access to Uber in the suburbs of Detroit where there’s no public transit and the nearest cab company is three towns away has been transformative. “Not having to call family and friends when I have to take my daughter to the library or gymnastics, all the things non-visually impaired mothers can easily do all the time, just has made a world of difference,” she says.
For D’Arcee Neal, a wheelchair user in Washington D.C., it was his many issues with Uber that actually inspired him to work more closely with the company. Neal says he takes an Uber two to three times a week, and most of the time, drivers greet him with a “deer in headlights” look. That’s the best case scenario. In the worst cases, he says, they prod him for information on his disability—Neal has cerebral palsy—or treat him like a charity case. Once, Neal says a driver told him and another friend with cerebral palsy to take the bus instead.
By that point, Neal says, “I had had it.” He dashed off an angry email to Uber, threatening to spread the word about what had happened throughout United Cerebral Palsy, the non-profit where Neal works as manager of institutional giving. “You’re going to have a PR nightmare on your hands across the country,” Neal remembers writing. That was Thursday night. By Friday morning, Neal says he got a call from Uber’s headquarters in Washington. Since then, he’s been working with the company, inviting Uber to UCP conferences and connecting Uber executives to the roughly 176,000 people living with disabilities who are part of the UCP network.1
“I know people are very upset, and I can see the frustration. I think people have to keep demanding answers,” he says. “But I think, like any company, Uber needs an opportunity to adapt.”
Of course, it may not be up to Uber (or Lyft, for that matter, which has taken a similar approach to serving disabled riders, but because it’s much smaller, has factored far less prominently into the debate). Earlier this year, the Justice Department intervened in a lawsuit that the National Federation of the Blind of California brought against Uber, which accuses the company of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. Uber moved to dismiss the case, arguing that as a tech platform, it’s not bound by the ADA. But the Justice Department didn’t see it this way, and in a statement of interest in February, the Department urged the federal court in California not to drop the case.
“The United States’ interests are particularly strong here,” the department said, adding that the lawsuit “goes to the very heart of the ADA’s goals.” In April, the court decided to let the lawsuit proceed.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office is currently looking into how both Uber and Lyft accommodate disabled passengers.
And yet, Weisman, who helped frame the ADA and has brought successful lawsuits against New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, says there are ways Uber could appease the disabled community without a court mandate. For instance, Uber already offers new drivers special discounts and financing options on vehicles from Toyota, GM, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai, Chrysler, and Volkswagen. It could do the same, Weisman says, with wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
LaSpina, meanwhile, would like to see Uber start a program for disabled drivers who already have wheelchair-accessible vehicles. That way, it could offer not only rides, but jobs. Uber does have some disabled drivers in its network, but in most places, there’s no way for other disabled passengers to find them. According to one quadriplegic driver, Gabriel Garcia, Uber didn’t even know he was driving a wheelchair-accessible vehicle until he happened to pick up an Uber executive at the airport by chance.
For disability advocates, Uber shouldn’t need an order from a judge or government agency to fix what they believe is a cut and dry civil rights issue. “Would they need a mandate to pick up Jews, Blacks, gays? Of course not, because they’re aware enough to know it’s repulsive to deny them service,” Weisman says. “It’s only people with disabilities that their business model is set up to discriminate against.”
Stuck in the Rain
After about an hour, the protest is coming to a close. Save for a few bikers, there weren’t many spectators around to hear the group’s chants of “2-4-6-8, Uber discriminates” anyway. Looking at the shoestring crew, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll convince a behemoth like Uber to hear them. But that won’t stop them from trying.
It’s already started raining heavy droplets when the group begins to disband. The only cabs coming down the block are yellow sedans, and a quick check of Uber turns up the message, “No UberWAVs available.” Here, on Uber’s doorstep.
And so, left with few other options, a lot of the gang just rolled.
1. Correction 6:30 EST 08/14/15 An earlier version of this story misstated the number of members in UCP’s network