Barriers to Independent Living: Ride Shares

Published May 14, 2022

Whether through public transportation, rideshares, or personal vehicles, numerous people travel on a regular basis. But daily or frequent travel is a privilege with some significant barriers for many people with disabilities. In fact, statistics show about 25 million people in the U.S. over the age of 5 report having travel-limiting disabilities. Of that group, 3.6 people with travel-limiting disabilities do not leave their homes at all. Part of this fact may be due to the lack of accessible public or personal transportation. Studies show people with disabilities use personal vehicles nearly 10 percent less than non-disabled people. And despite the ADA’s 2006 accessibility standards for transportation, public transportation like buses, subways, and streetcars still come with their own set of obstacles (this opens a document). In some larger cities, there’s the often spotty option of paratransit, an alternative, wheelchair-accessible form of transportation, but high expenses and low availability in certain areas make this option less practical to most. In theory, rideshares like Uber and Lyft would be perfect candidates to pick up some of the slack, but that isn't what appears to be happening. So how do rideshares fare in terms of meeting the needs of persons with disabilities? 

Wheelchair accessibility

Rideshare companies use a business model based on drivers using their own cars, often cars that cannot install wheelchair ramps or lifts. However, as these companies continue to grow and shift the transportation landscape, their need for broader accessibility also grows. This is especially true as the ridesharing industry overshadows taxis today. The majority of taxi companies have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in their fleets. Still, the road to wheelchair-accessible ridesharing is slow.

As of 2019, Lyft offered wheelchair-accessible vehicles in eight cities in the U.S. and in Toronto. For passengers outside of those larger cities, the ridesharing app would text passengers information on local alternative services as opposed to trying to accommodate them.

As for Uber, recent issues seem to be the app overcharging their physically disabled passengers. The Justice Department (DOJ) is currently suing Uber for "wait time" fees, which can be considered discriminatory against disabled passengers who need more than two minutes to get into a car. Alarming statistics make this a double blow to many people with disabilities. A 2020 University of Tennessee study found it takes disabled people nearly one-third more income to achieve the same standard of living as a non-disabled person. So disabled people who are already not able to travel as frequently being charged extra for travel seems to be another unjustified and heavyweight to bare.

Uber claims wait time fees were not intended for disabled riders and that they have been refunding those who submit complaints. Still, without clearly stated accessibility accommodations that prevent issues like this, the government and disability activists are calling for a change.

The problem with denying rides

Ridesharing apps for some have seemed a liberating alternative to other transport options. But even though getting a car is easier now than before, people with disabilities express that making sure that the car does not abandon them is the real challenge.

Denying people service due to a disability is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet many disability activists have used popular publications and social media to express continued discrimination. A person even shared a recent suspension from a rideshare app due to “too many cancellations,” even though each cancellation was because of drivers abandoning his requests after learning of his disability.

One of the factors prompting many complaints is denying rides due to people’s service dogs. In 2021, San Francisco courts ordered Uber to pay over $1 million to a blind woman with a service dog for violation of the ADA. Specifically, the violation was for not clearly informing drivers of federal law requiring accommodation to service dogs. Unfortunately, similar accounts in recent news show the woman’s case is not unique. Cerebral palsy activist Ryan Honick shared his story with NowThis describing how frequently he and his service dog were denied rides. The public speaker recorded several of his most recent rides as Lyft and Uber drivers actively rejected service despite acknowledging rideshare guidelines and federal law.

Inching towards improvements

The Disability community has challenged popular rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to accommodate their disabled passengers better. Improvements are being made, but quite slowly. Lyft Assisted Rides and Uber WAV are working to improve travel for passengers with wheelchairs and those in need of assistance. Currently, rideshares benefit from technicalities in the ADA that don’t explicitly mention their services as part of the law. But the DOJ lawsuit against Uber, and other recent rideshare discrimination cases, can help reshape how we think of the rideshares company’s public responsibility as influential forms of transportation.

In the meantime, rideshare drivers can make small changes on their own. An article featuring direct quotes from people with disabilities shares simple ways to help make rideshare experiences more accessible. Small changes like removing strong air fresheners can help passengers with chronic headaches or asthma from having an attack. Drivers worried about hair and messes from service animals can invest in seat covers and protection. Drivers can keep in mind that passenger requests like turning off the music or riding in silence may be based in their disability. These modifications can help accommodate passengers in subtle but very accessible ways, and be a nice reprieve as rideshare company regulations slowly meet more accessible standards.


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