Opinion

Global rulebook for Uber should include wheelchair accessibility

By James Weisman |  

August 2, 2016 |  

(Shutter stock)

Amid Uber’s rapid unregulated expansion, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and nine other urban mayors have wisely chosen to develop a global rulebook to confront economic and social challenges of the sharing economy. This new coalition has a prime opportunity to finally end Uber’s discrimination against wheelchair users in New York and across the world.

When de Blasio and his counterparts release their first draft rulebook in October, it must include a meaningful accessibility mandate for Uber and other ride-sharing apps – something that has not yet been achieved here in New York City.

Uber is an example of how the sharing economy has not yet evolved to adequately serve the disability community. While the $60 billion company has just begun to offer accessible vehicles in London, wheelchair users in hundreds of other cities are denied service every day. Twenty-six years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became federal law, Uber’s policies are a sad throwback to a time when those civil rights were simply ignored.

Uber has operated in New York City since 2011 and now has more than 30,000 vehicles on the road, but none are wheelchair-accessible. Even as the city’s taxi industry continues to advance toward 50 percent accessibility by 2020, city officials have not held Uber and other ridesharing apps to the same moral standard. And when the company tried – and failed – to expand statewide, it refused to include accessibility in its so-called commitment to upstate residents.

Uber has avoided discussions of an accessibility mandate at all costs – including more than $1 million spent on lobbying New York officials over the past year and a half. Part of the problem is UberWAV, which, the company claims, is a fair substitute for making its own cars accessible. In reality, it is an offensive response that treats the disability community with the same “separate but equal” attitude that once plagued America’s attitude toward race.

Instead of providing wheelchair users with accessible Uber cars, UberWAV merely attempts to connect them with accessible yellow or green taxis – the same taxis the company is trying to put out of business. The only real benefit of UberWAV is for Uber itself, which rakes in higher corporate profits by leaving the full cost of accessibility to the taxi industry.

Mayor de Blasio and his coalition of global mayors already understand that Uber has the financial means to provide accessibility in every city in which it operates. But the company has not yet evolved on this issue because government officials have just not fought hard enough to ensure equal access.

The good news is that de Blasio will actually have two chances to stop Uber’s discrimination – once in his coalition’s global rule book, and another next May when he hosts a conference on the sharing economy here in New York. He should use both opportunities to advance his progressive goals by ensuring that everyone can get a ride – not just those who can walk.

These events will set the tone for how our leaders handle Uber and the sharing economy for generations. The question is, will de Blasio choose the failures of the status quo, or will he choose to lead the disability community into a more equitable future? Wheelchair users have waited long enough. It is time for Uber’s discrimination to end.

James Weisman is president & CEO of the United Spinal Association, a disability advocacy group.

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