Perhaps the greatest benefit of owning a car is the independence that it provides: drivers can commute to work, run errands, visit friends and family, and much more. However, in recent years, many people are choosing to rely more heavily on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, instead of owning and maintaining their own vehicles.
The convenience of requesting and paying for transportation only when you need it is appealing to millions. And for some people with disabilities who don't obtain a driver's licence or don't have access to their own vehicle, these services have introduced a new potential era of transportation independence.
Of course, this can only be achieved if the apps and vehicles themselves are accessible. Although not perfect, Uber and Lyft have both made strong commitments to accessibility for people with disabilities.
Here are some of the most recent developments in accessibility for ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.
How Uber serves people with disabilities
For starters, the Uber app shows a commitment to being accessible to people with disabilities, tested and updated with the goal of meeting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA standards.
By using screen reader software such as Apple’s VoiceOver or Android’s TalkBack, people with visual disabilities can navigate the Uber app and order a vehicle to their location. Once the request has been made, passengers using screen readers will hear the Uber driver’s name, license plate number, car model, and estimated time of arrival. Passengers can also use the Uber app to contact the driver via phone call or text message if they will need special assistance entering or exiting the vehicle.
Many people with disabilities use wheelchairs and mobility scooters that must also fit in the vehicle. Uber is pilot-testing a service called uberWAV (wheelchair-accessible vehicles) that can accommodate motorized wheelchairs and scooters.
As of 2019, the uberWAV service is currently being tested in select locations: New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Phoenix, Houston, Austin, Toronto, the United Kingdom, Bangalore, Paris, and Newcastle in Australia.
Uber has a policy for riders with service animals in the U.S. According to Uber’s policy, drivers cannot refuse service to riders with service animals, even due to issues such as allergies and religious objections.
Accessibility at Uber also extends to people with disabilities who want to drive for the Uber service. The Uber accessibility page states that "anyone who is legally able to drive can apply to partner with Uber."
To this end, for example, the Uber app informs passengers when their driver is deaf or hard of hearing, so that they can communicate by text messages instead of speech. Uber has also partnered with organizations such as Enabled Employment in Australia to help people with disabilities find work on the platform.
How Lyft serves people with disabilities
Uber’s main competitor in the U.S. is Lyft, which currently operates in hundreds of locations in the U.S. and 9 cities in Canada. Like Uber, Lyft has seen a number of recent advancements to make the service more accessible to people with disabilities.
In 2017, for example, Lyft partnered with Aira to make the Lyft app more accessible to people with visual disabilities. Aira is a service that partners blind and low-vision individuals with trained professional agents who can assist them with their daily activities. The Lyft partnership allows Aira agents to request a Lyft ride, share information about the vehicle and driver with the passenger, and help the passenger navigate to the pickup location.
Like Uber, the Lyft app does not rely only on any auditory cues, making it accessible to people with hearing disabilities. Also like Uber, the Lyft app is compatible with screen reader software; this allows people with visual disabilities to request a pickup and get information on their ride without a visual interface.
Meanwhile, Lyft drivers who are deaf or hard of hearing can set their device screen to flash when they have a new ride request, instead of receiving an audio notification or vibration. In addition, passengers traveling with these drivers will be notified to communicate with them via text message rather than a phone call.
For users with physical disabilities in certain markets, Lyft includes an Access Mode feature to request wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The Lyft website also includes a list of third-party local dispatch services that have wheelchair-accessible vehicles available.
Both riders and drivers with service animals are allowed, according to Lyft’s service animal policy. However, Lyft suggests that drivers with service animals notify passengers ahead of time, so that passengers can cancel if they are uncomfortable with the arrangement.
The future of accessibility at Uber and Lyft
Uber and Lyft have made a serious effort to improve their accessibility, yet both companies probably have room for improvement — perhaps especially when it comes to physical accessibility for passengers with motor disabilities.
Although wheelchair-accessible vehicles are theoretically available in a number of markets on both platforms, many users complain that in practice they are difficult or impossible to obtain.
In 2018, a study by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest found that Uber located wheelchair-accessible vehicles for only half of requests in New York City, with an average wait more than three times as long as for non-accessible vehicles. Meanwhile, the Lyft app was able to locate wheelchair-accessible vehicles for only 5 percent of all requests.
These challenges have led to several lawsuits in federal court alleging that Uber and Lyft are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In response, Uber and Lyft have argued in court that they are not subject to ADA requirements because they are primarily technology companies, not transportation companies. The outcomes of the lawsuits are still pending.
As a result of these challenges, customers with disabilities may need to rely on paratransit services that are intended specifically for people with disabilities, which can require bookings up to 24 hours in advance.
In order to satisfy ADA requirements and allow for on-demand bookings, Uber and Lyft may seek to partner with more paratransit companies in the future. Uber currently operates an on-demand paratransit pilot program with Boston’s MBTA public transport, while Lyft launched a similar six-month pilot program in Las Vegas in February 2018.
The time for accessibility is now
Over just a few short years, ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have become an integral part of modern life, allowing passengers to request on-demand transportation at the time and place of their choosing. It’s our hope that passengers and drivers with disabilities will be able to enjoy the full benefits and conveniences that Uber and Lyft have to offer.
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