Uber has dodged another regulation. Last week, news broke that Uber is getting sued… again, this time by two disabled men in Jackson, Mississippi. The plaintiffs allege that as wheelchair users they are highly independent, but rely on commercial transportation – whether public or private – to get around the city, as neither drives. They take buses. They take taxis. But they can’t take Uber, they claim, because it doesn’t offer Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) to the half million residents of Jackson. This violates both the ADA and California disability law (where Uber is located).
From Uber to AirBNB to TaskRabbit, the gig economy presents itself as the hyper-flexible way to work, to get things done, and to find the professional services you need. Through promoting “sharing,” using other people’s property like cars and apartments or services like driving, repair skills, these companies have created broadly profitable industries that successfully dodge decades of red tape and other bureaucratic roadblocks.
Over the last three decades and more, access to public space and public infrastructure has been a major goal – and victory – for the disability rights movement. Thanks to numerous state and federal laws, all government services – from trains and buses to court documents and DMVs – must be made accessible. Private businesses, at least once they get to a certain size, have to provide access to their product. A restaurant needs accessible seating. A hotel needs accessible entrances and rooms. Taxis need put some WAVs on the road.
Think about the world prior to the ADA. Restaurants and hotels had no obligation to have ramps, so a single step might effectively tell disabled diners or lodgers to keep out. Once inside, there was no expectation of being able to use a restroom, order from a menu, or have seating at an appropriate height. Of course, even if a restaurant was accessible, a disabled person might not being able to find a ride to get there, depending on their needs. Before the ADA, lack of accessibility could quite literally trap people in their homes. Now, though, we have ramps and power doors, curb cuts and lifts on buses. The regulations that made this possible may be a bad word among some business folk, conscious of costs, but they’ve made society much more equitable for disabled Americans.
Enter the sharing economy. Uber claims that it’s not providing transportation, but that it’s just a “transportation network provider” (TNP). Their app, they say, is fully accessible for disabled users. Each individual driver is an independent subcontractor, meanwhile, so Uber maintains that unlike a taxi company, it’s not legally required to put sufficient WAVs on the roads to meet demand. That was a cute argument when they were a small niche firm. Now that they have crushed taxi industries across America, they are effectively denying access to car transport for disabled would-be riders.
There is another lawsuit pending against Uber in Chicago. There are 400 wheelchair-accessible taxis in the Chicago fleet. Uber now provides many more rides per day than taxis in the area, so it stands to reason that they need more than 400 WAVs to meet demand. Instead, they have 40. Though they recently agreed to raise the number to 53. They don’t guarantee, of course, that these 53 will be available for hire for any particular number of hours per week, because they are just a “network provider,” not a transportation company. According to Charles Petrof, Senior Attorney at the disability-rights center Access Living in Chicago and co-counsel with the law firm of Much Shelist in the suit, these 53 vehicles are just woefully inadequate. He told me, “The odds that a vehicle you can use are so low that you’re not going to bother to sign up for it.”
Bruce Darling, executive director of the Center for Disability Rights New York State, told me that he “cut its teeth on fighting for access in transportation,” working with the direct action group ADAPT in the 1980s. Then the fight was to get lifts on busses, which happened. Today, the problem is corporations like Uber. Not only do they exclude huge communities such as in Jackson, Darling told me, but their attempts at accessible transit are “Little boutique pilot things. I’m not impressed. Disabled Americans are all over. If they were committed to access, they’d be committed to access all over. Instead, they are fighting us every step of the way.” The disability rights community thought public transportation and accessible taxis was largely a solved issue, but Uber, Lyft, and the others threaten to undo decades of progress.
The City of Chicago would not comment on a lawsuit between two private individuals, but an official did tell me that they are hearing from many individuals that the new accessible ride-sharing system is helping. An Uber spokesperson emailed me a statement reading, “We take this issue seriously, and we are committed to increasing mobility and freedom for all riders and drivers, which of course includes members of our communities with disabilities. There is always more to be done and we will continue working hard to expand access to affordable, reliable transportation options for all." Uber has not, to this point, responded to requests for a more substantive dialogue about the ADA and accessibility.
Ride sharing is not the only culprit. If you build a hotel, you are obligated to comply with ADA regulations about accessibility. Rent out your apartment to AirBNB and all bets are off. The company requires you to describe your space accurately and doesn’t allow you to discriminate against disabled guests (although I’ve heard numerous reports of alleged discrimination), but there’s no affirmative requirement for AirBNB to ensure sufficient numbers of accessible lodging options within a given area. My car is not wheelchair accessible, but I could drive for Uber. I could rent out my home, despite the fivesteps in front of my house. For that matter, if I charged you a fee for eating dinner in my home, I wouldn’t have to comply with disability law to make it accessible (though I would likely violate other food-related laws).
In the gig economy, profits pour in based on dodging the requirements of the regulatory state that enforce equal accessibility, pay, lack of discrimination, and basic economic justice. When vulnerable populations complain, they are brushed off with token responses and denial of legal culpability. Bruce Darling, the veteran activist, makes it clear he doesn’t think it has to be this way. “It is possible to provide equal access,” he says, when it comes to gig/sharing methods of doing business. But too often, disability wasn’t even on the radar as companies rushed to exploit deregulated business models. Darling says, of these companies, “They didn’t look at the needs up front, had they done that, it would have been a lot easier. We are the afterthought.”
This isn’t going to be the last lawsuit faced by Uber, its rivals, and other companies seeing profit in deregulated business models. I hope the legal battles push such companies towards a new commitment to justice and equality. The internet and app-based sharing economy is, in the scope of business history, still very new. There’s still time to hold such companies accountable to the core principles of equal access, reasonable accommodation, and disability justice in the workplace.