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Uber And Lyft Struggle To Accommodate Disabled Passengers

A sticker with the Uber logo is displayed in the window of a car on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)
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Uber and Lyft will soon expand their operations to include LAX, but advocates say they still have a lot of catching up to do to improve access for disabled customers.As part of the agreement to allow ride-sharing apps to operate at LAX, a provision was included to require that disabled customers would be served as well. However, there doesn't appear to be any guidelines for how these companies will go about improving access, and they might have a long ways to go. At a hearing with airport officials back in February, Uber says they only had about 10 wheelchair-accessible vehicles. With such a low supply, the L.A. Times found that an Uber ride in one of those vehicles costs as much as a ride in an SUV.

"That price is something we're not proud of," said Uber operations manager Tim Foran at the hearing. "Our goal is to bring that cost down as much as possible by adding more demand and becoming more efficient."

On the other hand, a ride in a wheelchair-accessible taxi costs the same as any other taxi ride. "It's just blatant discrimination," said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

Both taxi and ride-sharing companies cannot compel drivers to buy or lease vehicles that are more accessible since they consider them independent contractors, but some taxi companies offer incentives such as bonuses for each ride or a discount on operating fees.

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Last year Uber launched an in-app option known as UberWAV, which will allow users to request wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Despite this, they were still hit with ADA-related lawsuits in three different states over the past year. In the California suit, Uber is being accused of discriminating against blind individuals by refusing to allow guide dogs in cars. In one case, a guide dog was locked in the trunk of a car.

Other disabled Uber riders describe miserable experiences where drivers refuse to or are hesitant to accommodate passengers with disabilities. In July, Uber, in conjunction with Open Doors Organization, launched uberASSIST, which provides drivers specifically trained to work with passengers with walkers, scooters and wheelchairs. However, that service is available only in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, and the training for drivers is merely voluntary.

As baby boomers continue to get older, many feel the need for such access will become a necessity. Although ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft are on the cutting edge when it comes to transportation and tech innovation, the fear is that they are excluding a growing segment of the population. Ruthee Goldkorn, an L.A.-based disability advocate, said to the L.A. Times that she felt these companies "really are ahead of their time," but adds that, "You can't leave people behind."

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