What is Uber doing to train its drivers on disability rights?

With looming lawsuits and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled people ask whether Uber can do more to ensure they're not refused rides from drivers.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
8 min read

Kristen Parisi has become a vocal critic of Uber after she was reportedly refused rides from drivers because she uses a wheelchair. Kristen Parisi

On a stormy April day in Boston, Kristen Parisi was trying to get home. Given the rain, she ordered an on-demand Uber ride rather than trying to make her way to the train station.

"The guy showed up in a good-sized Mercedes sedan," Parisi said. He took one look her, "and immediately was like, 'No, no, no. I can't take you.'"

Parisi, 30, is paralyzed from the waist down -- the result of an injury from a car accident when she was five. She gets around in a small manual wheelchair she says weighs about 15 pounds and can be easily folded to fit into a car's back seat or trunk.

Although the incident with the driver infuriated Parisi, she didn't report it to Uber. She thought it was a one-off fluke.

But then it happened again.

The second time, Parisi was on her way to the airport and was able to convince the driver to accept her ride, but it was an awful experience. The driver complained Parisi's wheelchair would dirty her car. Then, she forced Parisi to drag the wheelchair into the car herself. During the ride, Parisi said the driver berated her, saying just like she wouldn't drive a dog, she shouldn't be expected to take a wheelchair.

It was clear to Parisi this driver wasn't aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It made me so angry and frustrated because these laws are not there just for the sake of it, these laws are there for a reason," Parisi said. "They're there to protect everybody."

Parisi, a public-relations executive, has become a vocal critic of Uber, which pairs passengers with drivers via a smartphone app and is one of the world's most valuable startups.

Her key complaint is that Uber is not doing enough to train its drivers on the ADA. This federal law passed in 1990 and marked its 25th anniversary last week. Under the ADA, all transportation providers are required to accommodate wheelchairs if the equipment can be stowed in the vehicle. Drivers must also accommodate passengers with service animals, such as guide dogs. Currently, one in five people in the US have a disability, according to the US Census Bureau.

Parisi is not alone in her criticism of Uber. Other people who use wheelchairs have said drivers for Uber and its rival Lyft have refused them rides, resulting in lawsuits in Arizona and Texas. Blind people have also been reportedly discriminated against. A lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind of California last September points to more than 40 instances in which Uber drivers allegedly refused to give rides to blind passengers with guide dogs.

But Uber says it's doing a lot to support disabled passengers. The San Francisco-based company says its service helps people with disabilities because they can order an on-demand ride with the tap of a smartphone. Uber has also launched new features in several cities over the last year that let people request extra assistance or wheelchair-accessible vehicles if needed.

"We're a very young company but we're already making, I think, a significant difference in terms of more mobility options for people with disabilities," said David Plouffe, a former campaign manager and White House adviser for President Barack Obama who joined Uber in August 2014. "The ability for someone to press a button, or a family member to press a button, to get them a ride is a huge deal."

Still, the lingering question is: Will the person who shows up follow the law and give someone with a disability a ride?

'Law of mathematics'

Uber is the world's largest ride-hailing service. Since Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp founded the company in 2009, the service has expanded to operate in more than 250 cities in 58 countries. Uber has more than one million drivers and typically takes a 20 percent to 25 percent flat commission for each fare.

The service has also raked in billions in investment funding, becoming the highest-valued venture-backed company in the world, with a valuation of more than $50 billion, according to some estimates.

Uber has online materials that say drivers are not to discriminate against passengers with disabilities. In a July 9 blog post, the company wrote it "expects" drivers to "comply with all state, federal and local laws governing the transportation of riders with disabilities." And any reports of discrimination could lead to a driver being deactivated from the service.

Uber has an online video tutorial for drivers that explains how to best assist people with disabilities. Uber

Plouffe said drivers also receive documents when they sign up for Uber that say discrimination is against the company's code of conduct. Additionally, Uber has made an online video that drivers can choose to watch, which shows how to best assist people with disabilities.

"We've got a lot of drivers, so unfortunately the law of mathematics is that occasionally we may have somebody who doesn't understand for whatever reason," Plouffe said. "Sometimes we've seen instances where people say, 'well I've got leather seats and I don't want a dog on them.' That's just not okay."

Lyft's terms of service is similar to Uber's. It has policies that forbid discrimination and expect drivers to accommodate wheelchairs and service animals. Drivers that violate Lyft's policies also may face deactivation from the service.

Still, Uber and Lyft's training is minimal compared to that offered by the established taxi industry. Most cab companies require mandatory training on ADA compliance, according to Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association trade group. For example, Chicago taxi drivers are required to take classes to learn about service dogs, according to Beth Finke, who is the interactive community coordinator at the disability advocacy organization Easter Seals.

Some Uber and Lyft drivers say the companies haven't done enough to make drivers aware of non-discrimination policies.

"Since Uber doesn't provide much training in the first place, many drivers are left to figure it out and often feel like they're thrown to the wolves, especially when first starting," said Harry Campbell, a driver for both Uber and Lyft who authors a popular blog with tips for drivers. "There are a lot of things that Uber asks drivers to do and when there's no central repository to get good information, this is what can happen."

So why don't Uber and Lyft do more?

'A pretty big leap of faith'

Uber and Lyft's business models are built around drivers who are classified as "independent contractors," rather than employees. Under this model, drivers can be their own boss and drive whenever they want. But it also means that the ride-hailing services aren't responsible for driver costs including Social Security, health insurance, paid sick days, unemployment and overtime. Drivers supply and maintain their own cars, so the companies save a lot of money in operating and capital costs.

This business model has another potential benefit for Uber and Lyft -- these companies may be protected from liability for the actions of their drivers.

However, this approach to the ride-hailing business is under threat. Both companies are being sued for allegedly misclassifying their drivers as contractors. (A hearing on August 6 will determine whether the case against Uber should receive class action status.) If the lawsuits can show that Uber and Lyft exercise a certain amount of "control" over drivers, the companies may be forced to change the "independent contractor" classification. The types of control a judge may look at include whether or not the companies hire and fire drivers, provide drivers with specialized equipment and require any type of training.

"The big economic battle for Uber is going to be the employee versus independent contractor decision, that is a huge issue for Uber economically," said Steve Clark, a legal analyst and ex-prosecutor based in San Jose, California. "Uber is very careful in its terms of use and user agreements to say, 'We're only a ride-matching service, we're not a transportation service.'"

One of the unintended consequences of this debate is that Uber is delegating ADA training and compliance onto its drivers, Clark said. "Clearly the drivers have to follow the law. But the question is who informs them of the law?" he added. Uber effectively is saying it expects drivers to know the law, Clark said, but "I think that's a pretty big leap of faith."

In the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind of California, Uber argues that since it's an app-based technology company, it doesn't fall under the ADA's definition of public accommodation. But the US Department of Justice disagrees. In a December filing with the court, the DOJ said it doesn't matter whether a company provides transportation itself or contracts it out -- it still has to comply with the ADA.

"While an entity may contract out its service," the DOJ wrote, "it may not contract away its ADA responsibilities."

'It's really simple'

In several cities, Uber has a feature called UberAssist, which lets passengers request a driver trained to accommodate people with disabilities. Uber

After Parisi's last experience with Uber, she contacted the company to report the incident. During one of many phone conversations with the ride-hailing service, she gave recommendations on how to better work with people with disabilities. Her advice included add disabled consultants to Uber's staff, be more transparent about its policies on enforcing the ADA and make drivers go through an online training course that includes a test at the end.

Uber has also heard from one of the original co-authors of the ADA, former US Rep. Tony Coelho (D., Calif.). Coelho, who has epilepsy and is unable to drive, is a strong supporter of Uber. He says being able to order a ride in a matter of minutes makes a tremendous difference in his and other disabled people's lives.

"Of all those things that have changed because of the ADA, the transportation industry has been the slowest to catch on," Coelho said.

Discrimination against people with disabilities happens across the transportation sector, he said, and Uber is just one of many that's had issues. Rather than criticize the ride-hailing company, Coelho said he believes a better approach is to encourage best practices. "Those of us who are believers in the ADA and getting services for people with disabilities need to be aggressive with Uber to make sure they follow through," he said.

Over the past year, Uber has offered new features for people with disabilities. One is called UberAssist, which lets passengers request a driver trained to accommodate disabled people. It's available in 10 cities in the US and in Australia. There's also UberAccess, which specifically hails vehicles that can fit large wheelchairs. This service is offered in five US cities, so far. Uber has also added features to its app for blind and deaf people, including wireless Braille displays and vibrating alerts.

Still, disability advocates say there's more work to be done, particularly when it comes to driver training. Just last week, a blind man on the way to the veterinarian with his guide dog was denied a ride from an Uber driver in Wisconsin.

"The training required for these very simple services is not extensive," said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund who uses a wheelchair. "We really want to be just like everybody else, and in fact we are just like everyone else. Riding with a service animal or bringing a wheelchair with you is not challenging for drivers. It's really simple."

Update, August 4 at 2:05 p.m. PT: Clarifies that Uber says it's an app-based technology company, so it reportedly doesn't fit under the Americans with Disabilities Act's definition of public accommodation.