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Uber Launches Wheelchair-Accessible Service In D.C. After Years Of Criticism

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Uber will meet its deadline to provide wheelchair-accessible vans in D.C., but will the number of such vehicles actually increase?
(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Uber will meet its deadline to provide wheelchair-accessible vans in D.C., but will the number of such vehicles actually increase?

After years of criticism alleging it failed to serve people with disabilities, Uber is launching wheelchair-accessible van (WAV) service in Washington — three weeks before a deadline to submit to the D.C. Council its plan for expanding accessible transportation in the District.

Rebuffed by taxi companies for months, Uber reached agreements with individual D.C. cabbies who rent WAVs to dispatch the rides through its Uber Taxi platform. A company official declined to say how many drivers signed up.

“We have enough to launch and always are looking for more,” said Zuhairah Washington, Uber’s general manager in the capital.

Sticking with its business model, Uber will not own any of the WAVs. Instead, the ride-hailing app will access the vans with wheelchair-ramps already in circulation, driven by licensed Washington cab drivers.

There are about 150 such vans available, but about 40 have sat in lots unused. Some cab companies that own the vehicles have struggled to rent them to drivers, who often prefer the cheaper rental fee of a regular taxi. The participation rate is climbing, however, because the D.C. Taxicab Commission has increased subsidies to entice companies and drivers to purchase and use the WAVs.

Uber’s Washington said the new arrangement will get more of the underutilized WAVs on the streets.

“We're hoping with this option we will get more and more on the platform, and ensure that folks throughout the District have an accessible option,” she said.

Disability rights advocates are not convinced Uber’s new service is an improvement. Instead of growing the total number of WAVs in the District, Uber may be gaining access to existing vehicles that were purchased by public subsidies.

“We really need them to pitch in and increase the number of accessible vehicles that are available to people with disabilities,” said Carol Tyson with the United Spinal Association.

“We know there are individuals out there who would like to be driving wheelchair-accessible vehicles for Uber. We have talked to them. We know they've reached out to Uber. We'd like Uber to work with those folks,” Tyson added.

Uber has a notable ally in its efforts to convince the public it is committed to serving people with disabilities: former California Congressman Tony Coelho, a primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In an interview, Coelho said he was acting as a pro-bono spokesman for the tech company.

“Technology is the friend of the disability community,” he said. “Uber is only five years old and they have made a major impact on the disability community… I’ve met with their accessibility group in San Francisco, and they are really trying hard to make Uber accessible for those with motorized chairs.”

“They are making great progress,” he added. “The people who are criticizing should be applauding the progress Uber has made for our community in just five years.”

Uber is facing several lawsuits from blind people who claim drivers rejected their seeing-eye dogs, and from motorized wheelchair users. Uber has claimed its drivers — not the company itself — are responsible for upholding relevant provisions of the ADA because they are independent contractors.

By Jan. 1 Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing apps are required to submit their plan for improving wheelchair-accessible transportation to the D.C. Council.

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