Ridesharing and the ADA
By: Anna Lussier
“All of us recognize the crucial role transportation plays in our lives. It is the veritable lifeline which enables all persons to enjoy the full economic and social benefits which our country offers. To be denied effective transportation is to be denied the full benefits of employment, public and private services, and other basic opportunities.”
— Rep. Luken while debating the ADA (1990)
Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. This landmark piece of civil rights legislation aims to prohibit discrimination and create more access for people with disabilities in all facets of life. Specifically, Title III of the ADA governs “public accommodations” that are operated by private entities. Public accommodations provide people with disabilities access to the goods and services offered to the rest of the general public. For instance, access for people with disabilities must be provided at places of recreation such as stadiums, zoos, and museums. There must be accommodations available to attendees of public displays, like galleries. Sales or rental establishments must also comply, as must social services centers. Denying someone access to or preventing use of a good, service, or accommodation because of their disability is discrimination. 1
Ridesharing has become a $60 billion international industry, with projections of a quarter of a billion dollars in market value within the next five years. The business model is based on a simple premise: riders use an app on their phone to arrange one-way service on short notice, using a credit card or PayPal to complete the transaction.The largest companies within this space are Uber and Lyft.
Uber claims that its technology is “helping to increase mobility and independence for riders with disabilities….” One way that Uber tries to accomplish this is through specialty services such as UberWAV, which offers wheelchair-accessible vehicles that can accommodate riders with disabilities. UberAccess and UberAssist offer drivers who are trained and certified to assist passengers getting in and out of vehicles with assistive devices like walkers, but they don’t offer wheelchair ramps.
Tony Coelho, co-author of the ADA, is quoted on Uber’s website stating that “WAV will empower people requiring wheelchair-accessible vehicles to get a ride when they need one simply by pressing a button.”2
But how are UberWAV and other ridesharing apps working in practice? Many people who use wheelchairs have reported that Uber and Lyft have substandard or even non-existent services for them. 3 Significantly, accessible ridesharing options such as UberWAV are not available in New Hampshire. Even for a city like Manchester, accessible Uber or Lyft options are not available. 4 Only the standard Uber and Lyft services, including UberX, UberXL, Lyft and Lyft XL, are available to New Hampshire residents.
Although ridesharing companies are working to provide accessible services to people with disabilities, these services often fall short and are not equally available to all people with disabilities. Even when services are purportedly available, discriminatory behavior can occur. For example, during a vacation to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Dorene Giacopini ordered a ride on her rideshare app to go to dinner with her husband. Ms. Giacopini has spina bifida and needs to use a wheelchair for mobility. When she saw the car approaching, the driver saw her wheelchair and just kept on driving. Reflecting on this experience, Ms. Giacopini said, “[I]t was incredibly frustrating…it makes you feel like you’re being treated as a second-class citizen, that you don’t count.” 5
Melissa Riess, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, says [referring to Lyft] that “[t]here is not a place in this country where they are providing wheelchair-accessible service at a level which is equivalent to what they provide to people who don’t need wheelchair-accessible service.” This, she says, is discrimination. 6
To resolve this issue, people with disabilities have been taking legal action against ridesharing companies. Ms. Giacopini is one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Lyft. This lawsuit, like similar lawsuits against Lyft and Uber in New York, Chicago, and other cities throughout the country, alleges that ridesharing companies are in violation of the ADA.
However, winning an ADA lawsuit against these ridesharing companies is proving more difficult than many first envisioned. Generally, Title III of the ADA requires transportation services like taxis to be made more accessible. Whether ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft are subject to Title III is still an unsettled question. While Title III does not provide one clear definition of a public accommodation, the ADA lists types of private entities that are considered public accommodations.
Many people have made the argument that if ridesharing companies are considered
public accommodations, then they most likely fall within the “services operated by private entities” category. This category states that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of specified public transportation services provided by a private entity that is primarily engaged in the
business of transporting people and whose operations affect commerce.” 8
Uber and Lyft have argued that they are not actually public accommodations and should not be subject to the accessibility requirements of the ADA. The ADA considers private entities to be a type of “public accommodation” if they are “primarily engaged in the business of transporting people.” Uber and Lyft have tried to argue that they are primarily technology companies, not transportation companies, and because of this, they argue that they are exempt from ADA regulations. So far, judges have mostly rejected this argument and allowed lawsuits against Uber and Lyft to move forward.
Pending and future litigation will provide more answers about the type of access and accommodation that must be provided by ridesharing companies. Because of their advocacy efforts, people with mobility impairments and other disabilities are making progress to ensure that companies like Uber and Lyft change their policies to make their services more accessible.
1 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a).