“Uber and Lyft have been touted as the taxis of the future,” wrote Michael Zoorob last summer in an editorial to the Houston Chronicle. Uber’s website says that "by seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers." Unfortunately, the promises from Uber and other transportation network companies (TNCs) of ‘seamless connection’ and ‘access’ do not extend to many people with disabilities.”
At the time he wrote his op-ed piece, Zoorob was an intern working at the non-profit Southwest ADA Center, a program of Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston. The Center is part of the ADA National Network funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to promote voluntary compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Staff members provide technical assistance, training and information dissemination in Texas and its four neighboring states.
Zoorob’s op-ed piece represented his personal opinions, a line carefully drawn by Vinh Nguyen, JD, program director of the Southwest ADA Center. “We are not an advocacy organization,” Nguyen says. “We do not take sides on an issue. Instead, we help businesses, organizations and the disability community by providing the information they need to advocate for their positions.”
Information provided by the Southwest ADA Center and other members of the ADA National Network has been invaluable to people with disabilities across Texas and throughout the nation. Through various organizations, they have sued Uber and other TNCs for violating their rights under the ADA, which bans discrimination by transportation services on the basis of disability. At issue is the TNCs’ argument that they are “ride-on-demand companies” rather than public-service providers, and as such are exempt from ADA compliance required of the “public accommodations” covered by the disability law.
“The disability community in Houston was concerned that companies like Uber, which use smart-phone apps to connect willing drivers of their own personal cars with interested riders, could threaten the fiscal viability of taxi companies who comply with the ADA – and ultimately erode the supply of transportation accessible to people with disabilities,” Nguyen says. “People with disabilities in general are less likely to drive and twice as likely to use a taxi service as people without disabilities. When the representatives from the Houston Commission on Disabilities approached us for information, we advised them on the law related to accessibility.”
During June through August of 2014, the Houston City Council held public discussions between Uber and Lyft representatives and members of the disability community. In the end, council members voted to apply the same accessibility requirements to Uber and other TNC companies – and increased the minimum required percentage of vehicles equipped to serve people with disabilities from 2% to 3%. Taking a broad view of accessibility, they also applied the same requirement to all vehicle companies operating in Houston, including limousines and shuttle buses.
In October 2014, Nguyen and ILRU legal specialist George Powers, JD, were appointed to the City of Houston’s newly created Transportation Accessibility Task Force to provide ADA policy guidance and make recommendations on the requirements for next year. “The task force’s goal is to ensure that the final ruling on the ride industry treats the established taxi industry fairly and ensures access for people with disabilities,” Nguyen says.
In December 2014, the Obama administration weighed in on the side of advocates for the blind in a San Francisco court suit accusing Uber of discriminating against passengers with guide dogs. In its court filing, the Justice Department required ADA compliance – equal treatment and reasonable accommodations for customers with disabilities – stating that a transportation company may not deny equal service to individuals with service animals. Lyft has since withdrawn from the Houston market for business reasons.
“Our goal at the Southwest ADA Center and ILRU is to remove barriers and create opportunities for independence for people with disabilities,” Nguyen says. “We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the passage of the ADA. As a nation we’ve opened many doors for Americans with disabilities since 1990. There’s still work to be done.”