For more than 30 years United Spinal Association has led the fight for affordable, accessible transportation, and today this includes holding Uber accountable to provide rides to all wheelchair users.
Thanks to a lawsuit filed by United Spinal CEO James Weisman in 1979 and settled in 1984 — years before the law he helped to draft, the Americans with Disabilities Act, became law — New York City became one of the first cities in the United States to require buses have lifts.
In 1988, United Spinal negotiated a settlement to make Philadelphia’s bus and commuter rail system accessible and to establish paratransit.
Then, 20 years ago, United Spinal teamed up with the Taxis For All campaign to get more accessible cabs on the roads in New York and other cities as well. That fight seemed to draw to a close with a landmark settlement in 2013 requiring 50 percent of all taxis in New York to be accessible by 2020.
Weisman says at this point in our history all transportation options should be developed to serve everyone. “There should be universal design and let’s stop this nonsense. We said all buses should be accessible, and people with disabilities did that, made that happen. That wasn’t government, that was advocates.”
And now advocates must band together to make a whole new mode of transportation accessible for everyone, including wheelchair users, as it seems transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft didn’t think about how to serve our population when developing their products. How did this happen? “The truth is no one cares about disability stuff, it’s not offensive enough,” says Weisman, who notes if any other community had been left out, there would have been hell to pay. “It is offensive to us, though. It is to us.”
But the biggest obstacle in this contemporary transportation battle is that the TNC model isn’t based on a fleet, but rather on drivers of private cars, who are considered independent contractors, not employees. “So where does the money come from to buy accessible cars? Uber could afford to do it themselves,” says Weisman. “A legislator could say, ‘look, we don’t care how you do it, but one in so many cars will be accessible.’ But government doesn’t have the nerve to do that. They could say, ‘You figure out how to make it happen and we’ll pay in Medicare/Medicaid payments,’ and let Uber take over those calls. There are ways to make it happen, and if you forced Uber to do it, it would work. They’d figure it out.”
After all, bus companies figured out how to operate lifts, and taxi companies figured out how to run accessible cabs. TNCs like Uber and Lyft can figure out how to provide rides to all passengers, including power wheelchair users, as well.