Uber’s decision to not offer wheelchair-accessible service in every US market does not violate the federal law prohibiting discrimination against disabled individuals, a federal judge ruled this week.
The ruling represents a win for the ride-hailing service, which has been criticized by disability advocates for providing only limited wheelchair-accessible service in a handful of cities.
Two motorized wheelchair users, one in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the other in Jackson, Mississippi, sued Uber over the lack of accessible service in either city. Both plaintiffs use wheelchairs that can’t be folded and placed in a trunk. They claimed that Uber was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits businesses from discriminating against people based on their disabilities.
Uber argued it would be prohibitively expensive to offer wheelchair service in every city. The company estimated “bare minimum” annual costs of $800,000 in New Orleans, or about $400 per ride, and $550,000 in Jackson, or about $1,000 per ride, by partnering with commercial providers of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
Chief Judge Richard Seeborg of the federal court in San Francisco agreed, ruling that the plaintiffs provided “scant evidence” that Uber could run a cost-effective wheelchair-accessible service in either city. Even if Uber spent the money to launch wheelchair-accessible services, wait times for disabled passengers would be “significant,” Seeborg wrote.
“The anticipated cost here is too high for the limited service that would result, making the proposed modification unreasonable,” the judge ruled.
But Seeborg did reject part of Uber’s argument. The company claimed that it was excused from providing wheelchair-accessible service in every market because it has already done its “fair share” of providing service in other cities.
“Although Uber is correct that just because it has taken an action in one city does not mean it is obligated to take that action in another city, the language ‘fair share’ implies that WAV users are due a finite number of resources,” Seeborg wrote. “The ADA does not adopt such an approach, however, and evaluates each proposed modification for its reasonableness.”
“We welcome the outcome and are proud of our efforts to improve accessibility for all users, including through Uber WAV,” Uber spokesperson Carissa Simons said in a statement.
Scott Crawford, a wheelchair-user from Jackson and a lead plaintiff in the case, said the judge is putting the burden on disabled people to figure out the business case for Uber’s wheelchair service, which he called “backwards.”
“It’s disappointing that today, on the 32nd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that a big corporation is left free to discriminate against people with disabilities in the capital (and largest metro region) of the State of Mississippi,” Crawford wrote in an email to The Verge.
This is the second ruling this month related to Uber’s wheelchair-accessible service. Last week, the company settled a lawsuit with the US Department of Justice over allegations that it discriminated against disabled passengers. As part of the agreement, Uber will credit double the total wait fees issued to the 65,000 disabled riders already identified by Uber’s programs and commit more than $2 million to funds for other affected individuals.
Update July 26th 4:50PM ET: Updated to include a statement from one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Andrew J. Hawkins