Uber and Airbnb Leave Disabled People Behind

Uber is facing a lawsuit for discriminating against blind passengers, while many Airbnb rentals don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

10.04.14 10:45 AM ET

As the so-called “sharing economy” continues to upend the transportation and hotel industries, companies like Uber and Airbnb now serve millions of customers each year. The problem? These peer-to-peer services, which are better for the environment as well as our wallets, have virtually segregated more than 15 percent of our American peers: people with disabilities.

Last month, the California chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against Uber for discriminating against blind passengers. According to the lawsuit, drivers working for UberX—the less expensive version of the car service—have done everything from physically injuring blind passengers in a mad rush to drive off without them, to shoving a seeing eye dog into the trunk and refusing to stop the car once the passenger realized what was happening.

As Tim Redmond writes on 48Hills, “The sharing economy is set up for people who are healthy and able-bodied. There aren’t many wheelchair-capable Lyft cars. And, according to longtime disability rights activist Bob Planthold, Airbnb and VRBO aren’t doing much for the disabled community, either.”

When it comes to Uber, you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Lovers choose the service over a traditional taxicab not only because it’s incredibly easy to “hail” a car with the smartphone app, but you can also pay for the ride with your smartphone. No wrangling with credit card machines or digging for change. But Uber haters say that the company is killing the traditional taxi industry, poaching practically every passenger with a smartphone under the age of 40—especially in the wealthier parts of town.

Regardless of which side of the Uber fence you’re on, blind individuals simply trying to take advantage of Uber’s services shouldn’t be subjected to physical battery when they hail a car.

In an email to The Daily Beast, attorney Timothy Elder, who’s representing the NFB in their lawsuit, explains that Uber’s discriminatory practices violate sections 302 and 304 of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These sections call for “equal access to the services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations offered by private entities operating taxi services, and they specifically require that transportation providers permit service animals to accompany passengers with disabilities in vehicles,” writes Elder.

While the $3.5 billion company has publicly stated that it regrets these incidents, Uber reportedly told the NFB they struggle to regulate drivers’ behavior toward passengers since drivers are considered independent contractors.

Like Uber, Airbnb pays lip service to accessibility, but the company does little-to-nothing to ensure that at least some of their properties are actually ADA compliant.

For less money than a traditional hotel room, Airbnb users stay in short-term apartment rentals in the neighborhoods of their choice. The website’s search filters do include a “Wheelchair Accessible” option, but ever since Airbnb’s website redesign in July, this option has been virtually buried from view. It took me three separate attempts on Airbnb’s site to locate the accessibility filter, by clicking the “More Filters” tab, then scrolling through the amenities list until we reached the very end. (Features like “Wireless Internet” and “Kitchen,” however, are obvious on the first try)

Airbnb’s accessibility problem is bigger than just the tedious search process, too. Say a user does try to locate an accessible rental through Airbnb’s traditional search filters, using the elusive “accessible” option. The fact that a rental’s proprietor has checked off their listing as “Wheelchair Accessible” means practically nothing. When I sifted though hundreds of Airbnb listings tagged as “Wheelchair Accessible,” I found countless apartments with steps at the entrance or 24-inch bathroom doors that no standard wheelchair could ever fit through.

To add insult to injury, Airbnb’s website is apparently incompatible with software that blind users rely on to access the Internet. Quoting Bob Planthold, Tim Redmond writes, “Airbnb’s website is NOT accessible. One person who is blind uses the “Jaws” screenreader software. That person wanted to list availability of space through Airbnb, but couldn’t.”

To be fair, it’s not just sharing economy services like Uber and Airbnb that exclude people with disabilities. In his email, Elders conceded, “We have received reports that taxi drivers working with traditional taxicab companies have also refused to transport blind customers with guide dogs because of their service animals.” But there’s no reason for these peer-to-peer companies to simply throw their hands the air and insist they’re stuck when it comes to including customers with disabilities.

If more city governments would keep citizens with disabilities in mind when ruling on whether to allow companies like Uber to operate, perhaps these start-ups would try harder to honor the ADA and other civil rights legislation. This summer, Houston took a step in the right direction when it approved Uber and Lyft with the stipulation that at least three percent of all peer-to-peer cars are wheelchair accessible, and that the companies agree to work with a special task force on ride-sharing services and disability issues.

Elder and the NFB have approached Uber with their own set of suggestions. The group is advocating—among other new policies—to “randomly deploy blind testers who use guide dogs to proactively identify–for retraining or termination–drivers who refuse to transport individuals with disabilities.”

The NFB approached the car service before suing them, hoping to avoid a lawsuit altogether. But Uber failed to take any steps in fixing their civil rights problem.

With the increasingly mainstream popularity of services like Uber and Airbnb, it’s clear these peer-to-peer services are here to stay. But it’s also clear that, for these new sharing economy companies, you’re no peer of theirs if you have a disability.