Mass. attorney general to meet with Uber, Lyft over disabled access

Maura Healey 920

A campaign to increase the accessibility of Uber and Lyft may be getting traction, after criticism by advocates and officials who say the companies are defying the law by not serving passengers who use wheelchairs and others with disabilities.

Uber and Lyft said they will meet with the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, which said Friday that it was looking at how the two firms accommodate riders with disabilities. While it’s not a formal investigation, Healey’s office pointedly described equal access for people with disabilities as a serious issue that needs to be addressed. The review was first reported by Reuters.

Meanwhile, the Disability Law Center in Boston said Uber has tentatively agreed to meet with leaders of the local disability community to discuss their longstanding concerns, after they began lobbying the Legislature in May to require ride-hailing companies to accommodate those riders with wheelchairs and other needs.

In separate statements, Uber and Lyft said they were looking forward to discussing the issue with Healey’s office and were working to introduce accessible options in Boston. Neither set of meetings has been scheduled yet.

Advocates said they were heartened to see Healey’s interest. But they were not optimistic that the talks would immediately result in improved service for the disabled.

“They make the same vague promises — they say they want to meet the demand of the disabled community, but they’re not meeting the demand,” Disability Law Center executive director Christine Griffin said. “There should be a penalty. They’re acting like they’re just coming into the market, but of course they’ve been around a long time now.”

Still, Griffin said she believes conversations with the ride-hailing companies will be more constructive than legal action, at least for now.

Uber, for one, has said it provides a technology service — connecting riders with independent drivers — and is not a transportation company that would be legally obligated to provide service to riders with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

But both Uber and Lyft have been sued in other states over their treatment of people with disabilities.

A lawsuit filed by the California chapter of the National Federation of the Blind in September said Uber’s contract drivers illegally denied service to a number of vision-impaired passengers with guide dogs; the two sides agreed in May to attempt to mediate the dispute. In Texas last year, a woman sued Lyft for not having a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

Uber and Lyft say they train their drivers to pick up anyone who requests a ride. But in many areas, including Boston, the companies acknowledged they do not have vans capable of transporting larger motorized wheelchairs, drawing the ire of advocates who say the companies are legally required to do so.

And anecdotes abound of individual drivers mistreating passengers with disabilities, including an incident in which a Boston-area woman said an Uber driver refused to pick her up and called her an “invalid.”

A bill proposed by Governor Charlie Baker to regulate Uber and other transportation network companies is pending before the Legislature.

Longtime state lawmaker Thomas Kennedy, who had quadriplegia from age 19 until his death in June at 63, said in May that he intended to introduce an amendment to Baker’s bill requiring ride-hailing companies to accommodate passengers who need vans with wheelchair lifts. With his death, Kennedy’s chief of staff, Nicholas Doherty, said the effort needs a new sponsor.

“It meant a lot to him. He was passionate about it and would have liked to see some sort of agreement,” Doherty said. “It would be up to another legislator to carry the torch now.”

Meanwhile, several Boston lawmakers filed legislation supported by taxi drivers that would more tightly regulate Uber and similar companies than the one proposed by Baker. The measure would require each company to maintain one wheelchair-accessible vehicle for every 100 in its network, and mandate that drivers pick up riders with service animals.

Boston’s taxi fleet includes 100 wheelchair-accessible vans, though only 18 meet federal standards, according to the city.

Uber has responded to the criticism by adding features to support disabled contractors and passengers, making its smartphone app compatible with speech-to-text functions, and contracting with wheelchair-accessible vans in a number of cities.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Uber reiterated that the company believes it is subject to the ADA only “as a technology company.”

But in April, the judge presiding over the California lawsuit rejected a motion by Uber to dismiss the case, saying the federation had standing to sue under the ADA.