As a Los Angeles resident, I use Uber. A LOT. Whether it’s for a cheap trip to the airport, a less stressful trek across town at rush hour, or a responsible option when drinking is involved, Uber is so popular in this city that Uber cars may possibly outnumber other cars on the streets of L.A.
As a wheelchair user, I was happy to discover that Uber introduced their uberASSIST option a couple of years ago. It offers the same pricing structure as uberX (their lowest price options, besides uberPOOL), but drivers must be “specially trained” to cater to the needs of disabled passengers. It sounded good to me, plus I was impressed with Uber’s corporate responsibility that led to this product offering.
I’ve had mixed experiences using uberASSIST. To save money, I often use uberPOOL in, but when uberASSIST is only slightly more expensive, I may opt for it instead. My reasoning for using uberASSIST is less about how much help they can offer, but rather, more about the driver knowing what to expect when picking me up. Using regular Uber, I’ve had drivers go right past me and cancel the trip (although I’ve yet to be able to prove this to Uber) because, presumably, they didn’t want to “deal with” my wheelchair. Another time, the driver refused to drive me because of his “leather seats” and lack of room in his trunk, due to “his stereo”.
Overall, I’ve had very positive Uber experiences, but my experiences with uberASSIST never stand out in comparison to those I’ve had with regular Uber. I always expect (or hope for) uberASSIST drivers to disassemble/assemble my manual TiLite wheelchair with ease and limited-to-no instructions. This has yet to happen. In fact, some regular Uber drivers have been more adept than uberASSIST drivers.
The Uber website defines the program as such: “uberASSIST driver-partners can provide door-to-door support for riders who may need an extra helping hand.” So all of those times I’ve taken uberASSIST from the airport to my apartment door, I could’ve had the driver take my bag up to my apartment rather than drag it cumbersomely from the back of my wheelchair? Missed opportunity! However, no uberASSIST driver has ever offered to assist me in lugging my bag to my door, despite my obvious difficulty.
After digging a little deeper, I found an uberASSIST Education Guide website and the website of the organization that trains uberASSIST drivers. When I perused the uberASSIST driver resources, it became clear that a lot of their educational info and videos were focused less on physical aide and much more on safety requirements, vehicle size requirements, and, at least, there’s an entire section about how to “speak about disabilities (person-first language)” and “approach assisting someone.” A resourceful Uber employee even created an acronym for uberASSIST drivers to use – W.A.L.L.:
- WATCH: Be observant of a passenger and their abilities.
- ASK: Never hesitate to ask for a person’s preferences and don’t make assumptions.
- LISTEN: Pay attention to what a customer says and act on it. Feel free to repeat their instructions for clarity.
- LEARN: Store this information and experience to build on for next time!
I feel that Uber’s mission behind uberASSIST is much more related to a favorable brand image/identity as opposed to actually serving ALL needs of ALL disabled people as it applies to ride sharing (a common approach in the corporate world). In addition to my issues with uberASSIST drivers lacking the knowledge to assemble/disassemble my wheelchair, there is also a clear inability to offer an option for power wheelchair users. A program like uberASSIST appears to be incomplete without being able to offer accessible vans with ramps. I discovered that the reason uberASSIST does not offer accessible van services is that they do already provide that service under another name; uberWAV was launched in Toronto in early 2016 to address the needs of people requiring wheelchair-accessible vehicles (vans).
Months after its inception in Canada, uberWAV was launched in the U.S., but only in a handful of cities. After more research, I learned that uberASSIST is also only available in select cities in the U.S. While uberASSIST is offered at the same rate as uberX, uberWAV is significantly higher. The rates fluctuate, but I recently checked the rates on one of my frequent trips, and the uberWAV option was almost 66% higher than the uberASSIST option. Not only that, but every time I’ve checked the availability of an uberWAV vehicle, the Uber app comes back with “No Vehicles Found.” By the way, I live 2 miles from Los Angeles International Airport – if there’s anywhere you’d have a decent chance of finding an uberWAV vehicle, it would be in my neighborhood!
uberASSIST and uberWAV definitely have much room for improvement. Considering that one of the key requirements of uberASSIST drivers is that their vehicle can accommodate assistive devices like wheelchairs and scooters, it’s odd that their educational program doesn’t include instructions on HOW to accommodate said devices. Without such knowledge, drivers could damage someone’s device or damage their own car. Also, the company should make more of an effort to provide accessible vans everywhere and at a comparable cost to uberASSIST. The program has been in existence for more than 2 years, and Uber has had numerous lawsuits related to disabled passengers: it’s time the company revamps its strategy.
Written by Julia Hodge (California)