Understanding Equal Access In The Age Of The Sharing Economy

Because of competition from ridesharing companies, there are few bright spots in the taxi industry these days. But by law, Chicago's wheelchair accessible fleet will soon total 400 cars. And here, that's good news for everyone - taxis, Uber, Lyft, the City of Chicago and people with disabilities. Imagine that, rideshare companies working with the taxi industry to drive demand for the hundreds of wheelchair taxis required by Chicago's regulations! In the sharing economy, opportunities can exist as contradictions.

Continued growth of the sharing economy has challenged our understanding of some our most fundamental business and societal constructs. Indeed, the very concept of the "free market" continues to evolve as new technology-enabled platforms change the way the world exchanges goods and services. These unsettling questions reach into every corner of our lives, challenging our understanding and application of some of our most sacred legal and civic institutions, including the bedrock American imperative for full, fair and equal access for everyone in our increasingly diverse country.

A recently filed federal lawsuit against the rideshare company Uber got me thinking about how the sharing economy affects people with disabilities like me. The lawsuit, championed by some prominent local disability right advocates, alleges that Uber has violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against people with wheelchairs. Since the ADA personally and directly impacts my quality of life as well as my livelihood, reflexively I wanted to side with fellow activists who - as they see it - are fighting to protect the ADA. But the professional experience I have helping people with disabilities get around caused me to give this issue a deeper look. How should our community approach - literally and figuratively - and shape our ridesharing future? And will we benefit when we approach an app-based reality with a "fax machine" mentality?

The ride share business seems simple to me. You own a car and want to make a couple extra bucks, so you sign up on Uber (or Lyft). You earn money by driving people in your vehicle from point A to point B in return for a fee calculated on the basis of distance and time traveled. That's it! You're hooking up with fellow citizens, in the process efficiently addressing critical transportation and employment-related issues our country faces. It seems like the free market at its best.

But just like the odd relative who still relies on the fax machine, some in the disability community don't get it yet. They think it makes sense to force rideshare companies to become transportation companies; to buy accessible vehicles, hire drivers and pay for expenses such as insurance and vehicle maintenance. But the rideshare apps are already accessible. They make it easy for someone with an accessible vehicle to use it to serve someone else with a disability who may not have access to transportation.

And herein lies the problem and the opportunity. People with disabilities and their family members with access to accessible vehicles aren't participating - at least not in any significant numbers - in ridesharing. Some would impose a "separate but equal" solution. But do we want the rideshare companies, who own no vehicles, to buy them just for us?

Has our community in general - and advocacy groups in particular -- made sufficient effort to encourage "us" to sign up to use our own vehicles to serve ourselves? Why is someone asking for separate treatment on our behalf? After all, doesn't the "share" in "rideshare" imply exactly that? Is this lawsuit an important effort to protect the rights of people with disabilities or is it a patronizing act of dinosaurs who are making us look like we are not ready for the tech-driven new economy? Since people with disabilities have benefited greatly from technological innovation, we truly understand just how ironic this is.

On a recent trip to the Philippines I used Uber in Manila. This turned out to be a much nicer and easier option than the usual alternative, especially for someone with my limited mobility. This experience is one small example of a much larger truth, that many of us in the disability community do understand how the sharing economy works and how it can be harnessed to benefit us. We are ready to do business.

All that said, our ability to drive business in this market depends on a variety of factors. We recognize that taxis and ridesharing arrangements aren't options for everyone. That's why we must remain persistent in efforts to invest in a more accessible and dependable public transportation system. Making CTA's "EL" more accessible, for example, remains a work in progress that is deserving of attention from Chicago's disability advocates.

I am proud to say that my organization, Open Doors Organization/Open Taxis, is also working to develop innovative solutions for this market. We are partnering with the City of Chicago and ridesharing companies to encourage more individuals in the disability community to sign up as drivers. In addition, Open Taxis, which is the Centralized Dispatch for over 220 wheelchair accessible Chicago taxis, is already working to integrate our cars and drivers into the rideshare system. Already known for having one of the most accessible and disability-friendly taxi fleets in the world, the latest developments will continue to burnish Chicago's position as a disability-friendly mecca.

As people with disabilities, all we expect is the same options and opportunities; not just because that's good for us, but because it's good for everybody. When I can go shopping more easily, the economy benefits and when or I get to doctor's appointment on time to manage my costly chronic conditions, our struggling healthcare system benefits along with my health. That's how the new economy works. And the disability community will benefit from participating in that economy rather than suing it.