By Joan Leotta
Need a Ride? The founders of industry wunderkind, Uber, believe that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes,” heard from people of all abilities, all over the world. As the ride-sharing platform continues to expand, the fundamentals of the company blueprint remain unchanged. Exciting inroads have been made to connect Uber to people with disabilities—mobility and otherwise – as both riders and drivers. To better understand the company’s evolution in accessibility, SMG interviewed Malcom Glenn, Uber spokesperson and Strategic Partnerships Manager.
SMG: When did Uber integrate accessible transportation into its business model?
Glenn: Accessibility has been a part of our platform since the beginning. We certainly didn’t start as a company with the mission to deliver transportation to everyone, but over time we’ve realized that there’s an amazing appetite for transportation from many communities for which transportation has been a barrier – including people with disabilities. In the last couple of years, we’ve really started to make internal changes to create a renewed focus around accessibility, creating specific teams and accessibility-focused roles, making significant improvements to the platform, and extensively engaging with members of the disability community to get feedback and learn where we can improve.
In the two years since I’ve joined the company, I’ve been heartened to see how much of a focus this has been across all functions. We still have a lot of work to do, but I think with continued engagement with the community, we’ll continue to find the best solutions and ultimately come that much closer to fulfilling our mission of providing reliable transportation for everyone, everywhere.
SMG: What accessibility options are available on your app?
Glenn: Using Uber is really two different experiences; first, it’s interacting with the app (from both a driver and a rider perspective), and second, it’s interacting with another person in the real world (again, as both a rider and a driver). For riders who are blind or have low vision, we’ve made the app accessible with VoiceOver iOS, Android TalkBack, and compatible with wireless braille display. We’ve also taken significant steps to provide drivers with information about their obligations to transport riders with service animals. Audio is not needed to use the Uber app, though assistive technology such as visible and vibrating alerts can help riders who are deaf or hard of hearing.
There are now thousands of deaf and hard of hearing drivers on the Uber platform in the US who are providing more rides per month on average than hearing drivers. Drivers who are deaf have collectively earned well over $10 million, after we made changes to the app a few years ago that allows drivers to self-identify as deaf or hard of hearing. This unlocks features that improve the experience for both drivers and riders. For this work, we were recognized last year by the Ruderman Family Foundation as one of 18 companies leading the way in supporting people with disabilities.
When it comes to riders with mobility needs, we’ve launched our UberWAV (wheelchair-accessible vehicle) in many US cities, connecting riders with drivers in cars equipped with ramps or lifts. UberWAV is currently being piloted in several US cities using a variety of models – everything from working with commercial partners to taxi providers to leasing/rental models. A more in-depth look at our accessibility offerings is at https://accessibility.uber.com/
SMG: Did Uber consult with any disability organizations to develop the Uber WAV program?
Glenn: Working with disability organizations has been paramount to growth of all of our accessibility offerings, including UberWAV. We’ve talked extensively with various national and local organizations about our different UberWAV models, and their feedback has helped inform our getting pilots out onto the road. The leading organizations representing blind people were also integral in helping us improve app accessibility and get into place a robust service animal policy. Finally, we partnered with the Communication Service for the Deaf, the largest deaf-led nonprofit in the United States, to expand opportunities for deaf men and women. We’ve also worked with members of the deaf community including the National Association of the Deaf and Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI) to design and implement a series of fully optional product capabilities to improve the driver experience.
SMG: At present, we see WAV only available in NYC, DC, Chicago, and Portland. Are there plans to expand it to other cities? If so, which ones?
Glenn: In addition to those cities, we’ve recently launched pilots in Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto, and additional WAV options exist in cities like Austin, Houston, and San Francisco, not to mention internationally in places like London and Sydney. We’re always looking for new partnerships that can help expand the number of cities where UberWAV is an option.
SMG: Can you estimate the percentage of Uber riders who require accommodations for Deaf/HoH, Blind/Low Vision, and Limited Mobility?
Glenn: Because we don’t ask for this information from riders, it’s very difficult to estimate the number of riders who have disabilities. But more than 10 million rides take place on the Uber platform every day all across the globe, and we regularly receive feedback from riders and drivers that leads us to believe that a sizable number of both riders and drivers with disabilities are benefiting from the platform.
SMG: What are the limitations for WAV when a rider has a wheelchair? Does WAV only cover manual wheelchairs? How do you address power chairs and scooters?
Glenn: All drivers are expected to accommodate riders using walkers, canes, folding wheelchairs or other assistive devices to the maximum extent possible. Because the nature of the Uber platform in most places is people using their own vehicles, driving when and where they want, we look to form partnerships in order to have vehicles on the platform that can accommodate power wheelchair users and larger scooters. These are the users that benefit most from our UberWAV service, as previously mentioned. (Read more about what Uber is doing to accommodate riders with mobility disabilities.)
SMG: Does the company require a rider to input specifics about how much assistance a wheelchair user will need?
Glenn: Riders do not input information about accessibility needs; in fact, drivers only see a few pieces of information when they’re matched with a rider – the rider’s first name, the rider’s current rating (out of 5), and the rider’s current location. (Drivers are also notified if the rider is going to a location that is expected to be at least 45 minutes away.) It’s important to minimize the information drivers receive in order to remove any conscious or unconscious bias, though we do encourage riders to communicate with their drivers about any identifying information that they deem relevant. Most riders with disabilities can be accommodated by any one of our products, and we encourage riders with power wheelchairs to request the UberWAV or similar service where they’re located.
SMG: Recently, your company was accused of not being accessible enough, especially for people with limited mobility issues. Can you explain what the company has done to address the issue of physical barriers?
Glenn: We certainly haven’t always gotten these things right on our platform, and much of the criticism in the past has been justified. We started out only offering expensive black car rides and over time we’ve evolved to a much more ambitious mission to make a product that everyone can use. So that’s meant lots of community engagement, finding partners who can help us expand the nature of our model, and really focusing on what people need. Publicly stating our commitment to accessibility has helped, and we need to continue to improve how the platform serves users with physical disabilities. Continuing the lines of dialogue is key in working towards that.
SMG: How many Deaf/HOH driver partners does Uber have?
Glenn: We don’t know exactly how many deaf or hard of hearing drivers we have on the platform, because the value of creating features for deaf drivers is that many hearing drivers have recognized the benefits and activated those features, too. It’s a great example of the usefulness of universal design – building products that work for everyone means that people with disabilities and without disabilities all have a better experience.
SMG: Has the company placed focus on disability inclusion and employment at headquarters and in staff offices?
Glenn: Disability inclusion has been a priority for us, both from the perspective of making our platform accessible as well as making sure we’re including people with disabilities in our employee population. This year we’re proud to have participated for the first time in the Disability Equality Index, a joint venture by the American Association of People with Disabilities and the U.S. Business Leadership Network. The DEI helps make businesses more inclusive for people with disabilities, and we look forward to working with other organizations in this field.
One of the benefits of Uber is that we’re very decentralized as a company, meaning that city teams are empowered to build relationships with local organizations and structure their offices in a way that’s reflective of the diversity of the cities they serve. That’s been a real opportunity to see innovation around inclusion come from many different parts of the company and many different geographies. Our diversity and inclusion team and many other folks in headquarters are leading the charge on lots of our disability inclusion work, but I love seeing people in other functions and in offices across the globe contributing to making our company as diverse and inclusive as possible.
SMG: Uber’s mission statement says it focuses on six core areas relative to accessible transportation: Efficiency, Ease, Reliability, Accountability, Responsiveness, and Economic Opportunity. How are these being implemented throughout the organization?
Uber: These areas are at the core of the experience we want all of our riders to have, whether they are riders with disabilities or riders without disabilities. Efficiency, ease, and reliability are at the core of the product, and one of the key value propositions for using Uber instead of other options: it’s efficient and easy to do everything from downloading the app, inputting your information, and ultimately requesting and completing a trip. Accountability matters in terms of making sure that issues with drivers are minimized, and when they do occur there’s a concrete mechanism in place to deal with them. Responsiveness, unsurprisingly, is necessary to have true accountability.
Finally, economic opportunity is the reason that drivers, continue to decide to drive with Uber. One of the unanticipated aspects of Uber when the company started was how many people had a need for reliable transportation, but we also hadn’t anticipated how many people were looking for flexible work opportunities. To the degree that we can continue to provide people with those opportunities, we’re doing our job.
SMG: How does Uber determine which transportation partners it engages with? How does this make consumer experience seamless for passengers with disabilities?
Uber: We take feedback from advocates, have exhaustive conversations with potential partners, and look closely at the assets they have to assess whether they’re a fit for our platform. Whomever we choose as partners, we’re committed to making sure the experience is the same across our various products. The experience should be seamless no matter which product you’re using, and our partners have to be able to help in providing that experience.
SMG: Your guidelines for drivers are very comprehensive. In addition to those guidelines, are there any hands-on classes for drivers to help them understand people with disabilities?
Uber: All drivers are provided extensive materials when they partner with Uber, and UberWAV drivers receive additional, more extensive instruction. We also have a product available in more than 40 cities around the world, UberASSIST, that is designed to provide people who would like a helping hand with additional assistance. With UberASSIST, top-rated driver-partners may obtain independent training from third-party organizations to assist riders into vehicles.
SMG: What are your plans for making Uber even more accessible in the future—for both riders and drivers?
Uber: We’re always thinking about how we can improve – and we know we have lots of ways in which we can do so. We’re always looking to increase the number of deaf and hard of hearing drivers on the platform, decrease the number of issues with service animals, improve app accessibility and increase the number of places where UberWAV exists, as well as improve = the reliability of the product in the cities where we operate.
We appreciate the opportunity to talk about the work we’re doing, how we’re thinking about improving, and to acknowledge that we haven’t always gotten this right. There are newfound efforts across the company to make the platform as accessible as possible, and we look forward to engaging with the community in order to truly get this right.
SMG: Thank you, Malcom Glenn and Uber!