Online ride services like Uber and Lyft are a relatively new phenomenon, and I realized just how awkward their informal entry into our culture has been while I was on the phone with my mom last week.
My mom told me about her neighbor who called her son for a ride to Urgent Care. The son was busy and asked, “Can you get an Uber?” To her credit, the woman did—a lot of people in retirement villages don’t have the app, much less know how to use it.
The driver arrived and didn’t get out at first. The passenger used a walker and she stood and waited for him to help her. He got out and staggered to the trunk, where he unloaded his own walker. Well, this wouldn’t do. The passenger was incensed that the driver couldn’t help her, and the driver was upset too. When I talked to my mom, she was waiting for a call from her neighbor to come pick her up from the doctor, so she didn’t have to go home with “that terrible driver.”
I wondered about that. Was the driver terrible? He certainly could have handled the situation better, but what were the real problems? Are Uber and other online ride service drivers expected to help their passengers the way conventional taxi drivers do, or is that one of the reasons why they’re so much less expensive? Are there physical requirements for Uber drivers?
Gig economy jobs are enormously popular with people who have disabilities, especially hidden ones. They allow us to set our own hours, we’re less likely to have consequences for missing work (they can’t fire you if you’re not technically an employee), and we are free of direct supervision—there’s no one to time our breaks and we’re usually not even on a clock. So is driving an Uber for us, or not so much?
I did a bunch of research on Uber’s website. Drivers are not required to help with bags and other encumbrances, but they are encouraged to do this for higher tips and driver ratings. People with disabilities are invited to drive, even people who use wheelchairs. Customers are able to order a higher level of bag and personal assistance service by using Uber Black, the upscale version (with prices on par with your local taxi company).
In large cities, Uber partners with paratransit services, and in theory, my mom’s neighbor should have been picked up by a partner-company driver. Passengers in these areas can indicate special needs on their profiles. I live in a small city (100,000), and I tried creating a profile on the Uber app that came preloaded on my phone. I was not asked about special service needs or disabilities. I’m given to assume that if I were in Minneapolis, where my mom is, that information would be requested on my profile.
The bottom line is, online ride services are not taxis. They are a discount alternative to taxi service. My friend Carolyn Briggs, who has driven and worked in the office for a taxi company, says this:
“Anyone with a clean driving record and a newish car can drive Uber or Lyft. Doesn’t mean they are good at driving, familiar with the city or area they are driving in, have any resources other than the phone map (or passenger if they have one). They are typically underinsured, don’t know how to file business taxes, don’t realize the entire costs of operating a vehicle professionally (our cab company had 50 cabs and 5 full time maintenance employees who did everything on a strict schedule, preventive and accident repair). As a taxi driver I had safety training (every six months!) and mentors with more experience. I also had a moving billboard–the the public could easily observe and report me to a public department or my company. As an individual I had to be photographed, fingerprinted and pass a background check. None of this for Lyft or Uber. None.”
In the general culture, people equate online ride services with taxis and think only of the price difference when making a choice. My sister is expected to use Uber when she travels for business, and stay at Air B&Bs. She has fibromyalgia and she needs bag service and the amenities provided by good business hotels. Taxis and hotels should be part of reasonable accommodations for her condition, but she is reluctant to insist on these things.
All these considerations come into play when people with disabilities choose to get an Uber rather than call a taxi. It falls on the users to ensure that they’re getting the level of service they need, and if they’re in a less urban area like I am, that’s harder to do.
I imagine driving for Uber or Lyft would be fraught with problems for people with invisible disabilities. I know when I drove for the food delivery service (similar to Uber Eats), it was hard to get in and out of the car many times in an hour, I often had to go up 3 or more flights of stairs, and many customers did not maintain a safe or well-lit approach to the front door. I did like the ease of calling in sick on a bad pain day, and cashing out my tips on demand.
My advice is, know the difference between online ride services and taxis, learn what services are available in your area, and make sure whoever is picking you up is prepared to serve whatever needs you have.
Are any of you driving for Uber or Lyft? Can you tell us about your experience?