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UberAssist misleads disabled: taxi industry

Cab wars: While Uber gains in popularity, the taxi industry claims it operates outside state and federal laws.

Uber to offer disabled patron service taxi industry says it’s breaking the law

6 May 2015

THE Australian Taxi Industry claims that ride-hailing service Uber is misleading disabled customers with a new UberAssist service aimed at mobility-impaired travellers.

With the new service, Uber claims it will be able to accommodate disabled customers including those in wheelchairs, but the ATIA has jumped on the claim saying it doesn't offer comprehensive wheelchair access.

Uber's latest evolution of the service offers ‘driver-partners’ that receive specific training on the necessary knowledge and safety requirements of people with different accessibility needs, and can accommodate folding wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters, but the ATIA has hit back saying that doesn't go far enough.

The service does not offer wheelchair-specific vehicles that can deal with more cumbersome non-folding disability-assistance equipment and that, says the ATIA, is misleading.

“It’s very tokenistic,” ATIA CEO Blair Davies told GoAuto. “The Uber service has to be able to provide a wheelchair-accessible service for people who’ve got a disability that requires them to travel with a wheelchair.

“The fact that Uber doesn’t provide such a service at the moment means it’s breaking the law.”

Mr Blair said Uber is not providing a proper disabled patrons and until the company could provide assistance for all types of disabilities, it was effectively discriminating against them.

“As I understand it, the Uber Assist program is to provide some extra training for some Uber drivers,” he said.

“Under Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, it’s a requirement that if you’re providing a service in Australia that you have to provide it without discrimination, and you cannot discriminate on the grounds of disability.”

In response to questions posed by GoAuto, an Uber spokesperson said via email that the company was proud to have worked with the Australian Network for Disability (AND) on the development and launch of UberAssist yesterday and “looks forward to growing the service across Australia”.

The AND is a non-government consultancy for businesses to “advance the inclusion of people with disability in all aspects of business,” according to its website.

“Uber is working hard to make it easier and more affordable for people to get around their city. With UberAssist, our driver-partners are helping to extend that convenience to those with different accessibility needs,” said Uber General Manager Australia/New Zealand David Rohrsheim in a blog post UberX provided.

The San Francisco company, which calls itself a ‘smartphone app’, relies on owners of private vehicles signing up to its service in return for a share of the fare. It is backed by Google and investment bank Goldman Sachs, and has been valued at US$40 billion.

It already offers UberX, a low-cost version, along with the mid-priced Uber and premium-priced UberBlack, UberSUV And UberLuxury services in Australia.

Rides are booked via the web or a smartphone app, and generally cost less than the equivalent established taxi services.

The application currently operates in nine Australian cites, including Adelaide, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula.

The use of private vehicles as unlicensed taxis is illegal in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia, and Uber drivers risk fines of up to $1700. The company has told its drivers that it would pay any fines received.

The ATIA has instigated a new Australia-wide campaign called ‘Don’t risk it – grab a cab’ to highlight the established industry’s benefits, including insurance and security.

Mr Blair acknowledged that Uber was moving in the right direction, but hadn’t gone far enough.

“While this UberAssist initiative is a step towards providing a better service, that training ought to be provided to all Uber drivers,” he said.

“In the case of the taxi industry we spend a significant amount of time at a significant cost making sure our drivers are trained in their responsibilities and in regard to the Disability Discrimination Act and how they assist passengers with a disability, and we have a significant proportion of our fleet that’s wheelchair-accessible.”

He added that while the taxi industry welcomed competition in the marketplace, the playing field needed to be even.

“If Uber wants to be out there in the marketplace providing imitation taxi services, it’s got to step up to the mark,” he said. “This UberAssist looks, quite frankly, more like whitewashing of the issue rather than a genuine attempt to provide an accessible, non-discriminatory service.”

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