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Group files class-action suit against Uber for ‘discrimination,’ lack of wheelchair access

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Peter Mendoza sits in his motorized wheelchair while his wife, Jennifer, helps push it out of their Dodge Grand Caravan on Jackson Street last week. Jennifer Mendoza was for a time one of only two drivers offering wheelchair-accessible Uber vehicles in San Francisco. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Disability advocates filed a class-action lawsuit against Uber on Tuesday over the company’s lack of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, alleging it amounts to “illegal discrimination.”

The case was filed in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of groups across the Bay Area, including the Independent Living Resource Center in San Francisco.

“Uber is such an important transportation option in the Bay Area, and many of our consumers who use wheelchairs are simply excluded from it because Uber has done nothing to make its service accessible to them,” said Jessie Lorenz, executive director of the resource center.

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“We are deeply disappointed in Uber’s continued resistance to following the laws that keep transportation services open to everyone,” Lorenz added.

Uber issued a statement in response to the suit late Tuesday.

“We take this issue seriously, and are continuously exploring ways to facilitate mobility and freedom via the Uber App for all riders, including riders who use motorized wheelchairs,” wrote an Uber spokesperson.

The suit was filed by the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates, which has offices in New York and in California. The suit alleges Uber, whose market value is estimated at over $50 billion, has ignored its “legal responsibility” to the disability community in its explosive growth, according to the complaint.

The crux of the complaint is the lack of vans equipped with wheelchair ramps on Uber’s ride-hail platform. Such vans require modifications that often cost tens of thousands of dollars in order to board large, motorized wheelchairs, according to accessibility advocates.

The group also told the San Francisco Examiner it opted not to include Lyft in the suit.

Melissa Riess, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, said “that doesn’t mean the other ride-share services aren’t deficient. This is also a problem with Lyft and we’re thinking about them.”

Although Uber has a wheelchair-accessible service, called Uber WAV, in the Bay Area, Disability Rights Advocates wrote in the complaint that the service is “a sham.”

The group conducted a test of the service and found that in Alameda County, not a single wheelchair-accessible Uber was available during a total of 120 tests, according to the complaint.

In more than 60 tests the group conducted in San Francisco, a wheelchair-accessible Uber was completely unavailable almost five times out of six. In the rare instance where a WAV was available, the average wait time was about five times longer than the wait for an UberX at the same location.

Sascha Bittner, 44, is an Ingleside Terrace resident who uses a wheelchair and is a plaintiff in the suit. Bittner said if she wants to spontaneously meet up with friends, she often relies on her stepfather to drive her in the family’s accessibility-equipped van.

“Not having Uber accessible to me is extremely frustrating and makes me feel like I am a second class citizen,” Bittner told the Examiner, in a statement. “It is just ridiculous we are still experiencing this discrimination.”

The Examiner previously covered the launch of Uber WAV, with an exclusive interview with the service’s one-time sole driver: Jennifer Mendoza, a Marin resident whose husband, Peter Mendoza, uses a motorized wheelchair.

Since she has her own wheelchair-accessible vehicle, Mendoza approached Uber to help pioneer their Uber WAV service in Jan. 2016.

Mendoza told the Examiner Tuesday that another driver eventually joined in her cause, but by the end of 2017 both had stopped driving Uber WAV frequently due to their own scheduling needs, and to a lack of support from Uber to expand the service.

“I’ve been told they would launch accessible rental cars and people could drive them, that they would launch them (last) June. There’s always a reason why they couldn’t — registration hurdles, insurance hurdles,” Mendoza said.

She said she is not “surprised” Uber has been sued for its lack of accessibility, and is only surprised it “took this long.”

Mendoza added, “The reason I believed in accessible Uber and Lyft is the drivers have flexibility. I wouldn’t need to be a full time driver. But when it became the two of us, it became a burden. We were two women in San Francisco providing accessible service for this multi-billion dollar company with no support.”

Though services like paratransit vans and wheelchair-accessible Muni buses are available to wheelchair users, paratransit taxi cabs have faded from the public as the ride hail industry has led to the decline of taxi cabs.

Wheelchair-accessible taxis provided a direct ride for wheelchair users available immediately by phone. Paratransit vans, by contrast, are a separate service offered through the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, and are scheduled far in advance.

Wheelchair-accessible paratransit taxi trips in San Francisco have dropped from as many as 1,300 a month in 2012 to as low as 700 trips in 2015, according to data previously provided by the SFMTA.

That’s not because demand has dropped, the SFMTA said at the time, but because the taxis themselves are less available — with no alternative to replace them.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with response from Uber and additional comments.

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