Inadequate Accessibility: Why Uber Should Be a Public Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Mapelli, Elizabeth A. | American University Law Review, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Inadequate Accessibility: Why Uber Should Be a Public Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act


Mapelli, Elizabeth A., American University Law Review


Introduction

For some individuals, it is "hard to imagine a time when taxis or diala-number car services were the only way to be driven around."1 The growth of Uber, Lyft, and Via, commonly referred to as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs),2 has transformed the way that individuals use transportation services.3 Passengers are no longer reliant on calling a taxi dispatcher only to be given a rough estimate of a vehicle arrival time or forced to stand in the street attempting to flag down a vehicle- now passengers simply use their mobile phones to request a ride.4

With this new and innovative way of requesting rides, Uber proclaims that its mission is to "make transportation as reliable as running water."5 While this may be true for many Uber users,6 this lofty goal remains unfulfilled for the nearly 56.7 million Americans who have disabilities.7 For example, an Uber driver cursed at and prohibited Jamey Gump and Manveen Chahal from bringing their service animals into the vehicle.8 Michael Pederson, who is blind, had a similar experience when his Uber driver refused to transport his guide dog.9 After realizing that D'Edra Steele requires a service dog for her cerebral palsy, Uber drivers have complained and cancelled her requests for rides, citing reasons such as allergies, improper protective seat coverings, or unwillingness to clean up dog hair.10 And, on two separate occasions, Uber drivers have denied access to their cars for Kristen Parisi, a Boston woman who uses a wheelchair.11 Unfortunately, stories like these are not isolated instances.12 While over the past few years, Uber has implemented accessible service options,13 these options have proven to be inadequate.14 However, subjecting Uber to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)15 provides the essential and required link to guarantee that persons with disabilities can utilize Uber's modern conveniences.

Recent lawsuits alleging that Uber is in violation of the ADA generally make two arguments.16 First, disability advocates argue that Uber should be regulated under 42 U.S.C. § 12184, which governs private entities that are primarily engaged in transportation services.17 While this argument may seem logical, especially since taxi services are governed under this very provision, Uber asserts that it is primarily a technology company rather than a transportation company, and thus not required to adhere to § 12184 regulations.18

Second, disability advocates argue that Uber is a public accommodation and should be regulated under § 12182.19 While Uber's services do not fit squarely into one of the ADA's twelve exhaustive categories of public accommodations,20 Congress and courts have stressed that the examples of public accommodations within each category are to be "construed liberally, consistent with the intent of the legislation that people with disabilities should have equal access to the array of establishments that are available to others who do not currently have disabilities."21 Although there has been no affirmative holding on whether Uber's services should be subjected to § 12184 or § 12182 regulations, courts have denied Uber's attempts to dismiss these claims,22 suggesting that Uber may face ADA obligations in the near future.

The more expansive approach, consistent with the ADA's purpose of eliminating discrimination against persons with disabilities,25 is to classify Uber's services as public accommodations under § 12182. Congress specifically intended for this provision to be expansive,24 and whether courts determine that Uber is a transportation company or a technology company is irrelevant in subjecting Uber to § 12182 requirements. This Comment will present and analyze three rationales for defining Uber as a public accommodation under the ADA: (1) web-based activities are distinct public accommodations, (2) the physical vehicles that über operates are "public accommodations,"25 and (3) Uber is a "travel service" or "other service establishment. …

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