Can disability rights be maintained in the “uber-economy”?

Everyone is talking about the “sharing” or “gig” economy these days, especially when it comes to ride-sharing apps like Uber. The public debate has mostly centred on issues of public safety, customer service, precarious work, insurance and taxation. And rightly so. Uber’s ability to skirt regulations not only threatens to dismantle an entire sector, but also adds to the broader corporate attack on labour protections, fair taxation, regulatory systems and the future of decent work. Nevertheless, there’s another issue that isn’t getting enough attention in the “uber-debate” – and that would be the issue of accessible transportation and disability rights.

There are various laws governing accessible taxis, depending on the municipality. Ottawa provides a good case study since the city is currently conducting a review of its taxi regulations to take new business models like Uber into account. Fortunately, this review includes accessibility as one of its guiding principles.

Taxis play an essential role in Ottawa’s network of accessible transportation and the city has come a long way in increasing the number of accessible taxis. The city’s taxi by-law currently requires 15% of all taxicabs to be accessible. It also prohibits discriminatory practices, and requires drivers to complete an accessible training program.

These rules are working. There are now 187 accessible plates in Ottawa, making up 15.7% of Ottawa’s taxi fleet. Coventry Connections, the city’s main taxi dispatcher, has an agreement with Para Transpo that ensures enough accessible vehicles are available to guarantee the same level of service, the same fare levels and roughly equivalent wait times for those with mobility limitations. Ottawa can be proud that it ranks near the top of North American cities for its proportion of accessible taxis.

Meantime, Uber does not offer accessible services in Ottawa.

Yes, it costs more to maintain accessible vehicles and provide accessible services. But this is why the current rules provide incentives to encourage accessibility options.

Uber is undermining this system, not only by skewing the ratio of accessible taxis, but by placing an increased burden on licensed drivers who provide these services. Allowing Uber drivers to essentially cherry-pick the “easier” fares creates an unfair playing field. It threatens both both drivers’ livelihoods and disability rights.

Ottawa must now use its review to maintain a high standard for accessible transportation, without repeating mistakes made in other municipalities. Draft proposals from Toronto, Edmonton and Waterloo either neglected to require accessible services or they simply required that requests for accessible service are referred to another provider. This is unacceptable.

By its very nature, Uber’s fare pricing system, which is calculated based on supply and demand, discriminates against people with  disabilities. Without sufficient safeguards in place, Uber will no doubt lead to a decrease in the quality of accessible transportation networks, undermining disability rights.

As Canadian municipalities grapple with the regulatory struggles spurred by Uber’s illegal activities, enforcement “efforts” continue to be a colossal failure and Uber continues to expand. We’ve already seen damage to the livelihood of licensed taxi drivers and a dangerous precedent has been set for regulatory systems that protect public safety, promote decent work and ensure ethical corporate practices. Let’s not allow disability rights to be the next victim of the uber-economy.