People with disabilities have a love-hate relationship with Uber.
Some, particularly those with limited vision, call the advent of ride-hailing services a life-changing innovation that has afforded them unprecedented mobility and independence. Others, however, with physical disabilities that require wheelchairs, have blasted the service for not offering enough accessible vehicles and have alleged discrimination by drivers.
But now, companies such as Uber and Lyft must accommodate everyone in Massachusetts, including those with disabilities, thanks to the new state law regulating ride-hailing firms.
Important details of the bill, signed into law last week by Governor Charlie Baker, remain fuzzy, however. The Department of Public Utilities is currently drafting regulations that will spell out the nitty gritty. But the inclusion of several accessibility provisions is nonetheless a victory for Massachusetts disability advocates.
"If [ride-hailing] can work the same way for us as it works for everyone else, this is a revolution in transportation for people with disabilities," said Christine Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center in Boston. "The more I read this law, the more I like it. I think the legislation gives us enough to work with."
The law bars ride-hailing services from charging people with disabilities additional fees or higher fares and from discriminating against riders who use wheelchairs or are accompanied by service animals.
Under the law, ride-hailing companies must prove they have "an oversight process in place" to ensure they're accommodating people with disabilities before they can obtain a state license. Those accommodations, such as vans with wheelchair lifts, must be available everywhere the companies offer service in Massachusetts.
The law also calls for a new ride-hailing task force to consider establishing a "Massachusetts Accessible Transportation Fund" that would be funded with annual fines against ride-hailing companies that fail to provide sufficient wheelchair-accessible service. The task force would also need to figure out how to best use those funds. (Griffin will be a member of the panel, along with industry representatives and elected officials.)
"Riders with disabilities — who clearly depend on these services to get to school, to work, to doctor appointments, to run errands, and just to socialize and remain independent — should not be discriminated against," said state Senator Karen Spilka, who helped draft the law. "I think this will really help people, especially in areas that are underserved by public transit and taxi service."
It will be up to DPU officials to define what counts as "sufficient" accessible service, and whether the companies will be allowed to contract with other companies that already operate wheelchair vans to pick up passengers who use larger wheelchairs.
In a brief statement, a DPU spokesman said only that the agency was looking forward to "implementing one of the most comprehensive ride-for-hire laws in the country to support innovation, public safety, and accessibility for those with special accommodation needs."
Spilka said she was confident that regulators would not undermine legislators' intent to strengthen protections for people with disabilities.
Currently, Uber's mobile app forwards requests for wheelchair-accessible vans to taxis equipped with lifts, but the company acknowledged that system has problems.
For one thing, not many accessible taxis have signed up for UberTAXI — perhaps because of the well-documented bad blood between medallion owners and the ride-hailing companies that have decimated their business — meaning vans aren't always available when they're needed. And the vast majority of the 100 supposedly accessible taxi vans in Boston don't meet federal standards and are incapable of accommodating larger wheelchairs. (A city program to retrofit the vehicles is proceeding slowly: currently, just 29 of the vans are truly accessible.)
Uber said it's actively planning to expand its accessible offerings, most likely by partnering with private companies that already operate vans. Uber may also encourage people who own accessible vans to sign up as Uber drivers, or offer to subsidize the car payments of current drivers who agree to lease accessible vans.
Lyft, on the other hand, does not currently offer an option to Boston-area residents who use wheelchairs, other than providing links on its website to services that do.
Still, the company said in a statement that it supported the law and was "committed to helping Massachusetts modernize its paratransit operations and expand mobility options for the entire disability community."
The new requirements come amid a notable thaw in relations between disability advocates and Uber. A year ago, Griffin publicly suggested the company was violating civil rights laws by not offering wheelchair-accessible service, prompting officials from Attorney General Maura Healey's office to meet with Uber about how it was ensuring equal access.
Now, at Uber's request, Griffin is leading a local coalition of people with disabilities and advocates that's helping the company improve its accessibility. Uber has met with the group several times to get ideas and feedback. It's another example of how the company — which often ignored regulation as it aggressively expanded — is working to soften its edges.
The disability coalition is also working on a potential partnership that would see Uber and Lyft replace much of the MBTA's RIDE paratransit service, which is loathed by many of its passengers for providing slow and unreliable rides that must be booked in advance. A spokesman for the T said Wednesday that the project "is definitely moving forward, but there is nothing to announce at this time."