By Neil Cosgrove
The Thomas Merton Center (TMC) and TMC project Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) have joined a lawsuit against Uber, the world’s largest ride-sharing service. The class-action suit argues that Uber, by failing to provide wheelchair accessibility in Pittsburgh, is in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
(Photo Caption: PAUL O’HANLON, A PLAINTIFF IN THE LAWSUIT AGAINST UBER, ADDRESSES A RALLY COMMEMORATING THE 1990 PASSAGE OF THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT, HELD JULY 26 AT FREEDOM CORNER IN THE HILL DISTRICT. PHOTO BY NEIL COSGROVE)
The suit was filed June 11th by local law firm Carlson Lynch LLP and California-based Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) with four original plaintiffs, including two PPT members—Paul O’Hanlon and Jon Robison. “The individual plaintiffs all have unique experiences that demonstrate the challenges faced by individuals with mobility impairments when they attempt to use transportation services,” Bruce Carlson of Carlson Lynch told The NewPeople. “These experiences tell a real world story about the practical impact of Uber’s failure to provide accessible ride sharing options in Western Pennsylvania.”
In a news release accompanying the suit, Carlson Lynch pointed out that since its July, 2010 founding in San Francisco Uber “has seized an ever-expanding market share from taxi companies” and has become “a major provider of individual transportation services in over 450 cities in the United States.” Carlson Lynch also asserts that while functioning as a form of transportation open to the public, Uber has violated the ADA by choosing not to provide service to one segment of that public—those with mobility impairments.
“As an organization that advocates for transit and mobility as a human right,” said PPT Director Laura Wiens, “we are compelled to stand alongside the other plaintiffs.” As PPT’s fiscal sponsor, the Merton Center Board decided at its June 17th meeting to stand with PPT as another co-plaintiff in the suit.
Carlson welcomed TMC’s participation. “The Thomas Merton Center has a long history advocating for civil rights on behalf of vulnerable populations in this part of the country,” said Carlson. “The organization is well-respected and has significant name recognition.” Carlson said TMC’s co-plaintiff status “highlights the significance of the issues in dispute to the disabled community, generally.” Uber has already developed tools for offering “accessible ride sharing services,” Carlson points out, including “a mobile app for wheelchair accessible vehicles in certain European and American cities.” (According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Uber currently has pilot programs featuring wheelchair accessible vehicles in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., Houston and Austin, as well as four western cities.) “Possible resolutions of the suit,” says Carlson, “could include Uber offering incentives to drivers who add wheelchair accessibility to their service, and helping to finance the purchase of wheelchair accessible vehicles by its drivers.”
Taking a more historical view, local disability activists see Uber as part of a larger problem regarding adherence to and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “There are no ADA police,” TMC Board Member Bill Chrisner observed at a recent rally held at the Hill District’s Freedom Corner which marked the 29th anniversary of the law’s enactment. “We are the ADA police,” he added, urging his fellow activists to intensify their publicizing of issues and filing of lawsuits.
At the same rally, Uber lawsuit plaintiff Paul O’Hanlon complained of the lack of enforcement by Pittsburgh’s Department for Permits, Licensing and Inspections of the city ordinance governing sidewalk dining.
“One business after another has occupied that space” needed by people with disabilities, said O’Hanlon. “There’s a level of seriousness regarding inclusion that is lacking on the national level and in Pittsburgh.”
Disability advocates argue, with considerable justification, that federal, state and local legislation outlawing discriminatory practices aimed at those with disabilities have served as both significant landmarks and sources of great frustration. What good are the laws, they ask, if governments do not ensure they are being implemented, and the main means of enforcement are public outcry and lawsuits such as that filed against Uber?
“I am hopeful,” said Carlson, “that Uber will ultimately see the wisdom of being a good corporate citizen and that it will work with plaintiffs to craft a solution that works for everybody.”
We all “live in hope” at the Thomas Merton Center, with the caveat that good citizens, corporate or otherwise, prove they are good through adherence to a country’s laws, without the compulsion of a lawsuit.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the Editorial Collective.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL.49 No. 7. September 2019. All rights reserved