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Facing Lawsuits From Disabled Groups, Uber Has Found a Surprising Supporter

Tony Coelho, the main sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, thinks benefits afforded to the disabled community by ridehailing companies outweigh drawbacks.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images News

Uber has faced huge criticism from the disability community for not adhering to the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s fighting several lawsuits on the matter — against blind people with seeing eye dogs who have been rejected by Uber drivers and against passengers in wheelchairs whose drivers refused to fit the device in the car. In one of these cases, Uber’s legal defense argued that it’s not responsible for upholding the ADA when it comes to passengers because it’s a virtual service and doesn’t own its cars. It believes its contractors — the drivers — are the ones responsible for upholding the ADA.

That’s why it was so surprising that Tony Coelho, a former U.S. Congressman for California’s 15th District and the main sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, testified this week on behalf of ride-hailing companies at a Massachusetts hearing about regulating ride-hailing.

The reason? Coelho thinks that the benefits afforded to the disabled community by ride-hailing companies outweigh the drawbacks. He also believes Uber is working hard to solve its accessibility issues. He’s passionate enough about the issue that he penned an op-ed for the political publication The Hill in late July. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Re/code: Let’s get the tough question out first. Are you on Uber’s payroll? Are you one of their consultants?

Tony Coelho: They don’t pay me. They do cover my travel expenses to testify. I don’t want them to pay me.

So why did you testify?

The problem with cabs if you’re blind is that if you have a cane or you’re in a wheelchair, they just drive right by you. I’ve seen it over and over again.

But doesn’t that happen with Uber and Lyft too? There’s lawsuits of people with guide dogs or wheelchairs who are rejected by the Uber drivers when the drivers pulled up.

I know there’s problems with motorized wheelchairs, but Uber is working on it. I’ve met with the Uber technology accessibility group. They come to me with ideas and pass things by me. They are totally committed to making technology accessible to everyone. I’ve told Uber, “If you don’t do this, new technology will come along, and you’ll be in the past like the horse and buggy.”

Why are Uber and Lyft better for people with disabilities than handicapped-accessible buses or the original cab systems?

People say, “You know, there’s buses.” But buses have routes, and if you’re out in the suburbs, that isn’t an answer. What Uber has done is connected all these different areas. All of a sudden people can go to dinner or work in the city or the suburbs or whatever.

When you call a cab, the cab says they’ll be there in 15 minutes. Then you call 15 minutes later and they say, “It will be 15 minutes.” If you have a disability, [and] you’re trying to get to your job or from your job or to church or to a doctor’s appointment, you need the reliability to get there and get back. That’s what Uber and Lyft do — tell you how many minutes away the car is.

Also, because of the technology, the disabled rider knows exactly who’s going to pick them up. You can evaluate that driver. When I’ve been in taxi cabs and the drivers have been rude, it’s hard to call and place a complaint. In order to file a complaint, I had to physically go to New York and do it. That’s what’s wrong with the taxi cabs.

When you met with Uber, what did they say they were working on to improve accessibility?

They’re trying to find a way of taking some of the accessible cars that take care of people in motorized chairs to be Uber partners. They’re trying to get them involved, cutting a deal.

What about seeing-eye dogs?

They’re having issues with drivers with guide dogs not accepting them, but Uber is trying to fix it, trying to notify drivers to [that they should accept] them. And how many cab drivers out there are offended by people with seeing eye dogs?

Doesn’t it disturb you that Uber’s legal argument is that the ADA doesn’t apply to them?

I think the issue here is not so much the ADA, it’s technology. Uber as a company needs to insist all their drivers comply with the ADA. Of course there are going to be problems. You have to train. There’s gonna be people who have prejudices against certain stigmas. But technology is taking care of them. We know the driver who did that, because it was reported.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. What was your reaction to Uber’s legal argument?

I won’t get into that. That’s above my pay grade. They have to fight that legally, and who knows how it will end up. Technology has changed things in so many different areas.

Do you think the ADA needs to be updated to apply to modern technology?

The law permits [the government] to get involved now. If you say that Uber consistently permitted their partners to not pick up people with seeing-eye dogs, the justice department could go after them immediately because it’s a violation.

Even though Uber says it’s a technology company, not a transportation company?

>It makes no difference. If there’s a consistent prejudice with people who are blind, the Justice Department can go after them. If you permit people to discriminate, I want the Justice Department to go after you. What Uber has said is they are training and working with their partners to comply with the ADA. If they’re sincerely doing that, I don’t think they’ll have trouble.

Have you testified for Uber or on behalf of ride-hailing before? Is this a full-time role for you?

I did it in the capital of Maryland. I’ve spoken up in regards to the op-eds and I’m willing to testify anywhere on this issue before state legislature. I was very strong with the state legislature [in Massachusetts], and I was very strong in Maryland, and Maryland went ahead and approved it.

Why are you so passionate about Uber?

All my life I’ve been trying hard to take the stigma of disability away. That’s why technology is so important: Because it helps us become part of society, [so] we can participate in society like everyone else. It removes the stigma big-time. That’s why I’m so aggressive in that regard.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.