July 17, 2015 / 8:08 PM / 5 years ago

Exclusive: Uber, Lyft face disability access questions from Massachusetts

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Massachusetts attorney general’s office is examining how Uber and Lyft ensure equal access for people with disabilities, a spokeswoman for the attorney general told Reuters, adding to numerous other business issues facing the two companies.

A woman wearing a Uber T-shirt checks her phone while Uber riders and driver-partners take part in a rally on the steps of New York City Hall against proposed legislation limiting for-hire vehicles in New York June 30, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Disabilities rights activists have questioned how Uber Technologies Inc [[UBER.UL] and Lyft drivers handle passengers in wheelchairs and the blind, but the Massachusetts inquiry appears to be the first from an attorney general, opening a new area of scrutiny for the companies.

The Massachusetts AG’s civil rights division reached out to the companies this week to discuss issues related to equal access, spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore said. The office has not taken any formal actions, she said.

When it comes to access, the National Federation of the Blind of California accused Uber in a lawsuit last year of discrimination by refusing to transport guide dogs. A San Francisco federal judge has said the case can proceed.

Uber said it regularly speaks with advocates and policy makers about making Uber accessible to riders and drivers with disabilities. 

“We have teams dedicated to continuing to expand that access further for the disabled community in Massachusetts and nationwide,” the company said in a statement.

A Lyft representative could not be immediately be reached for comment.

Uber is a well known sharing-economy company operating in 57 countries with an estimated value of more than $40 billion. Lyft’s valuation is about $2.5 billion.

Both companies are involved in legal and regulatory proceedings on a range of subjects, including whether their drivers should be treated as employees rather than contractors.

In a blog post this month, Uber said it has a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind to obtain feedback from the visually impaired community.

In Texas, Jennifer McPhail sued Lyft last year, accusing the company of not having a wheelchair accessible vehicle operating in Austin.

The case is currently pending and Lyft has asked that it be sent to arbitration, according to the Travis County court clerk’s office.

This week, Uber announced a new option called uberASSIST, which is designed to provide additional assistance to seniors and people with disabilities.

Drivers are specifically trained to assist riders into vehicles and can accommodate folding wheelchairs and scooters, the company said in a blog post.

Editing by Stephen Trousdale

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