On Wednesday morning, Time magazine announced that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was this year's choice for Person of the Year.
Time magazine thinks Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is Person of the Year material. The United Spinal Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Americans with spinal cord injuries and disorders, disagrees.
Not 24 hours after the magazine published a shortlist of contenders for its annual year-end issue, the United Spinal Association -- which this past summer created a handful of TV ads critical of Uber's wheelchair-accessibility efforts -- penned a letter to Time magazine editor Nancy Gibbs asking that Kalanick be removed from the shortlist for the magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year issue.
“Since Uber began operating in New York City three years ago, Mr. Kalanick has had policies in place that discriminate against wheelchair users by prohibiting Uber’s drivers from using accessible vehicles,” the letter, written by United Spinal Association president and CEO James Weisman, reads. “Uber has 30,000 cars operating in New York City and not a single one is wheelchair accessible. Despite ongoing efforts to get Uber to invest in these vehicles, Uber instead relies on a government-subsidized accessible transportation that is routinely short-staffed.”
Uber launched its wheel chair accessible vehicle program called UberWAV in August 2014 initially by partnering with green taxi drivers that serve the outer boroughs and later partnering with wheel chair accessible yellow cabs. As of January 2015, there were 587 accessible yellow taxis and 972 accessible green taxis. And according to Uber, the company performs 4,000 UberWAV rides a month across the five boroughs with a five to seven minute wait time.
Weisman argues that Uber has failed to address demand for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and as such is undoing years of work advocates have put in to ensure disabled New Yorkers have easy access to transportation.
“Kalanick is obviously having a huge impact on the industry and on people in general, so I understand why Time would want to [consider him for Person of the Year],” Weisman told BuzzFeed News. “But Uber seems to have deliberately overlooked mobility-impaired people. Think about all that we disability advocates have done. We have settled a lawsuit with Mayor Bloomberg for 50% yellow cab access by 2020; Mayor de Blasio ratified that the first month he was in the office. And right now accessible taxis are coming into New York and sitting on the lots. Why? They don’t have enough drivers because Uber takes the drivers away."
Weisman told BuzzFeed News that the United Spinal Association, which has in the past allied with the yellow taxi industry to criticize Uber for its wheelchair-accessibility policies, has discussed its concerns with the company's leadership. But those discussions did not go well. “They said they don’t own vehicles -- they’re just an app,” Weisman said. “But they do make vehicle requirements for their drivers. If you look at their NYC site to see the cars they let you drive, they don’t list a single accessible vehicle -- so they’re prohibiting it. They won’t say it but they’re prohibiting it.”
But Uber requires all of its cars to be big enough to stow a foldable wheelchair and that all drivers comply with the American Disabilities Act, an Uber spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. There is, however, a debate over whether Uber as an app-based company is legally obligated to comply with Title III of the ADA. "Uber has helped expand transportation options for riders with disabilities, connecting those who need an accessible ride with one in just minutes instead of being left stranded," an Uber spokesperson said. "We are constantly exploring additional ways to better serve all people with disabilities and are proud to have been commended by leaders of the disability community for increasing the freedom and mobility of riders and drivers in the community."
The United Spinal Association isn't planning any additional efforts to convince Time to strike Kalanick from its Person of the Year shortlist. Weisman says the point of the letter is simply to raise awareness around the issue.
“Uber is not all things to all people,” Weisman said. “Millennials love them. Mothers Against Drunk Driving love them. There are lots of good reasons for Uber to exist. But why can’t it be good for people who can’t walk? It’s only people with disabilities that Uber excludes by design. If it was any other protected class, people would be outraged."
Both Uber and its younger competitor Lyft are facing a series of lawsuits alleging they violated the American Disabilities Act by failing to ensure that their respective fleets included wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
Time has not yet responded to a request for comment.