On May 24, 2021, I was excited to receive an email stating that Uber will be offering free rides to COVID vaccination sites from May 24 to July 4. The email cheerily announces, “Your free vaccine ride is waiting!” I think this is an excellent promotion, especially given that lack of transportation is a huge barrier to vaccine access. But… pun totally intended; the email got my wheels turning.
What about people with mobility disabilities?
Anyone who has met me for more than a millisecond knows that I get around in a 450-pound power wheelchair. I have lost my ability to safely and comfortably transfer into a typical vehicle and cars without modifications can’t accommodate a heavy non-folding wheelchair like mine. And finding a wheelchair accessible Uber, especially in the suburbs, is about as easy as finding a unicorn. Most areas, especially those outside of major cities, don’t yet have access to wheelchair friendly Ubers. At home on Long Island, I have never been able to call an accessible Uber; thus, the idea of riding in one still feels like some fantastical urban legend.
That’s right—I have committed a millennial mortal sin.
I, Kathleen Downes, have never been in an Uber.
For this country to address the vaccine transportation issue with a largely inaccessible fleet of vehicles is disappointing, to put it mildly. I am fortunate to have my own accessible van and parents who could drive me to the vaccination site when I was vaccinated this winter. I am aware of how wildly privileged I am to have such support. And I am thinking of the millions of mobility-impaired Americans who deserve the same opportunity. The Uber promotion fails them, given that Uber Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAV) are only available in select cities nationally. Lyft's accessibility record is similarly dismal.
According to my search, WAVs through Uber are only available in New York City, Austin, Boston, Chicago, a small part of Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Phoenix, Portland, OR; and San Francisco. Even within these cities, locating an accessible Uber is not as easy as finding a typical Uber ride. Folks often report a longer wait time and a significantly more difficult experience when searching for an accessible vehicle.
Never far from the front of my mind is that if my parents or an aide were not around to drive me, I too, would have extremely limited transportation options to get a vaccine or to go anywhere.
Amid a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of disabled Americans, a “free vaccine ride” promotion without a guarantee of accessible Ubers in every place across this country leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Considering that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses have an elevated risk of COVID infection, it simply makes sense to facilitate our access to vaccination sites. To do otherwise, when the virus has uniquely devastated our community, is exceptionally cruel.
The vaccination process in general has already been rife with challenges for disabled people and we certainly don’t need any more stumbling blocks. For those who are multiply marginalized, such as BIPOC or low-income wheelchair users, the barriers are even greater.
It’s easy for those who are non-disabled to casually suggest mass transit as a solution if accessible Uber is not available. But many folks remain unaware that public transportation may not exist outside of major cities. Further, the public transit systems in most major cities are only “sort of” accessible. In New York City today, approximately 25% of MTA stations are accessible. Navigating them is a labyrinth of broken elevators, janky ramps, and trying not to gag from the scent of mass transit’s signature fragrance: urine infused garbage on a hot summer day. For disabled people with spatial impairments or those unable to travel without an aide, mass transit is often out of reach. Paratransit, the door-to-door accessible bus service for disabled riders, is notoriously unreliable and highly likely to take a detour to the seventh layer of hell.
Mass transit discussion aside, if people without mobility impairments can easily get a free Uber to a vaccine site, disabled people should get the same chance.
Uber’s lack of accessible vehicles makes their attempt to provide equity through free vaccine rides feel incredibly ironic.
If Uber truly wants to promote equity, it won’t do so by leaving a whole group of vulnerable people behind.