‘It would be impossible’: What the loss of Uber would mean to Londoners with a disability

Sophie Gallagher
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For Jennifer McShane taxis are a necessity. The 32-year-old, who is originally from Ireland but has recently moved to London, has mild cerebral palsy which affects her balance and means she has to use a walking frame. Using public transport often means long journeys across the city without guarantee of a seat or step-free access, so instead she opts for an Uber.

“I’ve used every cab going [so] price is a massive factor for me,” says McShane who, on a recent airport trip found a black cab cost £95, compared to £51 for Uber. Her social life is also dependent on affordable rides home because she doesn’t use public transport after dark. “If it costs me double to get to a destination and back, it means I won’t be able to socialise.”

Ride-hailing app Uber has been operating in London since June 2012. It quickly dominated the private hire market which had long been monopolised by the black cab and later luxury car firms like Addison Lee. Uber’s considerably cheaper prices, easy app access and dedicated UberAccess service (specially-adapted cars for wheelchair users) and UberAssist (for those who need additional help) meant it didn’t take long for customers with disabilities to start voting with their wallet.

But on Monday, Transport for London (TfL) announced it had refused Uber’s new license application because the Silicon Valley tech brand had failed to address “several breaches” of passenger safety, including a glitch in their system which allowed unauthorised drivers to work. TfL estimate 14,000 journeys were undertaken by drivers other than the account holder.

Uber says it plans to appeal the decision and is able to continue operating on the capital’s roads until all options for appeal are exhausted, but what happens if the appeal fails? For some customers this might mean returning to more expensive cabs or using less well-known ride-hailing apps. For others, the loss of Uber might mean feeling less safe travelling home at night. But for those with physical disabilities like McShane, it could be life changing.

“If Uber goes, cost will be a huge concern,” she says. “I haven’t the income with rent and bills to spend on black cabs or higher tariff fares, but I’ll still rely on taxis to get around. Comments that I should just “try public transport” are usually made only by those who cannot see the world is made for them and not for those who might need extra help.”

McShane isn’t the only one. Kirsty Hoyle, CEO of Transport for All, a charity which provides information for disabled transport users, says she has heard from numerous people worried about the outcome. “One of our members said she wouldn’t be able to use any other taxi service due to cost implications,” Hoyle told The Independent. “Being deaf means [she] is limited on being able to book a minicab and the Uber app is the clearest and easiest to use’.”

Andre Louis, 26, from Kilburn in London, who is registered blind and uses a white cane to navigate, also says Uber is his preferred choice and he “does not wish” to use any other service because of bad experiences with black cabs where he was overcharged and the general price of other apps. “I use Uber a great deal,” he explains. “As a musician I need it whenever I go to gigs, sometimes only a couple of times a month and other times multiple times a week.”

Louis says he cannot navigate public transport when he is carrying his equipment to gig venues. “It would be impossible otherwise,” he says. He also appreciates that Uber email him receipts electronically, which other taxis do not do, because he worries about losing paper copies. “Admittedly these are very first world problems but they are my problems,” he says.

Of course Uber has not been without its problems for disabled passengers. Mik Scarlet, access and inclusion manager at Network Rail, who was part of a team of trainers delivering disability training to Uber Assist and Uber Access drivers says he has met many disabled people who were refused by Uber drivers because they were in a wheelchair, had service dogs or needed some form of additional support.

But Scarlet says, despite these issues, on the whole Uber losing their license in London would impact disabled people “very negatively”. “While our city has a fleet of black cabs they are beyond the pockets of some people,” he says.

Myra Ali, 32, from north London, has a severe skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa which makes her skin tear and blister very easily. “It’s like the equivalent of having second degree burns that never health. I’m in daily pain,” she says. “Taking a shower can be excruciating, then a two hour bandage change after that.”

When she is out Ali sometimes uses the underground but worries about not getting a seat, having to walk long distances, or using escalators for fear of injuring herself. She also says when it is raining, she doesn’t have enough strength to hold an umbrella. As a result she uses Uber every single day to get to work, meet friends and for hospital appointments.

She has always had positive experiences with Uber and says the idea of banning them is “outrageous”. “TfL need to understand the detrimental effect banning Uber in London will have to someone like me who has a severe painful condition. We already have to deal with medical problems that we can’t control , the least TfL can do is empower us to go to work like everyone else does and not let us worry about our daily commute.”

McShane agrees: “Uber can’t exist as a service that exploits its workers or puts the safety of people at risk but too often services are wiped out with no thought as to how more vulnerable members of society will be affected.”

Transport for All say they encourage the continued close monitoring of Uber by the authorities but also says losing Uber wouldn’t just be a simple case of switching to another app for disabled people: “We are concerned that, as the private hire vehicle company that has the most wheelchair accessible vehicles, the loss of the service would have a detrimental impact on disabled people.”