A state disability rights group has sued the ride-hailing services Get Me and Fare in federal court, arguing that their apps are unusable for blind people and therefore in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The National Federation of the Blind’s chapter in Texas is suing on behalf of five Austinites, arguing that they are entitled to damages as well as an injunction against the apps, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday. The injunction would require Get Me and Fare to make improvements to their apps.
According to the lawsuit, the Get Me app only partially offers text-to-speech capability. For example, Austin resident and accessibility consultant Jeanine Lineback, who is blind and one of the suit’s plaintiffs, was able to set up an account on Get Me but couldn’t request a ride, the lawsuit says.
Officials with Get Me said they disagree that they are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because they don’t provide public transportation. Nevertheless, in August, Get Me’s attorney, J. Robert Arnett II, responded to a letter of demand from the plaintiffs saying that Get Me plans “to introduce a range of accessibility functionality” sometime between 2016 and 2018 as long as funding is available.
The Fare app was made accessible to blind users in its latest iPhone update Sunday, and the Android app will have the same update in two weeks, Fare’s CEO Michael Leto told the American-Statesman on Wednesday. As a result, Leto expects the lawsuit to be dropped against his company.
When the National Federation of the Blind’s chapter in California sued Uber in 2014 over drivers refusing to transport blind individuals with guide dogs, Uber also argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act didn’t apply to it. However, the federation argued that private entities primarily engaged in providing transportation services are covered by the act, and Uber settled the lawsuit this summer.
The reason ride-hailing service companies should take a particular interest in making their apps available to people who are blind should be obvious, said another one of the suit’s plaintiffs, Steve Elliot.
“When Lyft and Uber came to town, it was really a huge deal for people who were blind because you could be a lot more independent,” said Elliot, an Austin resident and attorney. “You could decide you wanted to go to a movie, and boom, you could hail a Lyft or an Uber, and a car was there in five minutes. It gave you a lot more freedom. Prior to that, if you wanted to go somewhere you had to schedule a cab, which aren’t very reliable, and unfortunately we don’t have really good public transportation.”
Elliot said he didn’t expect to encounter accessibility problems with other ride-hailing apps when Lyft and Uber stopped operating in Austin in May after Austinites voted to keep the city’s laws regulating ride-hailing apps in place.
“When I downloaded those first couple of replacements for Uber and Lyft, it was really frustrating for them not to be accessible,” he said.
The services Fasten and RideAustin — a nonprofit formed by Austin tech leaders after Austinites voted to keep the city’s laws regulating ride-hailing services in place — now have become his go-to ride-hailing apps, Elliot said.
When the company was developing the Get Me app in 2015, they consulted industry guidelines on accessibility and concluded that, “while desirable, was not legally required,” Arnett wrote.
The lawsuit argues that most app programming controls and elements are accessible to blind people by default.
“Such accessibility problems can be easily and affordably corrected,” the attorney said in a statement.
Arnett disagreed in his letter, saying that Get Me’s development partner estimated that adding accessibility functionality will cost over $500,000.