Uber driver sees passenger in wheelchair, takes off

CONCORD, Calif. -- On-demand ridesharing has become the new normal way to get around -- but not for everyone. Disability advocates say Uber and Lyft have left millions of passengers in the dust -- without equal access to rides.

Now a California man is suddenly among those left behind - after a terrible car crash six years ago changed his life forever.

"Becoming paralyzed is hard,'' said Joshua Foster, 35, of Concord. "I've gone through all this crap, it's hard, multiple surgeries, it's tough."

Yet, Foster says he's also stronger than ever. "I live in my own house... I take care of my own self."

He also drives his own car, swiftly folding his wheelchair and hoisting himself in the driver's seat.

But that is far from his only strength.

Foster is a world-class wheelchair bodybuilder, ranking in the top ten in professional competitions. "You have never met a more able handicapped person than myself," he said.

And so he was stunned about what happened one night.

"I wanted to go out and have fun, and so I called an Uber," he said.

Foster was heading to a friend's birthday party, and wanted to drink -- and not drive. So he called an Uber. However, when the driver pulled up, he didn't see Foster.

He saw a man in a wheelchair.

"He looked at me and he just literally went, 'No-o-o-o-o-o. No. No. No. No. No. I can't do this,' " Foster recalled, shaking his head vigorously as the driver did. "I was like, 'Are you sure?' ''

Foster tried to explain he didn't need help, that he could get in and out of the car himself.

"I was like, 'Hey man this is how it goes. I'm gonna hop on the seat, the wheels come off, the cushion comes off, I'll fold it and it sits right behind me 'cause, I drive my own self.'" Foster recalled saying. "He goes, 'No! Shut the door.' He just backed up and I'm like-- wow."

The Uber driver took off, leaving Foster in the driveway.

"I just want people to understand you can't keep doing this,'' Foster said. "You can't make people feel like they're less than human just because of a wheelchair."

Foster tried to report it to Uber. He did get a response, but it wasn't helpful.

"They were like, 'how do you rate your experience? A five or a one?' '' he recalls. "I'm like pfft. It was treating me like a robot. A Twitter robot."

Foster said he wanted to talk to Uber about making the service more accessible for people with disabilities. For example, he suggested a button in the app to notify drivers that the passenger will be using a wheelchair. Or a way to call a wheelchair accessible vehicle. As ridesharing companies increasingly take over the transportation industry, advocates say, they're not meeting their legal obligation to also serve those with special needs.

Foster contacted 7 On Your Side. We told his story to Uber, and the company said it does comply with ADA, the Americans With Disabilities Act, saying: "Drivers who use the Uber app agree to accommodate riders with disabilities and must comply with accessibility laws. We do not condone discrimination."

"You can't just drive up and see someone in a wheelchair and say I'm outta here,'' said Melissa Riess, attorney with Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates. The non-profit legal group has sued both Uber and Lyft for what it claims is a failure to provide access to those with special needs.

But it's not clear whether all gig-economy drivers, many of whom are just signing up, will comply with ADA, or even understand it.

"If you are a provider of transportation you must comply with the ADA,'' Riess said.

However, the law doesn't require drivers to take extraordinary measures, such as using special vehicles, to accommodate the disabled, Riess said.

"Just because you're covered by the ADA doesn't mean you have to go to the ends of the earth to accommodate people with disabilities, but you have to take reasonable steps,'' Riess said. For example, she said, "They're driving a Prius, and you have a collapsible wheelchair that can fit in the trunk. They (drivers) are obligated not to discriminate against you on the basis you're in a wheelchair, and give you a ride if it's possible."

Drivers also are obligated to let special needs passengers bring a service animal into the car, she said.

She said Uber and Lyft have gone full speed ahead in providing on-demand service, but forgot about those with disabilities. A transportation company is obligated to serve everyone under ADA.

Uber is testing a "wheelchair accessible vehicle" program in a few cities, but not yet in the Bay Area. Lyft has a button for disabled passengers but instead of rides, the app provides links to paratransit services, with phone numbers and website links. Both companies say they are working to improve their services for those with special needs.

As for Foster, another Uber driver did pick him up that night. After he reported the incident, Uber refunded his $8.00 fare, and the company promised to investigate the driver's actions. Foster says that does nothing to solve the larger problem.

"You hurt me big time by not treating me like a person,'' he said of being abandoned. "I'm hurt but I'm strong."

He worries more about other people with disabilities who are not as strong or independent. He sees them as a forgotten people who get discouraged by rejection and too often remain isolated. Uber and Lyft drivers, many just average folks doing a side job, may not realize how their actions affect those they leave behind.

"I don't want people with disabilities to be afraid to do stuff,'' he said. "To go, have fun, celebrate your friend's birthday. The number one thing is, we're human. This (wheelchair) isn't who we are. It's just transportation."

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