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Uber unveils app updates to help its deaf drivers

Article from Wired

Friday 5 June

June 05 at 10:30

Uber, an app that allows users to book a taxi, private car or rideshare from a mobile phone, has updated its partner app with features designed for its deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers.

Once a driver chooses to turn on the special features by flipping a switch inside the app, a light will flash when a new trip is requested in addition to the existing audio cue. The option for passengers to call the driver will be blocked; riders who want to provide special pickup instructions are given only the ability to text. The app also adds an extra screen for passengers to enter their destination alongside a note that lets them know their driver is deaf or hard-of-hearing.

“We hope [these features] help extend the earning opportunity that Uber presents to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” Ben Metcalfe, head of product innovation at Uber, wrote in a blog post last week.

Uber says it is testing these special features in four cities for now—Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—but if the trial run goes well, the updates could roll out nationwide in as little as two weeks. The tweaks were made, the company says, after receiving suggestions from drivers and the National Association of the Deaf, and they aim to streamline the ride-hailing process for everybody.

“Talking to these associations and our deaf partners, we realized there is such a need for increased economic opportunity for members of this community,” said Rachel Holt, Uber’s east coast general manager. “We’re always trying to develop solutions that serve the unique needs of both our partners and riders.”

There’s real reason for concern. In 2012, according to the American Community Survey, only half of working-age adults with a hearing disability were employed.
Accommodating Everybody

Larry Cotton Jr., a San Francisco-based driver who has been working for on-demand ride services, including Uber, Lyft and most recently DoorDash, for about eight months, said he’s experienced some difficulty using Uber’s regular app on several occasions. More than once, Cotton says, passengers requesting rides would try to call him up to give further instructions. After realizing he couldn’t take the call, Cotton says, they would simply cancel on him and order another ride.

Other problems involved delays. On platforms like Uber, one way to maximize earnings is to make as many trips as possible in as little time as possible. But, Cotton says, he and other deaf drivers needed to have lengthy conversations over text messaging or on notepads to coordinate, and might even need to pull over to the side of the road if a passenger had a question. The setbacks caused some trips to take much longer than they normally would.

It’s true that these obstacles could cause some drivers to become discouraged, Cotton admits. But he continues to persist. “I’m a fighter, I want to be successful,” Cotton said. “I want to demonstrate that we can do the work.”

Cotton said he also thinks it’s important for other deaf drivers to identify themselves on platforms like Uber, so they can give feedback on the initiatives and continue to improve things for everyone. “What impresses me about the new Uber app is the speed of service,” Cotton told WIRED over video chat, with an interpreter present.

For Uber, which faces a number of lawsuits for not accommodating people with disabilities, the update also comes across as an effort to improve its reputation. The suits themselves, however, don’t specifically deal with parties who are deaf or hard-of hearing; one has been filed, for instance, by the National Federation of the Blind of California; another, by a 30-year-old woman who says she was refused service because of her wheelchair.

Uber has shown resistance in at least one of the cases. In response to the wheelchair suit, the company filed a response saying that as a technology company, it is not subject to laws that regulate public transportation services like busses or trains, nor should it be “required to provide accessible vehicles or accommodations.” Pushback to that stance has come not only from disability advocates. The company faces competition from its archrival Lyft, which has made a name for itself as a community-conscious alternative to Uber and, according to a recent report from The San Francisco Chronicle, has nurtured its community of deaf drivers.

Regardless of its other conflicts, however, these updates are a positive development for Uber and its drivers. There’s a real need to give the deaf community more options for work. If updating an app can make things easier for them on Uber’s platform, that’s putting tech to good use.

UPDATE 13:15 EST 05/28/2015: After two new interviews, we added quotes from Rachel Holt and Larry Cotton Jr.

Article source: Wired