Shakthi Vadakkepat describes himself on Twitter as a tech analyst, blogger and disability activist. Confined to a wheelchair, Shakthi has seen the harsh realities of being differently abled in a country like India. In an earlier interview with YourStory, he had said,
The number of wheelchair-friendly traveling options is ridiculously low. I was asked to remove my prosthetic support and get up from my wheelchair at the airport in Bengaluru; I cannot board a bus here or at any other city in our country. Most hospitals are themselves inaccessible!
Shakthi commutes in a modified cab, a prototype of sorts that he believed could be replicated. So in 2015, he tried to start a cab service targeted at the needs of the disabled. But because of lack of support, he wasn't able to take it forward.
Now, Uber, the popular ridesharing company, has expressed its interest in the space. On Tuesday, Uber India announced the launch of two new products - uberACCESS and uberASSIST in Bengaluru. This launch was supported by Mphasis, a leading cloud and cognitive services provider, as a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative.
With an aim to address day-to-day transportation requirements of senior citizens and those with accessibility needs, riders can request uberASSIST rides starting Tuesday (Oct 31) and will soon be able to book uberACCESS rides on demand.
New choices, not an ambulance service
Uber India clarified that uberACCESS and uberASSIST are not ambulance services, but a new choice for riders in need of assistance during their daily travels, whether they are riders with special needs or senior citizens.
Uber India noted that both uberACCESS and uberASSIST partner-drivers are top-rated partners trained and certified by Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre (DEOC). Uber India noted that the driver partners are equipped with required skills to assist passengers with accessibility needs as well as those who need additional assistance during their ride to ensure riders feel safe and comfortable for their entire journey.
These two new products offer riders access to smart features that are accessible to other Uber customers too. Users on uberACCESS and uberASSIST can track the ride real time, share their ETA and allow friends and family to follow the trip remotely.
How uberACCESS works
An Asia-first launch for Uber in Bengaluru, uberACCESS is a forward-facing wheelchair accessible product. Uber India will be starting phase one of operations soon with 50 retrofitted uberACCESS vehicles with heightened roof and hydraulic wheelchair lift on-demand.
UberACCESS vehicles are rear-entry, which means that riders face forward when they’re travelling, unlike other wheelchair-accessible vehicles that require riders to face sideways or backwards. All uberACCESS vehicles have four-point tie-down straps, which are used to secure the wheelchair to the floor to ensure it stays put during the trip.
How uberASSIST works
UberAssist is an option for those who require additional assistance – such as senior citizens and people with accessibility needs, including those who may just feel more comfortable with extra assistance when getting from door-to-door. Uber India noted that it will be launching Assist on Tuesday with a fleet of 500 uberASSIST vehicles, which can accommodate most foldable wheelchairs.
To access uberASSIST/uberACCESS in Bengaluru, the process flow is same as Uber's other options-
1. Open the Uber app
2. Enter destination
3. Slide to the right and select uberASSIST/uberACCESS
4. Confirm pick-up location and request ride.
Announcing the launch, Amit Jain, President, Uber India and South Asia, said,
At Uber, we believe in creating transportation options that fit every rider’s need. The launch of uberASSIST and uberACCESS furthers our efforts in this direction. We are excited to partner with, and thank, Mphasis for playing a key role in helping us bring this idea to life. We aim to make these services available in more cities across the country.
Nitin Rakesh, CEO and Executive Director, Mphasis, noted that over the years, Mphasis has worked on various high-impact initiatives in creating a barrier-free environment -- be it through innovative services, policy advocacy or supporting accessible technology solutions. He said,
We combined our financial aid with a data-driven, strategic focus - the essential inputs for creating sustainable and scalable impact in our communities. I am glad my team approached Uber with this idea and together we are committed to the cause of bringing innovative solutions that enhance opportunities for everyone.
Mphasis noted that its roadmap for digital accessibility is intended to empower persons with disabilities by enabling them to access digital content, web pages, mobile applications, and use all kinds of digital assets.
A good start....but is more inclusion needed?
While uberACCESS and uberASSIST are definitely a step forward in making ridesharing accessible to all, Shakthi believes that more needs to be done. Talking to YourStory, he noted that while he was invited to attend the uberACESS launch, he couldn't make it because the vehicles available in their current fleet don't let differently-abled sit in their wheelchairs during the ride.
Shakthi noted that while uberACESS vehicles are equipped with hydraulic ramps that elevate the rider and make it easier to get into the vehicle, riders still need to get out of their wheelchairs and be assisted in the vehicle's seat. The vehicles currently don't have the option of sliding the wheelchair into the vehicle and completing the ride on their wheelchair itself. Shakthi noted that this is much needed because depending on their level of disability many differently-abled riders could get injured or experience discomfort while being moved.
On the global front, Uber seems to have solved this pain point. For example, uberACESS vehicles in London are equipped with a rear-entry ramp, winch, and restraints. This enables a wheelchair rider to slide in, fasten their wheelchair with the restraints and ride with one additional passenger. A video from Whizz-Kidz demonstrates the experience.
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