Customers in wheelchairs have been directed to costlier and less-convenient taxis through Uber, a lawsuit said. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Uber has failed to accommodate customers in wheelchairs, with policies that inhibit access for wheelchair users or provide them with watered-down options, depriving them of the ability to use the door-to-door UberX service, a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in the District alleges.

Civil rights activists and advocates for people with disabilities say the company is violating the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination in public accommodations against people with disabilities and other protected classes. Uber historically has argued it is a technology company that is not subject to the ADA.

Because of Uber’s restrictions on vehicle types, the suit alleges, not one of the 30,000 Uber vehicles that roam the Washington region is equipped to give rides to wheelchair users whose mobility devices aren’t collapsible for storage in a trunk.

Customers in wheelchairs, who number in the thousands in the District, have instead been directed to costlier and less-
convenient taxis through the ride-hailing app, the suit says.

“Uber is capable of incorporating wheelchair accessible vehicles into its basic service option (known as UberX), but it chooses not to do so in D.C.,” the suit reads. “Far from embracing accessibility options, Uber has told at least one individual that he could not drive for Uber if he used a wheelchair accessible vehicle.”

The nonprofit Equal Rights Center filed the lawsuit, accusing the embattled firm of “denying wheelchair users full and equal enjoyment of [its] transportation service.”

The D.C. case comes eight months after a disability rights nonprofit group in Chicago filed a lawsuit alleging the company failed to adequately serve wheelchair users there. Either suit could give way to a landmark ruling on whether the ride-hail company is subject to ADA requirements, experts say.

Uber did not comment on the specific points outlined in the lawsuit, but the company issued a statement affirming its commitment to accessibility. The company activated an ­accessibility-oriented feature known as Taxi WAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle) in 2015, which pairs wheelchair users with local cabs, but advocates say it falls short of providing equivalent service.

“We take this issue seriously and are committed to continued work with the District, our partners, and stakeholders toward expanding transportation options and freedom of movement for all residents throughout the region,” Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons said.

WAMU radio was the first to report on the 29-page suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court.

Uber said it has recently committed at least $25,000 to the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles to improve wheelchair-
accessible vehicle access, adding that it plans to steer substantially more toward such services in the coming year. Uber’s drivers are independent contractors, rather than employees, and either own their vehicles or secure rentals and leases through Uber’s dealer partnerships.

Instead of allowing wheelchair-accessible vehicles into its fleet, the suit says, Uber gives wheelchair users the option to use Taxi WAV, which allows users to hail a D.C. cab. But ERC’s research found wheelchair users endured waits eight times longer than UberX users and paid up to double the fares using taxis. Occasionally, the ERC said, there were no accessible taxis on the roads.

“TAXI WAV does nothing to expand the number of wheelchair accessible vehicles available in D.C.,” the suit says. “Instead, it merely redirects requests for wheelchair accessible vehicles to any accessible D.C. taxicabs that happen to be in service.”

According to the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles, there are 267 wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the city’s fleet of 6,706 licensed taxicabs.

Heidi Case, a disability rights advocate who brought the problems to the ERC’s attention, said that when she realized the Uber platform did not allow for wheelchair accessibility, she opted not to download the app.

“All they do is refer you to taxis, which I already have direct access to through Transport DC [an alternative transportation service for paratransit customers] and through the . . . D.C. taxi app,” she said. “We deserve access to their service. It’s a wonderful, helpful service.”

But Uber’s lack of wheelchair access shows that the company has “absolutely no moral compass,” she said.

Some wondered why Uber’s chief rival, Lyft, was not included in the lawsuit. Lyft declined to comment on how or whether its service accommodates users with non-folding wheelchairs.

“Uber is a market leader in this space and as a tech company,” ERC Executive Director Melvina Ford said Wednesday. “And we think that to the extent that Uber fixes this or a court orders that Uber fixes it, that the operators will fall in line or have to fall in line.”

The civil rights firm Relman, Dane & Colfax and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs are representing the nonprofit group.

Uber has been embroiled in scandal in recent months, following allegations of widespread sexual harassment, revelations of secretive software being used to evade government regulators, and a backlash touched off by the #DeleteUber campaign, which alleged the company disrupted a taxi strike of President Trump’s travel ban. The scandals culminated with the resignation of chief executive Travis Kalanick this month.

Charlie Petrof, attorney for Access Living, which filed the Chicago suit last October, said both the Washington and Chicago cases could force a ruling on whether Uber is subject to the ADA, which could have broad implications nationwide.

“Both our case in Chicago and the case just filed in D.C. are filed by organizations that intend to get to the bottom of that,” he said. “Transportation is a huge link in putting together your life. You can’t get to the grocery store, can’t get to your education classes, can’t get to the doctor, family, without transportation. If ADA is going to ignore what is becoming one of the major transportation elements in the United States, then we’ve got a major problem.”