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Massachusetts to probe Uber, Lyft on disability access

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(Read caption) The Uber app displays on a smart phone cars available for a pick-up in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday, March 18. Both Uber and Lyft are facing an inquiry from the Massachusetts attorney general's office regarding their policy for equal access to people with disabilities.

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Uber and Lyft may be heading back to court, this time in Massachusetts.

The state attorney general’s office is looking into how the two ride-sharing companies ensure equal access for people with disabilities, a spokeswoman for the attorney general told Reuters Monday.

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Disabilities rights activists have previously questioned how drivers for Lyft and Uber Technologies, Inc. handle passengers in wheelchairs and the blind. The Massachusetts inquiry, however, marks the first examination from an attorney general, opening a new area of scrutiny for the two companies and adding to a growing list of business issues facing them both.

The civil rights division of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office reached out to the companies this week to discuss issues related to equal access, spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore said, though the office has yet to take any formal actions.

Uber, a San Francisco-based company valued at $40 billion, and Lyft, valued at $2.5 billion, have both fought court battles worldwide around issues that range from from driver’s wages and contracts, to sexual harassment, to competition with local taxi drivers.

In early July, Uber suspended its French operations after cabbies in Paris “wreaked havoc on roads ... and two Uber executives were charged with running an illegal taxi service,” Colette Davidson and Sara Miller Llana reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

Uber may also be on the verge of being banned in its home state after administrative law judge Karen V. Clopton of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ruled last week that the ride-sharing service should be suspended from California and fined $7.3 million for failing to provide the CPUC with data required by the 2013 state law that legalized ride-hailing firms, according to the Monitor’s Gretel Kauffman.

Both companies have also faced disabilities rights battles in court. In July 2014, a coalition of disability advocates in Texas sued the two companies, accusing them of denying service to disabled Texans, the Houston Chronicle reported.

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“Uber and Lyft are up and coming in terms of transportation companies, and they don’t really have any means to provide wheelchair accessibility,” plaintiff David Wittie told the Chronicle. “They are socially irresponsible and not accessible and equivalent for people with disabilities.”

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In September, the National Federation of the Blind of California also filed a suit against Uber, citing more than 30 instances nationwide of blind customers and their service animals being refused rides, the Los Angeles Times reported. A San Francisco judge has said the case can proceed.

A Lyft representative could not be immediately be reached for comment, according to Reuters, but Uber has said it regularly communicates with advocates and policymakers about accessibility for riders and drivers with disabilities.

“We have teams dedicated to continuing to expand that access further for the disabled community in Massachusetts and nationwide,” the company said in a statement.

“The Uber app was built to expand access to accountable, reliable transportation options for all, including riders with visual impairments and other disabilities,” according to a blog post on the Uber site in early July. “We are committed to continuing to build solutions that support everyone’s ability to easily move around their communities.… [and] we are dedicated to seeking feedback from the blind and visually impaired community.”

This report contains material from Reuters.