There was a time when many of us who are blind or visually impaired, once we had our adapting to blindness skills assimilated, would declare in one way or another that, when it came to counting the real hardships of blindness, there were really only two significant losses: reading and driving.

The advent of all kinds of technology to magnify, speak, and convert the written word to braille has all but eliminated the first of those hardships. With optical character recognition software in general and the KNFB Reader app for iOS and Android devices in particular, blind people can access print almost as readily as those with complete sight. While not all print is accessible in electronic form, the inability to read directly with one's eyes holds nowhere near the enormity of challenge that it once did.

The game-changer for those of us unable to drive swept on the scene much more abruptly than the comparatively slow evolution of technology related to accessing information.

Almost overnight, options that would have belonged in the realm of science fiction just a few short years ago have made catching a ride as simple as tapping a button. The primary new mode of transportation is called ride-sharing. Its two leading providers are Lyft and Uber. There are other minor competitors on the scene in some areas of the country, and still more revolutionary transportation options on the horizon, but for now, let's look at Lyft and Uber and how they affect people with vision loss.

The Magic of Uber and Lyft: How Ride-Sharing Works

From the rider's perspective (and most of us reading AccessWorld are probably more likely to be riders than drivers), Lyft and Uber function similarly. From the Apple or Google Play store, you download the Lyft or Uber app. You sign up by providing a few basic bits of information: name, address, phone number, credit card information, and your Facebook account. This final step is to provide your photo.

After the initial sign-up, you never have to handle or contemplate your credit card or cash again. When you need a ride, such as to a store for holiday shopping or to a New Year's party, simply open the app (we'll use Lyft as the example here), confirm that the address identified there is your current location, and tap on "Request Lyft." In usually less than a minute, you will hear a chime and be informed of the identity of your driver and that he or she is on the way.

Both apps then provide the driver's name, photo, make and model of car, photo of car and, in Uber, the license plate number is read by VoiceOver. Near the top of the screen you will find the estimated time of arrival (ETA), which decreases in minutes as you continue to swipe the option and the car gets closer to where you are waiting.

For those who can see the screen, a map appears and displays the movement of the car on that map as it draws nearer to your location.

When the car arrives, you jump in, much like being picked up by a friend, and off you go. At your destination, say goodbye. No cash ever changes hands. The app shows you the price of the ride, and waits for you to accept the price and rate the driver, all of which takes less than a minute.

Advantages of Ride-Sharing Services Over Traditional Taxi Service

I am probably not alone in recalling all too many times in the past when a taxi was promised, sometimes repeatedly, but failed to arrive. Waiting in the cold with a small child and several bags of groceries, feeling panic rising as the time of an important appointment approaches and then passes, or getting into a taxi that reeks of smoke or other effluvia—these are just a few of the many unpleasant memories in my personal collection. Many who read these words are undoubtedly experiencing "aha" moments as you recall comparable experiences in your own taxi-hailing repertoire.

Lyft and Uber offer many advantages to customers over traditional taxis. You know immediately how soon your driver will arrive. Both companies set very high standards for acceptable vehicles, so that all cars are new, clean, and usually stylish! Rates are typically lower than taxis, and Lyft is somewhat lower than Uber. You rate the driver after each ride, from 1 to 5 stars, and while most will warrant a high five, the occasional driver who is not to your liking will never be matched with you again if you select a rating of 3 stars or less.

Ride-Sharing Services: The Blind Perspective

In the last three years, I have taken perhaps a few hundred rides with Lyft and Uber in about a dozen cities. I canceled one ride because the driver spoke no English and could not understand where I was located. Another driver canceled my ride because he got a higher-paying trip. With these two exceptions, I would say that every experience has been pleasant, positive, remarkably efficient, and even fun. Drivers are from all walks of life. I have ridden with graduate students picking up summer or spring break cash; retirees who want to continue working part-time; struggling models, actors, musicians, and writers; at-home moms or dads driving while the kids are in school; people new to this country; and on it goes. Cars are nearly always new and clean and the conversation lively. Of course, if you need a nap, no conversation is required.

Both apps are completely accessible with VoiceOver, although a bit of a learning curve is involved with each. Both seem to update frequently, which can change the feel of the app with VoiceOver. In early June of this year, a Lyft app update caused a problem for a while with rating drivers. Most riders give drivers 5 stars and most drivers give riders 5 stars. For a few weeks, it was not possible to determine which number of stars was being selected. To rank lower than 5 stars is a definite red flag message. Because of the update, I was inadvertently ranking drivers lower than my intended 5 stars. The first time, I received an email message saying that Lyft was sorry I was unhappy with my driver and would never pair me with that driver again. I replied that the problem was with the app, not the driver, and would Lyft please adjust the rating. That happened about four times with four different drivers. I then took the proactive approach of adding a comment. After you rate a driver, you are given the opportunity to add a comment. For several trips in June, my comment was something like, "I would give this driver 6 stars if I could. If the number shown is less than 5, the problem is with using the app via VoiceOver, not with the driver!"

Happily, subsequent updates have resolved this particular issue.

Because I can't see the photo of the driver or the car, I have used various approaches to be sure I connect with my Lyft or Uber driver.

Both apps alert you when the driver has arrived. If I am in a quiet location, like my own home, I go out when the car is a minute or two away and I can hear it approach. Even so, since the app has given me the driver's name, I ask them to confirm their name before getting into the car.

If I am in a noisier environment, such as leaving a store or restaurant or medical building, I use the "Contact Driver" button provided in each app. This affords the customer the opportunity to call or text the driver. My habit is to call and say something like, "I'm out here with a white cane. I won't see you, so just let me know when you are here."

Some blind and low vision customers have made cards with large printed letters announcing "LYFT" or "UBER," to hold up when the car is near as a way to alert the driver. When a driver accepts your ride request, she sees your photo as well, so sometimes this face recognition helps, but doesn't seem to play a large role.

Options and Caveats

Although Lyft has some optional types of trips called Lyft Line and Lyft Premier, I have not been in cities where these options are available so have had no personal experience with them. Lyft Line is for sharing a ride with another customer who is traveling in the same direction, thus lowering the cost, and Lyft Premier is for more limousine-like service.

Uber offers options in every city where I have used it. Usually, these include Uber X, Uber Select, and Uber Black. For all but one ride, I have used only Uber X, which is what most drivers provide—a car that is no more than a few years old and is in excellent condition. Uber Select is a more upscale ride, not much more than a year old, and will cost at least 50 percent more. Uber Black, priced significantly higher, will be a black car that offers some level of luxury.

When ordering an Uber car, some people new to using the app have mistakenly selected Uber Select or Uber Black and thus had an unpleasant surprise at the cost of a trip, so be sure to select Uber X if you just want transportation.

I had a guide dog when I first began using these services, and never had any problems. It warrants mentioning, however, that a few riders with guide dogs have had problems. Most notably, a lawsuit brought by the National Federation of the Blind of California for three individual plaintiffs against Uber found Uber to have discriminated and led to a company policy that any driver refusing a blind passenger with a service animal will no longer drive. There have, to date, been no such charges against Lyft.


Lyft and Uber are headquartered in San Francisco. Uber was launched in 2009 by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, although it would take another year or two for the app to take the form we know today. Lyft was launched in 2012 by Logan Green and John Zimmer. Both now operate in close to 400 American cities and several other countries around the world, and both are constantly hiring new drivers.

Drivers are not employees, but independent contractors. Some drive just a few evenings a week or on weekends, while others work full-time.

My personal bias leans a bit more toward Lyft as the rides cost a bit less, the drivers are required to submit background checks, and the app provides the opportunity to add a tip.

Both Uber and Lyft have completely changed the nature of transportation for those of us who cannot drive. While a car that drives itself is also literally just around the corner, these ride-sharing services are perhaps even better. I might spend $100 or $200 each month on rides, but I can go anywhere anytime I please, and I have no car payment, no maintenance fees, no concerns about where to park—and I didn't have to learn to drive!

Learn more about Lyft or Uber online, or download the apps from the App Store (Lyft or Uber) or Google Play (Lyft or Uber).

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Access to Transportation