UberAssist's arrival in Ottawa greeted with praise, concerns

The launch of a new service by ride-hailing company Uber intended for riders with mobility issues is being greeted in Ottawa with both plaudits and questions about how it will work.

New 'door-to-door' service will cost same as standard Uber trips

Sarah Mercer, 21, uses a wheelchair almost full-time and calls the launch of UberAssist a "great idea." (CBC)

The launch of a new service by ride-hailing company Uber intended for riders with mobility issues is being greeted in Ottawa with both plaudits and a few concerns.

UberAssist, which launched on March 23 in Ottawa, will offer "door-to-door service," with top-rated drivers helping riders enter and exit their vehicles.

Drivers must be rated of 4.6 or higher and have completed a "hands-on in-person educational session" that involves instruction on, among other things, how to guide people with impaired vision and fold and unfold wheelchairs, the company said. 

UberAssist rides will cost the same as standard Uber fares.

Potential to help thousands

UberAssist has the potential to help thousands of people in Ottawa, including many who don't meet the criteria to take Para Transpo, OC Transpo's service for people with disabilities, said Andrea Podruski, program manager for Citizen Advocacy.

To be eligible for Para Transpo, riders must complete a lengthy application form and have their application certified by a health care professional.

UberAssist drivers, however, will require more than just awareness training — they will also need to comprehend the specific challenges facing people with a wide variety of medical issues, said Podruski.

Screenshots from UberAssist, the new service for people with mobility issues that launched this week in Ottawa. (Uber)

"I don't think awareness is enough. Because when you're looking at a range of disabilities and a range of different types of people who are going to be using this service,you really want to make sure that you have a true understanding and you're prepared to respond to different types of situations," Podruski said.

Some drivers will also have to revamp their vehicles to accommodate different types of wheelchairs, she added.

"For people with physical disabilities, they often have equipment which is often very expensive and needs to be manipulated in a safe way," said Podruski.

"For people who have mental health issues they may need, you know, certain types of social support as they're going for a ride somewhere."

Uber currently only has wheelchair-accessible vehicles available in Toronto, the company said.

'It's perfect'

For 21-year-old Sarah Mercer, who uses a wheelchair because of her spina bifida, scoliosis and osteoporosis, UberAssist is a dream come true.

"I use Para Transpo if I have to. You have to plan far in advance to do that, though, so sometimes when I have things that pop up I'm not able to get a ride there."

Mercer told CBC that she often has to show her Uber drivers how to dismantle and reassemble her wheelchair, and it would be a "great idea" if their drivers had already received some training from the company.

"I mean, I don't mind teaching my Uber drivers myself how to do it," she said. 

"But if they already know how to do it, it's perfect."

With files from Sherry Aske and Hillary Johnstone