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Uber's latest changes make trips easier for deaf drivers and their passengers

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Goal to recruit more deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers

Alicia Johnson has been driving for Uber for almost a year, first in California and now in her new home of Washington, DC, but because she was deaf it was never an easy task. Johnson, 25, would often miss ride notifications that came through her phone via text because she couldn't hear the ding, or find herself forced to awkwardly inform riders that she couldn't hear what they were trying to tell her. So when Uber recently rolled out some new features on its app just for deaf drivers, she was relieved.

"People would get in and have this reaction when they find out that I'm deaf"

"So before the new features were added, there wasn't the light notification that a rider was needing a ride," Johnson said through a sign language interpreter. "It came up as a text, as a line of text with that beep. So I had to constantly keep my eyes on the phone. I missed a lot of ride notifications. And now it's a visual notification. So I'm able to capture those riders much more easily."

Uber's app will now inform passengers when their driver is deaf. It will also disable voice-calling and instruct them to use text messaging for any questions. "Before this feature, people would get in [the car] and have this reaction when they find out that I'm deaf," she said. "So this gives them a little bit of a heads up. It's a nice new feature that helps that interaction from the beginning."

Uber says it has "thousands" of deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers in the US, and that this new update will help all of them better navigate their driving experience. Today, Uber announced that it is teaming up with the the Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), a 40-year-old deaf-led nonprofit, to host a series of recruiting events to promote the ride-hail service as a job opportunity for the deaf community. It is also hiring a handful of customer service representatives who know sign language to better assist its deaf drivers.

"There's no better example of the humanizing effect of technology"

"There's no better example of the humanizing effect of technology than frankly this initiative," said David Richter, vice president for strategic initiatives at Uber.

More often than not, Uber finds itself targeted for criticism by advocates for people with disabilities for failing to provide wheelchair accessibility in its vehicles. Uber has a number of different features in different cities for disabled riders — Uber WAV or Uber Access —€” but advocacy groups say the company failed to ensure enough accessible vehicles on the road, especially as it continues to disrupt the traditional taxi industry.

Many cities have laws requiring a certain number of their yellow cabs to be wheelchair accessible, but no such law exists for Uber. The United Spinal Association accuses Uber of "discrimination" and is lobbying state and city governments to require 100 percent of the company's fleet be accessible. Uber drivers have been accused of refusing to pick up passengers with disabilities, or blind riders with service animals. Both Uber and Lyft are facing lawsuits from disability advocates for discrimination.

Uber has been accused of discrimination by disability advocates

Richter said the new features on the app for deaf drivers, and Uber's partnership with CSD, should be viewed separately from those criticisms. "We are very much engaged in places like New York with certain commercial providers that allow us to do Uber WAV in a way that might make more sense, and we are taking steps in other jurisdictions on that," he said.

Chris Soukup, CEO of CSD, said his group "doesn't have a position on the United Spinal Association's criticism of Uber, but respect their concerns." In an email to The Verge, he said, "We believe every organization must work to ensure persons of all abilities have access to the world around them. CSD is working to ensure success for deaf and hard of hearing persons, and to that effect, Uber has promoted our community and provided greater accessibility for us through their app design."

That includes helping to produce training videos in sign language for prospective drivers, and hosting recruitment events in the Bay Area and Washington, DC, to start out. Uber won't be making any donations to CSD, nor has the company made any promises to do so, Soukup said. "We're doing this together to provide opportunities and promote the abilities of deaf individuals."