May 28, 2015 · 2 minutes

Uber has updated its mobile applications with new features meant to make it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers to communicate with passengers.

In addition to making the driver's phone light up when a passenger is available, the update will remove the ability for consumers to call their driver, and will instead encourage them to send a message with specific instructions. Riders will also be asked to name their destination via text instead of speaking them aloud.

Drivers in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC will be able to test the update before it heads to other cities. Uber says it developed the new features alongside several drivers -- whom the company is careful to identify as "partners" instead of employees -- and the National Association of the Deaf.

It's a laudable effort. But just as it's strange for Jawbone to sue FitBit for hiring its employees right as the latter company prepares to go public, it's telling that Uber is releasing this update now, after numerous reports and several lawsuits have criticized its approach to handling both drivers and riders with disabilities.

First come the riders. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, drivers with impaired hearing are "flocking" to Uber's most well-known competitor, Lyft:

'It’s an example of something happening organically that we never anticipated,' said Emily Castor, Lyft community relations manager. 'Deaf drivers have the ability to interact with passengers and not feel socially isolated, to earn income and make connections. I can’t count how many tweets I’ve seen from passengers with deaf drivers. At first I was surprised, but then realized it was an educational opportunity.'

Lyft had a recruitment table at a DeafNation expo and helps arrange get-togethers for its local cadre of deaf drivers. 'Some of our best drivers also happen to be members of the deaf community, and we’re always thrilled to welcome more,' the company says in its FAQ for potential drivers. The issues with riders are trickier. Several lawsuits allege that Uber drivers are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing service to people with wheelchairs, not allowing guide dogs in their vehicles, and "one instance where a woman’s guide dog was locked in the trunk of a car," the Daily Beast reports.

Uber doesn't appear to have done much to dissuade these violations of the law. Indeed, as Wired notes, it's argued that the ADA shouldn't apply to its service:

Uber has shown resistance in at least one of the cases. In response to the wheelchair suit, the company filed a response saying that as a technology company, it is not subject to laws regulating public transportation services like the bus, rail or other kinds of transportation, nor should it be 'required to provide accessible vehicles or accommodations.'
None of which is to cheapen Uber's efforts here. Assuming these new features are as helpful to deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers as they seem, they could make it easier for many of the people who are already driving for Uber's service. Making tech more accessible to anyone who wishes to use it is always awesome.

Let's just not forget that this isn't borne of altruism, and that these updates make it easier for people to participate in a service that misrepresents drivers' wages, has been criticized for refusing to directly employ those drivers, and plans to replace all those meatbags as soon as its driverless cars are ready.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]