On June 28, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned a decision by the New York City district court that mandated all new city taxis be wheelchair accessible. Several wheelchair users and advocates for the disabled had filed charges against Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) – the licencing body of New York City taxis – for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to ensure that all taxis are accessible. General Counsel for the United Spinal Association equated this decision to the Jim Crow laws of the South.
But inaccessible taxis are not legally a form of discrimination against people with disabilities in American culture. The rationale is that the ADA simply states that access to the service or good must not be discriminatory, not that the tools used to provide the service must be discrimination-free.
In this case, taxis are considered the tool, not the service provider. They are not a place of public accommodation like many disabled rights advocates argue that taxis are. The federal appeals court ruled that the TLC could not be held accountable for enforcing accessibility because taxis are a personal belonging.
Taxi drivers use taxicabs to provide transportation. Taxis are the means by which transportation service is provided. According to Danita Davis of Valparaiso University Law School, the contracts the taxi drivers and people with disabilities enter into are about the taxi driver promising to transport a person and his belongs to a specified place through its carrier. It is not a contract to guarantee that the carrier – the tool used to do the transporting – is accessible.
As a tool to accomplish transportation, taxis do not fall under the category of the obstacle to receiving services. But taxicabs being a tool does not exempt taxi drivers from following the ADA. The ADA Handbook specifies that taxi drivers still must comply with the ADA even if the drivers are not technically employees of a cab company. Complying with the ADA means places may not discriminate against people with disabilities and may not deny full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services afforded by the place.
Under 49 C.F.R. § 37.29 of the ADA, discrimination includes refusing to provide services to disabled people who can use taxis, refusing to assist with the stowing of mobility devices, and charging higher fares to people with disabilities or for storing their equipment.
Davis summarizes these prohibitions as preventing people from making contracts based on genetic characteristics including disabilities. This definition means that only when taxi drivers refuse to make a contract with people with disabilities do they violate discrimination laws. But this definition never states that the means to provide transportation must be accessible.
Therefore, the taxicab does not have to be accessible. The taxicab itself is not operated by the public. It is operated by the taxi driver to provide transportation services. Since Davis describes taxis as the tool used for transportation, taxis cannot be defined as the entity preventing people with disabilities from receiving transportation.
In essence, inaccessible taxis’ inability to prevent transportation services excludes them from being discriminatory. The ADA does not prohibit the tool to provide the service from being inaccessible. But perhaps if Americans extended the scope of the ADA or classified taxi services as public transportation, more taxis could be accessible.