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Ride-Sharing Services Changing Lives of Those With Special Needs

Innovations in technology will touch those involved in planning for the economic security of people living with special needs. 

I still remember my first Uber ride. It was the summer of 2012, and nobody quite knew what to expect of this service that was brand-new to Philadelphia. Friends on the West Coast had talked about it, but it seemed like the type of luxury that I might indulge in only for certain special occasions.

Today, I take Uber several times per week. In the four years since then, talking about what Uber means for a particular industry or society at large has become a trope of so-called thought leadership that aims to engage millennials while illustrating a grandiose economic theory. But it helps to know how these developments can change the lives of families that have special needs members. As their advisor, you can help them access these liberating services and products, such as self-driving cars.

A recent conversation with the parent of a child with autism showed me the significance of services like Uber and got me thinking about my role in helping families fit them into their budget. “My son feels so free now; there’s so much he can do without me,” she remarked. And it was all thanks to the Uber app. Its impact also will touch those involved in planning for the economic security of people living with special needs.

Five years ago, before ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft were commonplace, most people living with a disability were restricted in many ways due to transportation limitations. Depending on the nature of the condition, many people had to live in an urban center where public transportation would be readily available or they would have to rely on parents, friends, neighbors or social workers to provide rides at designated times. Today, people with special needs may find greater independence — personal and financial — thanks to ride-sharing services. And that independence can only grow with the impending advent of self-driving cars.

This is not to say that ride-sharing services are always a viable option for many with disabilities, particularly given the checkered legal history that both Uber and Lyft have when it comes to discrimination based on physical disability. In theory and by law, services like these should be open to all and should try to maximize opportunities within otherwise underserved markets. But in practice, far too often this is not the case.

Even so, self-driving cars should eliminate discriminatory barriers. This is because technology, unlike people, lacks the ability to discriminate. Almost. There is growing consensus that self-driving cars, or mostly autonomous vehicles, will be on the road by 2020, if not sooner. That’s merely four iPhone releases from now.

The technology offers the promise of mobility and independence for many — including those who are elderly or disabled —
but that independence may not be doled out equally. Indeed, many people with disabilities, including blind people, may not be able to participate fully in the driverless car revolution. Disability advocacy groups, fortunately, have been vocal in supporting fully automated vehicles that would serve the spectrum of special needs communities. That advocacy is presently focused on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which is considering regulations that would govern self-driving cars.

For many living with special needs, driverless cars — and for now, ride-sharing services — can mean: 

» Greater flexibility in choosing where and when to work. 

» Expanded options for where to live. 

» Independence in going to medical appointments, shopping and other activities. 

» Overall, greater equality and inclusion in society. 

Driverless cars also will surely navigate their way into special needs financial plans and the lives of those who manage them. Autonomous vehicles and ride sharing lead to greater independence for people with disabilities. This means that as advisors work with clients who are caregivers, the clients will not be as limited by geography (where the client must live), the job the parents must take or the types of employment the person living with the disability may pursue. Clients will need to budget accordingly, but they can have greater freedom in choosing to relocate or retire knowing that their loved one will still be able to enjoy a certain level of independence.

So often, when new technology emerges, we think of how it will make our own lives easier or make a task more convenient. Generally, attention to innovation focuses on the most obvious and immediate aspect of that innovation. For example, when air conditioning became mainstream, few looked at it and said, “This will result in greater political clout and new economies for states like Arizona and California.” Rather, we thought, “This will make me nice and cool in the summer.”

When Uber burst onto the scene only a few years ago, most people thought, “How convenient is it to have a car pick you up with the push of a button?” For millions, however, these automobile innovations undoubtedly herald a new era of independence — and with that, a plethora of new considerations about how to live their lives. Considerations that, at the very least, you can think about from the back seat of a car.  

Adam Beck is director of The American College Center for Special Needs. Adam may be contacted at [email protected].


Adam Beck, Esq., is assistant professor of health insurance and interim director of The American College MassMutual Center for Special Needs. Adam may be contacted at [email protected] .

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