A leading advocate for the rights of people with disabilities says the voices of that community are being left out of the conversation about ride-hailing services in upstate.
As state officials debate what rules should be enacted in order to allow services like Uber and Lyft outside of New York City, advocates for the disabled want assurances they won't be denied access to that transportation option.
"We need somebody to talk to us. We need this to slow down so at least the disability issues can be discussed and acknowledged," said Todd G. Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy for Western New York Independent Living.
Vaarwerk co-signed a letter delivered this week to area state legislators urging lawmakers to listen to the concerns of people who have physical and developmental disabilities.
In general, very few vehicles are handicapped accessible. Typically, they are the vehicles owned by disabled people themselves and families of disabled children, both of whom are less likely to drive for a ride-hailing service, advocates say.
The State Senate on Monday passed a bill that would permit ride-hailing services to operate in upstate. The bill has no companion in the Assembly, which has not passed ride-hailing legislation.
The Senate's measure contains a provision that would create a task force to look at issues affecting disabled persons.
To Vaarwerk, such a task force, without regulatory power or authority, has "no teeth" and would offer no protection for disabled persons looking to utilize Uber or Lyft.
"They're going to be denied rides on a daily basis, and we're not going to have anything to do to stop it," he said.
Western New Yorkers with disabilities already face difficulties living independently, with the top problem being housing, Vaarwerk said. Right behind that problem is transportation, he said.
Vaarwerk said he would like to see the state law include protections for those who file complaints about drivers who utilize ride-hailing services. The state Division on Human Rights should be tasked with handling complaints about drivers, he said.
Vaarwerk's letter, also signed by the Center for Self-Advocacy's Executive Director Samuel Mattle, was sent to the offices of state Sens. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, as well as Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Michael Kearns, D-West Seneca.
Kennedy has scheduled four public forums in upstate about ride-hailing, including one at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
In a written statement from Kennedy's office, spokeswoman Molly Hirschbeck noted the upcoming forums are open to the public.
"While the Senator has been openly supportive of ride sharing, he is just as open to discussing all feedback related to the proposed legislation," Hirschbeck said. "This is a public process, and we encourage all Upstate New Yorkers to attend and add their voices to our constructive conversation."
The other forums are in Rochester on Feb. 15, in Syracuse on March 8 and in Albany on March 15.
Vaarwerk added that both he and the disabled community want ride-hailing services in the Buffalo area and that voices of disabled persons will be heard at Saturday's session.