But the juxtaposition of this announcement to Uber's recent practices might compel the public to view the initiative as conveniently timed.
Over the past eight months, there have been several lawsuits alleging that Uber drivers have discriminated against blind and wheelchair-using riders. Uber claimed that, as a technology company and not a transportation service, the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn't apply to its operations, according to The Daily Beast's Nina Strochlic.
Kristin Parisi, a Boston-based Uber rider who has used a wheelchair for 25 years, said Uber drivers have refused to take her; others have been verbally abusive.
Via The Daily Beast:
Parisi says the driver called her an “invalid” and said she “must not be a Christian” and needed to “develop thicker skin.” At the end of her ride, Parisi says the driver asked if she was going to give a bad review. “I said, ‘It has nothing to do with bad review, it has to do with illegal practice,’” she says. “‘You have to understand what you’re doing is not only mean — it’s against the law.’”
When asked whether the new app updates have anything to do with these recent controversies, Uber's Holt simply told Mashable she thinks the Uber app was "always designed to expand access to safe and reliable transportation options for all on the rider side, including riders with disability."
"I think we're incredibly committed to continue to build solutions that support everyone's needs and to move around more effectively. I think this particular update is unique in that it also addresses partner needs," she said.
While considering driver needs is important, it's the treatment of riders that has largely earned Uber a seemingly never-ending streak of bad publicity.
Examples include a number of sexual abuse allegations against Uber drivers (and a canceled partnership with UN Women), concerns over privacy violations after an executive suggested the hiring of "opposition researchers" to dig up dirt on journalists, alleged shady business tactics against competitors and enabling surge pricing during crises.
The company has tried to introduce new features that tackle social issues before, such as adding an "SOS" button to the app in India earlier this year after a New Delhi driver allegedly raped a female rider. Critics, however, pointed out that such an update is not enough to protect Uber customers.
In addition to app updates, Uber has engaged in a number of marketing stunts over the past several years— some charitable, some downright strange — in attempts to refocus its public image. Despite these efforts, many users continue to boycott the app.
Ultimately, Uber maintains that Thursday's new app features will benefit drivers in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, as well as passengers overall.
"I think this is the right thing to do for our partners, and for riders who are connected to those partners," Holt said.