2016-11-07 11:34:12  + video 

When China’s leading car-hailing company Didi Chuxing merged with rival Uber China in August, stories of generally poor customer service were soon to follow.

Now, even China’s visually impaired community has been forced to find alternative means of transport, as the post-acquisition version of the Uber China app, released in late October, lacks voiceover functionality.

Sixth Tone compares two versions of Uber app. By Wu Yue and Chenxi/Sixth Tone

Uber’s ride-hailing app had become the go-to option for the majority of the country’s blind people — at least until a new update, Version 4.8.0, became available in Chinese app stores on Oct. 25. The app’s popularity stemmed from its innovative voiceover functionality, which allowed users with poor eyesight to listen to, rather than read, the app’s messages.

Yang Yongquan runs a forum for blind people with 30,000 users. Visually impaired himself, 33-year-old Yang told Sixth Tone that he updated his Uber app on Saturday, only to quickly find that it didn’t work as well. “For us [visually impaired people], it’s nearly impossible to hail a car from the side of the road,” he said. “We can’t know whether taxis are available or see when they’re approaching.”

Uber China communications representative Zhuang Chunhui told Sixth Tone that previously, services provided for visually impaired people were based on the capabilities of the Uber’s international technical network. “Now that Uber China is part of Didi Chuxing, the technical support has changed accordingly,” she said. “Whether the functions in question can be implemented depends on the local team.”

In a customer review on the iTunes app store, user “XiaoZongzi1994” complained that after updating the software, their phone’s voiceover feature could not read any content on the app. “The last car-hailing app in China to support accessibility features has met its end,” the user wrote. The problem appears to be the same whether the app is downloaded from the iTunes or Google Play app store in China.

A screenshot from the Apple iTunes store shows that the current version of the Uber app (above) is developed by Beijing XiaoJu Technology Co. Ltd., which also produced the Didi Chuxing app (middle).

A screenshot from the Apple iTunes store shows that the current version of the Uber app (above) is developed by Beijing XiaoJu Technology Co. Ltd., which also produced the Didi Chuxing app (middle).

Gu Linglei is the 32-year-old owner of a shop on Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace. Blind since birth, he helps developers make their apps accessible for visually impaired people. Gu told Sixth Tone that Uber’s new system on iOS was developed by Beijing XiaoJu Technology Co. Ltd. — the same company that made the original Didi Chuxing mobile app. “Actually, this is a clone of the Didi Chuxing app, but with the Uber logo,” he said.

China’s programmers must learn how to make their apps fully accessible to all potential customers, said Yang, who taught himself how to code a decade ago. “Optimizing technology to make it fully accessible is not so difficult to do,” he added. “It really doesn’t cost much, whether in terms of money, time, or effort on the part of programmers.”

A programming engineer employed by Alibaba recently posted on microblog platform Weibo that accessibility features are rarely on a programmer’s checklist — and that’s a big part of the problem. Uber’s foreign fans in China are also struggling with the new version of the app, which is not available in English and no longer accepts foreign bank cards.

Wang Mingze, the Shanghai-based public relations manager of Didi Chuxing, told Sixth Tone that the brand-new Uber China app was created on short notice after the merger between the two companies.

“Our technical team has begun optimizing the accessibility functions to make sure that our visually impaired users can continue to use the new Uber China app in the future,” Wang said.

(Header image: A visually impaired woman tries to hail a taxi, as her guide dog stands by, Beijing, March 29, 2012. VCG)