Pando

Lawsuit claims Uber denied service to the blind, put a dog in the trunk

By David Holmes , written on September 10, 2014

From The News Desk

AssaultKidnappingVehicular manslaughter.

These are only a few of the allegations brought against Uber drivers in recent months, and today the company adds another black eye to its record: allegedly denying service to the blind.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit in a federal court against Uber yesterday, claiming that Uber drivers have refused service to blind people with service dogs on more than thirty occasions. In one instance, a driver allegedly shoved a woman's guide dog into the trunk of his car and refused to stop the vehicle after the passenger realized what had happened. To add insult to injury, the lawsuit also states that some customers were charged cancellation fees after being refused a ride.

This behavior, along with being appallingly unfair, appears to be a pretty clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans discrimination against the blind by taxi companies, even if the car is operated by a private independent contractor.

For a company like Uber, which manages tens of thousands of independent drivers, it's impossible to guarantee that none of them will ever act in violation of the law, or human decency. And in Uber's defense, it told the Examiner that its policy is to terminate any driver who refuses to transport the visually-impaired or their service animals.

But the Federation also claims that it tried to resolve the issue with Uber without filing a lawsuit, but the company rejected its negotiation proposal. Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that Uber told customers that its independent drivers were out of the company's control, and the best advice it could give was to mention the animal before the driver arrives. That may not be the soundest advice, considering that if drivers are willing to reject disabled riders in person, then they're probably even more likely to do so over the phone or through the app.

In recent months, Uber has softened its approach, at least on the surface, when it runs afoul of government bodies and statutes. It's even tapped former government officials to help it navigate regulatory waters and potential PR nightmares, hiring Ashwini Chhabra, a top New York City taxi commission official, and David Plouffe, former advisor to President Obama.

But if what the lawsuit alleges is true, and Uber refused to negotiate with victims of discrimination while doing little to stop this discrimination from happening in the first place, then it sounds like Uber's back to its old tricks -- stonewalling and shirking responsibility whenever its drivers breaks the law.

I'm not unsympathetic to Uber's difficulty in breaking down decades-old regulations that unfairly benefit incumbents in the urban transportation industry. And I respect what Uber DC General Manager Zuhairah Scott Washington calls the "burden of being an innovator" -- where the flashy, fast-growing newcomer invites higher expectations for service and decency than the old guard.

But there's no excuse for not taking discrimination claims seriously, putting the burden of ensuring fair treatment on the rider not the driver, and failing to take responsibility for drivers who, regardless of their independent status, generate millions of dollars for Uber every year.

[photo by pohan camera]