Sassy Outwater, a producer in Boston, ordered an Uber on Friday to drive her from a doctor's appointment to a different part of the city for Christmas shopping. She called the driver in advance to tell him that, because she is blind, she wouldn't be able to see him arrive, but that he should look for her standing with a service dog.
"A dog?" the driver asked pointedly, before hanging up and immediately canceling the ride, charging a $10 fee to Outwater's card.
Experiences like this are not rare for Outwater, who uses Uber almost daily and says she has been cancelled on due to her guide dog more than 20 times in the last two years. She has missed appointments, been late to work, and been stranded in freezing weather after being canceled on by multiple drivers in a row. Although Uber refunded her in this instance, she said being charged for the cancellation adds insult to injury.
"My credit card should not have to answer for someone else's lack of education," she said.
Outwater is one of many blind or visually-impaired customers who say they have had similar issues with the ride-hailing apps they rely on to get from place to place. The National Federation of the Blind of California has a lawsuit pending against Uber for discriminating against blind passengers. The original complaint in the suit, filed in September 2014, outlined more than 30 instances of discrimination against passengers with service animals.
It is against Uber's code of conduct for drivers to deny rides to passengers with service animals, and reports of such incidents are grounds for terminating the driver's account.
"Accessibility for all riders is a priority for Uber," an Uber spokesperson told Motherboard by email. "We take these responsibilities seriously and are constantly exploring additional ways to better serve all people with disabilities. Refusing to transport a rider with a service animal is a violation of our code of conduct."
Outwater said that since the lawsuit was brought against Uber, the company has been working harder to accommodate blind users, but it is far from perfect. The app still has some glitches for blind users and she said the website, where she first attempted to complain on Friday, was not accessible to the blind so she had to resort to tweeting at the company.
Despite these snags, Outwater said Uber is often indispensable for blind customers. The built-in payment option is an improvement compared to taxis, which in some cities have electronic payment options that are not accessible to the blind, and it is easier to hail a car from your phone when you are unable to see.
"The benefits of a blind person using the app are generally overwhelmingly good, but the service refusal is due to lack of education on the part of the drivers," she said. "Uber needs to take responsibility for its drivers and train them."
The lawsuit against Uber is pending, and unless it settles out of court, the company is expected to go to trial on April 18 of next year, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs confirmed to Motherboard. In the meantime, customers like Outwater are likely going to continue to be inconvenienced by Uber delays.