Image: Getty/Luciano Lozano
At one point in time, my very large dog was very small puppy, and for several months, I attempted to transport her around New York City in Uber cars. Sometimes drivers would oblige, and other times they wouldn't. If a driver wasn't comfortable with us, I'd cancel the trip and find another way.But for some riders, traveling with a dog is a legal right—one they allege Uber and many of its drivers have made little effort to respect.
In 2014, the National Federation of the Blind sued Uber over complaints that drivers had discriminated against blind passengers with guide dogs. Last month, Uber settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay the advocacy group $225,000 over three years, in addition to publishing a new service animal policy and educating drivers about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).However, the issue remains deeply complicated as a result of Uber's nebulous industry identity."There was some question, though not by the National Federation of the Blind, as to whether Uber should be regulated in same way that taxis are regulated. The obligation of the taxi industry [to abide by ADA laws] is pretty clear, and taxi industry treated it as being clear," Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind, told me. "We want to see that Uber will create a clear policy that it enforces as taxi companies do."Both Uber and taxi companies must follow ADA laws as transportation providers, but in the past, Uber has argued that it's a technology company—not a transportation service—therefore ADA regulations don't always apply to it.Uber also can't command its drivers to perform certain acts as an employer might instruct an employee, and it's obvious the company has taken steps to avoid treating its drivers as such. Instead, Uber can present the law, inform drivers of the ramifications of choosing not to abide by it, but, the company has argued, it isn't responsible for the end result. In its settlement, Uber denied liability for drivers discriminating against passengers with service dogs.
Previous attempts to remind drivers of their duties to accommodate passengers with service dogs garnered mixed results. According to posts on the Uber Drivers Forum, many drivers admit to disregarding their legal obligations to serve people with disabilities. A troubling opinion shared by this cohort of contractors is to assume riders with service dogs are feigning their disabilities in order to transport their so-called pets. One Uber driver even wrote that they would "absolutely refuse despite the fact it's a service dog."Yet, in all fairness to drivers, Uber may not have been as forthright about educating drivers about ADA compliance as it has led us to think.Even now, Uber's current guidelines suggest users first call their drivers ahead of time to coordinate "bringing along a pet," which provides the opportunity for refusal of service. Drivers must transport service animals, the terms of service finally note at the end, but the actual rules for ADA compliance are buried elsewhere in the site's code of conduct page. Uber's discernment between pet and service dog is unclear, and it's understandable that riders and drivers have differing interpretations of the company's rules.An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on the record, but emphasized that, in accordance with its settlement terms, the company will have zero tolerance for drivers who refuse to pick up riders traveling with service dogs. Uber has also outlined technology solutions for informing drivers of ADA guidelines, such as an educational popup that all new drivers would have to read before using the Uber app.
"We'd love to see drivers willing to do it instead of feeling like they're forced to do it, but the reality is, if you're going to provide a service like this—if you're going to transport passengers—then you need to understand the legal ramifications," said Danielsen.Uber and people with disabilities aren't diametrically opposed, Danielsen stressed to me. In fact, there's some evidence that Uber has become a tool of accessibility, rather than a detractor of it."Even 1 percent rejection is not fun for the person who has to face the inconvenience and humiliation of the experience but I like these odds way better than the random taxi, which might reject my dog and which can be slow in arriving and risky to pay," wrote Mike May, an advocate for the blind and visually impaired and technology consultant to Uber. "May has worked with Uber to make the service more amenable to visually impaired or blind riders. Uber currently offers something called UberACCESS, which allows passengers to hail reliable service vehicles that are wheelchair accessible, or are driven by people specially trained to assist members of the senior or disability community."We're very optimistic and positive about the freedom Uber provides to blind passengers. Plenty of blind people use Uber regularly and have found it to be a tremendously useful service," Danielsen added.If one thing is certain, it's that pet owners like me have zero right to bring animals of any kind into an Uber car without the driver's explicit consent. And attempting to sneak animals into cars under the guise of a disability only hurts riders traveling with actual service dogs.
There are currently between 100,000 and 200,000 service dogs active in the US, according to best estimates of national registries. Service dogs are different from therapy or emotional support dogs, which are not accounted for under ADA regulations.The ride-hailing company has potential to become an indispensable accessibility service, but as long as reports of discrimination continue to surface, the company still has a long ways to go.Uber's settlement with the National Federation of the Blind must still be approved by a judge, and the company will need to prove that it's serious about the improvements it agreed to implement.Correction: An Uber spokesperson initially said that the proposed educational pop-up would be for new drivers. According to Uber statements, the pop-up, if implemented, would be seen by new and existing drivers using the Uber app.Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.