Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In response to a wave of ADA-related complaints about Uber and similar companies, a new ruling could raise the accountability bar for ride-hailing services.
In a ruling that could raise the accountability bar for all tech companies, a federal judge in San Francisco has allowed the National Federation of the Blind of California to pursue a lawsuit that accuses Uber of discrimination against visually impaired guide-dog users.
The NFB states that Uber drivers have violated ADA laws on multiple occasions by refusing to serve passengers with service animals. Drivers have also denied transport to blind people without dogs, the organization maintains. In other cases, animals were allowed passage but were allegedly mistreated. According to the original civil complaint, filed in September of 2014:
Plaintiffs are aware of more than thirty instances where drivers of UberX vehicles refused to transport blind individuals with service animals. UberX drivers that refused to transport these blind individuals did so after they initially agreed to transport the riders. The UberX drivers denied the requested transportation service after the drivers had arrived and discovered that the riders used service animals.
In addition, some UberX drivers seriously mishandle guide dogs or harass blind customers with guide dogs even when they do not outright deny the provision of taxi service. For example, Leena Dawes is blind and uses a guide dog. An UberX driver forced Ms. Dawes’ guide dog into the closed trunk of the UberX sedan before transporting Ms. Dawes. When Ms. Dawes realized where the driver had placed her dog, she pleaded with the driver to pull over so that she could retrieve her dog from the trunk, but the driver refused her request.
Uber had requested the case to be dismissed, on the basis that its contracts require customers to take disputes to arbitration and argue their complaints as individuals, not in class-action suits, according to SF Gate. The ride-hailing company also argued that it is not a "public accommodation" and therefore not subject to ADA requirements.
Last week, a federal judge tossed out that reasoning, stating that the NDF could move forward on behalf of its members who haven't signed Uber contracts (i.e., those who haven't necessarily used Uber yet).
The ruling is part of a wave of accessibility complaints and lawsuits against Uber and similar companies. Uber came under fire in March after a software bug rendered the app effectively useless for blind users and went unfixed for months. An ongoing lawsuit in Texas debates whether Uber provides sufficient access to wheelchair users, according to the San Francisco Business Times. Lyft was also sued there, but settled privately. And last month, Chris Pangilinan, a former SF Muni engineer, filed a complaint with the DOJ against Leap, the San Francisco private bus start-up with a $6 fare but with no wheelchair access. Ars Technica reports:
His complaint alleges that Leap "removed features that made the buses previously wheelchair accessible, such as the front door ramp, and wheelchair securement areas within the vehicle."
... "I don't want money or anything, what I want is to make sure that the spirit and the letter of the ADA [is considered] in the way that we build or change our transportation in the country," Pangilinan told Ars. "If services like Leap are going to become more popular, then it's harder to fight if we don't change it."
It's important to remember that for many vision-impaired people, services like Uber are game-changers. The convenience, relative low cost, and integration (most of the time) with most new smartphones' built-in screen-reading functionality have given the blind community new ways of being independent when it comes to travel.
The San Francisco ruling will hopefully set a precedent that shows newer, app-based businesses are accountable to the same civil rights laws as traditional ones.
“As a blind person myself, these things [like Uber] are such a leveler of the playing field,” Scott Blanks, deputy director of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, has said. “They’re not a driverless car, but they’re a lot closer … But, clearly there are some places where the service is not working for people. We’re talking about the wheelchair users, people with service dogs, guide dogs, where something that should make life more convenient can in fact make it a lot more frustrating.”