SAN FRANCISCO - When Jonathan Lyens ordered a car on Uber's mobile app, the driver took one look at his service animal and considered taking off. "'I don't usually pick up dogs,'" Lyens, who is legally blind, recalled the driver saying.
"This driver seemed to have no awareness of disability rights laws." San Francisco regulators and the National Federation of the Blind are looking into claims that drivers for the rides-on-demand service have refused to ferry people with service animals. The federation said it has reached out to members to notify them that two law firms are investigating a series of such claims.
The chorus of complaints from the city's blind community are the latest headache for a five-year-old start up whose rapid growth has earned it a valuation north of $3 billion, but also its share of regulatory problems.
The federation will air its concerns during a meeting with Uber next week. Michael Hingson, a member of the California board of directors for the federation who is also legally blind, described the problem as "systemic." "It's a breach of civil rights," he told Reuters. "Uber ought to be required to obey the same rules as any other transportation service." Uber isn't the first transport provider the disabled community has targeted.
But city officials say it presents a new problem because its size and growth is coming at the expense of taxi services that operate under laws to protect the rights of disabled people. "We take this feedback very seriously and will deactivate driver partners from the Uber platform who refuse to transport a rider with a service animal," Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend said.
After filing a complaint to Uber, Lyens got a response that its drivers are "independent contractors and we cannot control their actions." It's unclear if Uber deactivated the driver involved.
WHAT TO DO?
TRE Legal Practice and Disability Rights Advocates expect to take action against Uber this year. Attorneys told Reuters they want Uber to educate drivers about disability rights, and punish drivers who violate them. "The outcome is to ensure that people are being investigated against," said TRE Legal's Timothy Elder. "How we get there is flexible." Uber, which allows users to call up rides from smartphones, is no stranger to legal action. The company was embroiled in a wrongful-death suit this year, filed by the family of a 6-year-old child killed by an Uber driver.
City officials are considering how to regulate up-and-coming services such as Uber and Lyft. Regulators have struggled to determine whether they should be responsible for what happens after riders get in the car.
The latest complaints struck a nerve in a city known for tolerance. During a hearing in March, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency official Christiane Hayashi said the city is in a disability community transit "crisis" with traditional cabbies moving over to these services in droves.
In September, the California Public Utilities Commission requested that steps be taken to "ensure that there is no divide between service provided to the able and disabled communities." Lyft did not respond to requests for comment.