Uber Allegations: Does the Trendy Transport Company Discriminate Against Riders with Disabilities?

In technology’s brave new world where everyday needs from groceries to casual transportation can be managed via apps, where does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) fit in?

That seems to be the question with Uber, a company that connects people who need car rides with people willing to do the driving for a fee. The structure enables riders to bypass traditional transportation modes such as taxicabs and buses, while drivers bypass the licensure and medallion requirements inherent in working for public transportation models.

“By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers,” Uber says in defining itself on its Web site. Would-be riders sign up on the Web site, type in credit card information, then call for and receive rides from Uber drivers, who are regarded as independent contractors, according to Uber.

Are Drivers Following Uber Policies?

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But recently, Uber has been making headlines because people with disabilities say some drivers who initially agree to transport them change their minds when they arrive to pick up passengers who are in wheelchairs or have service dogs with them.

In the “Non-Discrimination Policy” on its Web site, Uber says it and its affiliates “prohibit discrimination against riders or drivers based on race, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity, age or any other characteristic protected under applicable federal or state law. Such discrimination includes, but is not limited to, refusing to provide or accept services based on any of these characteristics.”

Drivers or passengers who fail to comply will no longer have access to Uber, the Web site says.

Uber passengers with disabilities who have been denied rides have cited the ADA in claiming that those Uber drivers are breaking the law.

But in answering those allegations, Uber’s strategy has been to deny that it needs to adhere to ADA requirements in essence because Uber isn’t a public transportation company.

One lawsuit brought against Uber by the National Federation of the Blind of California accuses some Uber drivers of refusing to transport passengers who are blind and accompanied by service animals. Some accused drivers also “seriously mishandle guide dogs” and “harass blind customers with guide dogs,” the lawsuit said.

Plaintiffs referenced multiple sections of the ADA that prohibit discrimination by public accommodations and discrimination by certain transportation service providers, the lawsuit added.

Judge Refuses to Dismiss Case

In a responding Statement of Interest regarding Uber’s efforts to dismiss the charges, a United States District Court judge said, “Defendants appear to imply that, if the court determines that they are not a public accommodation, then the court should dismiss plaintiffs’ ADA claim (and the complaint) in full. Any such implication would reflect a misunderstanding about the scope of Title III’s coverage. The success of plaintiffs’ ADA claim is not dependent on a finding that defendants are a public accommodation, because § 12184 of Title III of the ADA applies to private entities that are primarily engaged in providing transportation services regardless of whether the private entity is a public accommodation. Furthermore, because coverage under this provision of Title III is not dependent upon coverage under any other provision, even if defendants were not covered as a public accommodation under § 12182, they still could be covered as a transportation service provider under § 12184.”

The judge added, “The United States’ interests are particularly strong here, where plaintiffs allege discriminatory denial of full and equal access to transportation -- an issue that goes to the very heart of the ADA’s goals ‘to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency’ for individuals with disabilities. The right to travel with one’s service animal is critical to achieving these goals.”

The ADA applies, the Statement of Interest pointed out, to taxi services, even if the taxicabs are privately owned.

And the Statement of Interest disagreed with Uber’s argument that it cannot control the individual actions of its drivers because the drivers are independent contractors.

“An entity may operate a demand responsive system even if it does not itself provide transportation services, if it does so through a contractual relationship with another entity or even individual drivers,” the Statement said. “Indeed, as explained in the DOT [Department of Transportation] guidance, while an entity may contract out its service, it may not contract away its ADA responsibilities.”

Mainstream media have published other stories of Uber riders with other disabilities who were similarly denied transportation by some Uber drivers.

A May 21 story by The Daily Beast tells of a 30-year-old PR executive who uses a wheelchair and recalled two recent instances of Uber drivers who wanted to deny her a ride as soon as they saw her wheelchair – which appeared to be an ultralightweight manual model, judging from the description that the chair would easily fit into the trunk of a compact car. In the first incident, the PR exec gave up after arguing with the driver, who insisted the wheelchair would not fit into his car’s trunk. The second time, the story says, the would-be rider was more insistent and showed the Uber driver that the chair did indeed fit into the car.

The Uber driver gave her the ride, but was abusive all the way to the airport, according to the story.

The Daily Beast also cited additional discrimination lawsuits filed in Texas and Arizona against Uber.

Time magazine pointed out in a May article that Uber and competitor Lyft have been named in discrimination lawsuits – at times, even as co-defendants.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.