'It really makes me feel dejected': Blind ride-share users too often abandoned for service dogs

Recourse is hard to come by, even with settlement with Uber, Lyft reached

Sloane Martin
October 16, 2019 - 4:42 pm
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The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures people who use service animals cannot be discriminated against; but many blind and visually-impaired people locally say they are too often denied rides on ride share apps with their guide dogs.

Harper the 3-year-old energetic German Shepard is Briley O'Connor's service dog. Inside her apartment, Harper is sweet and affectionate towards visitors, but once the harness comes on, she becomes a working dog sitting quietly and attentively at O'Connor's side.

"The cane finds objects in the environment," she said. "The dog navigates you around them."

O'Connor can tell Harper right or left and has to determine when it's safe to cross the street. Harper isn't a GPS —  "I can't tell her to go to Walgreens. That'd be great," O'Connor joked — but she makes getting around a whole lot easier.

"This is not a pet," she said, adding that she "holds my breath" every time she uses the apps. "She gets in the back of the car, she lays on the floor, she minds her own business."

Ryan Strunk, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, says guide dogs are more than companions.

"Blindness is a part of our identity," he said. "It's not who we are certainly, but it's a part of our identity and the guide dog is an extension of that. A guide dog becomes part of who you are. You have a very special bond and a very special relationship."

Just like for sighted people, ride share apps mean enhanced efficiency and independence, and blind and visually-impaired folks want to take advantage of the services — and others to come in the future.

"I love public transportation, but it's a whole new level of convenience," Strunk said.

O'Connor estimates that more than a third of the time requests a Lyft or Uber, she is abandoned due to her service animal. Amena Thomas of Minneapolis has experienced the same thing too many times.

"It really makes me feel dejected," Thomas said. "It makes me feel like, 'OK, I'm blind. I'm disabled in America. We've got these laws protecting us. We've got all these different things in place that are supposed to help us. But in the end have we really come that far?'"

Blind and visually-impaired folks know when drivers inch up toward the curb, then speed off once they spot a guide dog. They get the notifications that the driver cancelled the ride. Then they're stuck without an option, which becomes dangerous the colder it gets.
O'Connor says she's had positive interactions when the drivers actually stop to let her explain. 

It's hard pin down the exact reasons drivers make the decision to ditch riders with service animals, even though it's rude, disrespectful and illegal and there are no formal statistics about the frequency nationwide. Some, as independent contractors, may not realize the law, or may not want dogs in their own cars. Imposter service animals could also taint the reputations of highly-trained, official ones like Harper the German Shepard. O'Connor says she's also sensitive to cultural or language barriers that might be at play. She wants the companies to do more to address them through education.

"I worked at Blind Inc. and I worked with English language learners," O'Connor said. "Sometimes terms are very culturally-biased and they're very abstract unless you apply some concrete meaning to them."

The National Federation of the Blind has a legal settlement with both companies that includes a survey to report complaints. The companies threaten removal from their platforms for not abiding by the law, but riders say it remains difficult to hold drivers accountable.

Uber provided this statement to WCCO Radio: "We are upset by this rider's poor experience and are looking into the matter. Drivers who use the Uber app agree to accommodate riders with service animals and comply with their independent obligations under accessibility laws."

Lyft did not respond, but does have a service dog policy here.

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