Uber accessibility
Among customers with guide dogs and wheelchairs, Uber and Lyft have become synonymous with discrimination due to drivers regularly denying rides to these customers. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO -- Michael Forzano, 24, doesn't go anywhere without his yellow Labrador retriever. A software developer in Seattle, Forzano is blind, and in the five years he's owned his guide dog, Delta, he has not once been denied entry into a business establishment.

That was before he tried hailing an Uber ride.

This year alone, he’s had seven Uber and Lyft drivers deny him service -- and drive off without him and his service animal.

“I almost missed a flight once, I’ve been late to meetings. … I’ve had it happen two times in a row, back-to-back,” Forzano said, explaining that this type of incident happens to him at least once every month or so. “It’s really frustrating, really inconvenient and really discriminating is what it is. No one else has to deal with this.”

Sarah Funes, 24, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, has had similar experiences. On multiple occasions, Funes has ordered an Uber ride only to have her driver take off after seeing her wheelchair. On one particular occasion in Boston, the driver added insult to injury after he drove off, by charging for the ride instead of canceling it -- although Funes later received a refund.

Unfortunately, Forzano and Funes are not alone. Throughout the country Uber and Lyft customers report problems with accommodations for guide dogs and wheelchairs. In the worst cases, they describe their experiences as feeling humiliation, harassment and discrimination. Many members of San Francisco's disabled community know at least one person who’s had to deal with prejudiced drivers, or they've experienced it at least once themselves.

Discrimination Suits Pile Up

These types of incidents have lead to a series of lawsuits against both Uber and Lyft that accuse the companies of violating or failing to uphold the Americans with Disabilities Act, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. In California, Uber is being sued by the National Federation of the Blind of California for denying service to customers with guide dogs. The lawsuit alleges a driver forced one passenger’s dog into the trunk of the car. In Texas, a woman is suing Lyft, saying she was denied a ride due to her wheelchair and claiming that the company does not have a single wheelchair-accessible vehicle in Austin. Similarly, Uber was hit with a federal lawsuit just last week, claiming the company does not do enough to make its service accessible to customers with wheelchairs in the Manhattan borough of New York City.

“We wanted to be treated as consumers like everyone else,” Funes said. “If there are people willing to spend money to use your service ... then you should make it accessible so you can get that money. It’s weird that they’re driving out an entire population of people.”

Both Uber and Lyft have policies in place that prohibit drivers from denying service to customers with disabilities. When drivers first align with the companies, they are shown videos that let them know they must adhere to the ADA. If a driver violates the ADA, he or she faces the possibility of being removed from both the Uber and Lyft platforms after the companies review each incident. Additionally, both companies have also begun to take steps to provide rides designed specifically for customers with disabilities.

Uber, for example, last year launched UberAssist, a service that costs the same as the standard Uber service [UberX] but can accommodate seniors and some riders with disabilities by connecting them with drivers who’ve received special training. Uber in 2014 also launched UberAccess and UberWAV, through which Uber connects with local taxi companies and paratransit services to provide customers with wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Both of these services, however, are available only in select markets.

“The Uber app was built to expand access to safe, reliable transportation options for all, including users with disabilities,” an Uber spokeswoman said. “Any report of discrimination initiates a review of the situation and may lead to deactivation from the Uber platform.”

Lyft, meanwhile, has similar programs in certain cities. In Chicago, the company places a 10-cent fee on each nonaccessible ride, with the money given to a city-run fund for accessible vehicles. Both companies also work with organizations like the National Federation of the Blind and tech-accessibility experts to ensure their services work well for customers with disabilities. “Lyft aims to accommodate anyone in the community who needs a ride, and many disabled individuals, who were previously underserved by existing transportation options, now actively use and rely on Lyft as a reliable, safe and affordable way to get around,” a Lyft spokeswoman said.

Michael Forzano, 24, has been refused seven Uber and Lyft rides in 2015 because of Delta, his service dog, which helps him get around. Courtesy Michael Forzano

'A Total Godsend'

Many disabled customers agree that Uber and Lyft have made getting around easier than was previously possible. For blind customers, for example, hailing a ride is much easier than before, and because all payments are handled via an app, these customers don’t have to worry that a driver might overcharge them.

“For us [Uber has] been a total godsend. It’s really been a great addition to our lives,” said Casey Mathews, 37, who is blind and works as an access-technology specialist. Mathews praised how easy it is for him to hail an Uber ride and how affordable the fares are. In general, Mathews said he’s had a good experience -- except for the time he and his wife, who is also blind and has a guide dog, encountered a driver who got very upset and refused to drive them after realizing there was a service animal involved. This incident occurred as Mathews and his wife were leaving the National Federation of the Blind’s conference last month in their hometown of Orlando, Florida.

“The guy was a real jerk about the whole thing,” Mathews said.

Despite efforts to improve conditions for the disabled, most customers with wheelchairs or guide dogs know there’s a realistic chance they’ll run into a driver who doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the ADA and refuses them service. This is why many customers with disabilities think Uber and Lyft are not doing enough to ensure that drivers are properly trained.

Uber and Lyft could easily avoid more guide dog incidents if they offered more effective training, critics say. For example, Uber and Lyft could test their drivers to ensure they actually watch the onboarding videos that cover the ADA, said Dan Kysor, 60, of Sacramento, California, who is blind and has been denied service when riding with a friend who is also blind and has a guide dog. Kysor is set to get a service dog of his own in October and expects he will be denied rides.

“I’m still going to support [Uber] and work within their platform because I just don’t know any superior way to get around,” Kysor said.

'They Freak Out'

More training for drivers also would help passengers who use wheelchairs, as many drivers do not understand that several kinds of wheelchairs are foldable and can easily fit in a regular car. “There’s an initial hesitation of they don’t know what to do because they’ve never had a [passenger with a wheelchair] before, and they freak out,” Funes said.

However, additional training will never solve the need for more accessible vehicles that can transport customers with large wheelchairs or scooters. UberAccess may solve this problem in cities like New York City, Chicago and Austin, but it does nothing for customers in cities like Houston, Phoenix or Washington, D.C. Many experts on disability transportation matters also argue that Uber and Lyft’s partnerships with existing cab companies are inherently flawed as these are the same fleets with which Uber and Lyft compete and have been putting out of business.

“I don’t care if Uber replaces Yellow Cabs, but I do care if they refuse to provide service to people who use wheelchairs,” said James Weisman, president and CEO of the United Spinal Association.

Uber and Lyft dispute this claim, but many disabled customers and experts point to cities like Philadelphia that have had a tough time finding buyers for taxi medallions that require wheelchair-accessible vehicles and would make it easier for disabled customers to find suitable rides. Many disabled customers argue Lyft and Uber could change their ways and require accessible vehicles in their fleets but don’t want to because that might be seen by some regulators as reason enough to convert drivers from contractors to employees.

“Uber’s made it really clear it doesn’t want to do that because that would make them a transportation company, and they would have to be regulated like a transportation company,” said Rachel Tanenhaus, 41, of Medford, Massachusetts, who claimed she has been denied service on many occasions because of her guide dog. There was one weekend where Lyft gave Tanenhaus a voucher because of a denied ride, but when she tried to use the voucher a few days later, the second driver also refused to drive her.

For many customers with service animals or wheelchairs, they will begrudgingly continue to use Uber and Lyft because there aren’t better options available or because they are hopeful that one by one they can weed out bad drivers. But other customers, like Tanenhaus, say neither Uber nor Lyft will get their money until they change their ways and ensure that disabled customers won’t face discrimination.

“I was excited about using them originally, and now I’m just pissed at them,” Tanenhaus said. “They weren’t nearly as excited about me.”