Guide dog association to sue Uber over ‘discrimination’

The South African Guide Dogs Association for the Blind (Sagda) said it will take Uber SA to court after multiple cases of discrimination were reported by people with disabilities wanting to use the e-hailing service.

By Umamah Bakharia – Mail & Guardian

Shepstone & Wylie Attorneys, who will be taking the case to the Equality Court on behalf of Sagda, said they had made attempts to communicate with Uber to highlight various incidents of discrimination that had been reported but they had been ignored.  

“Unfortunately, we received no meaningful responses or undertakings from Uber that it would take action to eliminate the ongoing discrimination faced by Sagda’s members. 

“Sagda has been left with no alternative but to approach the Equality Court for relief on behalf of its members,” senior associate Sirhaan Che’ Khan told the Mail & Guardian.

The law firm highlighted instances where  Uber drivers had refused to allow service dogs into their vehicles, even when an Uber Assist ride had been requested. 

Uber SA has also been accused of failing to respond to alleged discriminatory incidents reported by users of the app and to ensure that action was taken.  

“There were too many complaints by our members and we thought it was best to handle the discrimination legally,” said Sagda’s Pieter van Niekerk.

The non-profit organisation, which has been operating for 70 years, provides services for people with disabilities, who have visual, physical or developmental needs, with trained guide dogs, service dogs and autism support dogs.

Some Sagda members say their disabilities, such as blindness, have opened them to discrimination from the e-hailing industry.

“Being blind, it is always difficult for me to get an Uber or a Lyft. 

“It is either the app or the driver that makes me very aware that my needs cannot be facilitated,” said a 32-year-old female Sagda member, who asked to remain anonymous.

The alleged discrimination against people with disabilities was brought into the spotlight after a petition by Hanif Kruger, who is a manager at the South African National Council for the Blind’s assistive technology centre, in which he shared his experiences of using Uber as a blind person.

Kruger, who made use of Uber to attend the Africa Conference and Career Expo in Johannesburg last year, said he had a traumatic experience after his Uber driver refused to allow his guide dog into the car with him, claiming the dog was “a threat to his life”.

“Even though I explained my dog’s role and training, he stubbornly refused to understand or accommodate us. It was an unsettling experience that left me alone in a dangerous location, where I was robbed just last year,” Kruger told the Mail & Guardian.

He added that the driver had refused to cancel the trip so that he could request another ride, even though he begged. 

After some time, the driver did cancel the trip, claiming that Kruger had not been on time, and charged him R25.

But what followed is what Kruger found most upsetting.

“Uber emailed me stating that the driver complained about a verbal altercation and I was warned that my Uber account would be suspended if I continued with this behaviour. I immediately responded to this email. 

“Uber then replied, stating that they were not interested in my report and that, if I genuinely wanted to log a case, I should write a separate email,” Kruger said. 

“They concluded by stating that no further response was needed from me.”

According to Kruger, Uber drivers have been “difficult towards people with disabilities, while Bolt has not made its app disability friendly”.

Although Uber did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s requests for comment, in its response to News24 after Kruger’s petition, the company’s spokesperson Mpho Mutuwa said Uber SA had guidelines against discrimination. 

Mutuwa said that Uber had encouraged people with disabilities to make use of Uber Assist when requesting a trip to make the process easier.

“Uber Assist, a first in the market, was developed with the purpose of ensuring that riders with disabilities can get to where they need, hassle-free,” she told News24.  

Mutuwa added: “Should there be any issues with the trip, like cancellations due to the presence of a guide dog, it’s important that riders report this using the Help button on the app. This feature has a built-in voice-over function for the visually impaired.” 

However, many Sagda members told the M&G there were problems with Uber Assist, including that the app had few rides available and that drivers still refused to accommodate guide dogs. 

“It takes me double the time to get an Uber Assist and, even when there is an available driver, he or she will refuse to let me bring my guide dog along and will give excuses that they either have a phobia or that the dog will litter the car,” said an 41-year-old blind man who tried to make use of Uber Assist, as stipulated by the company.  

In its application to the equality court, Shepstone & Wylie say that Uber Assist has not proven to be a viable option for people with disabilities.

“[T]he Uber Assist option is discriminatory in itself in that the Uber Assist option is more expensive than an Uber Go option and is not available in certain areas or at certain times of the day — thus the Uber Assist option is not a reasonable alternative for persons living with disabilities,” said Shepstone & Wylie partner Deirdre Venter.

The E-Hailing Partners Council (EPCO) said there was an information gap when it comes to how drivers should assist those with disabilities.

“There is no specialised training and unfortunately there is an information gap about such provisions for e-hailing drivers, given the fragmentation of the industry,” the council’s spokesperson, Kenny Moretsele, told the M&G

According to EPCO, it has been pushing in the past years for the industry to be regulated so that issues such as “people with special needs can be properly taken care of”. 

January 14 is the deadline for the council and other industry stakeholders to make their final submissions to the e-hailing draft regulation.



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