Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal will hear the case of an Uber customer who says the ride-hailing company discriminates against him on the basis of his disability.
Michael McNeely, 32, who lives in Kingston, Ont., is deaf/blind. His human rights complaint focuses on his limited hearing and Uber’s alleged failure to accommodate it.
“The lack of accommodation can lead to dangerous, even life-threatening situations for me,” McNeely said in a witness statement provided to the tribunal.
McNeely, who recently graduated from law school, relied on Uber to get around the city when he lived in Toronto.
Although legally blind, McNeely has some vision and can use the Uber app by holding his phone close to his eyes.
But he says the problems with the ride-hailing service arose when Uber drivers attempted to call him, a common practice to confirm exact pickup details for passengers.
Because he’s deaf, McNeely couldn’t answer the calls. That often caused drivers to cancel the ride, he says.
If a driver made it to the pickup location, many would drive away after not being able to connect on the phone, McNeely says, leaving him with a negative user rating on the Uber app.
But he says some of his worst experiences occurred inside an Uber vehicle. McNeely alleges agitated drivers would scold him for not answering his phone.
“They can get mad or upset that I haven’t answered their phone call,” McNeely said in an interview. “It makes me feel quite unsafe in the car.”
Communication didn’t get much easier during the rides, he alleges.
McNeely says drivers would ask for directions or other questions. He is able to lip read, but not while sitting in the back seat of a car, unable to see the driver’s face.
McNeely isn’t seeking financial compensation in his complaint, which will be heard by the tribunal in January. Instead, he wants a simple change in the Uber platform that would allow customers to inform drivers of their disabilities.
“I want it to be apparent that Mike is deaf,” McNeely said. “That’s all I’m asking for.”
He says with that change in place, a driver would know not to attempt to call a deaf customer, and they would be prepared for communicating differently during the ride. They could even choose to reject the ride.
“I don’t mind that. I would rather be with someone who is inclusive and understanding of my disability,” McNeely said.
Texting drivers an option, Uber says
Uber declined to comment on active litigation. But the company did point out the app allows customers to text their drivers.
In an email, Uber spokesperson Kayla Whaling said the text feature “gives customers a way to communicate with their driver or delivery person, which can be used for the blind, deaf and hard of hearing communities.”
McNeely sees several flaws with this. Texting, just like a phone call, can only happen after a driver accepts a ride. Also, pre-pickup communication happens while a driver is en route. He says texts tend to be ignored, since a driver would be distracted by reading and replying to them.
His solution should be easy for Uber to implement, McNeely says, because it already exists for drivers.
According to Uber’s website, there are several features on the app for deaf or hard of hearing drivers, including notifying riders of their condition in advance.
‘I’m not asking for a miracle’
As well, Uber drivers have the ability to turn off calling so riders can’t even attempt to reach them by phone.
McNeely says the technology already seems to be in place, it’s just a matter of giving it to customers like him.
“I’m not asking for a miracle,” he said.
The city of Toronto’s vehicle-for-hire bylaw requires drivers to provide service to any person with a disability, a city spokesperson confirmed. City staff will investigate any complaints of discrimination.
As part of the city’s enhanced rules for ride-hailing drivers, a training accreditation program was developed. It includes providing accessible service, and covers diversity and sensitively training.
Originally set to be rolled out in March 2020, the training program has still not launched due to pandemic-related delays, a city spokesperson said.