North Texas Woman Denied Service By Uber Files Federal Complaints

A North Texas Uber customer says she's tired of being denied service because she has a service dog and feels that the company's attempts to handle her complaints don't go far enough.

Now, she's taking her fight to the Department of Justice.

DD Steele has her own business doing medical filing and also runs an answering service for a doctor's office.

She's proud of her independence and her career. But she's the first to admit her cerebral palsy makes some tasks next to impossible.

Her service animal Goodee, a 10-year-old Australian Shepherd, makes life a lot easier.

"I don't have enough balance to ride a bike, or walk more than half-a-block, so I'm totally dependent on someone else to get from point A to point B," Steele said.

Steele lives in Mansfield, but takes an Uber several times a month to South Arlington for medical appointments and to pick up paperwork.

She says taxis are much more expensive, but they're reliable, well-regulated and drivers are well-versed with the Americans with Disabilities Act and understand they can't refuse service.

"When I call an Uber it will be maybe 60 percent cheaper, but it's a crapshoot whether the driver will let me in the car," she said. "I don't know what's going to happen – how many attempts I'll have to make and how long I'll be stuck with no way to get home because the drivers are all non-compliant."

Steele said she's been denied service five times in the last several weeks, including twice this past Friday.

She said one of those drivers last week argued with her that he didn't have to allow the animal in his truck and then said Goodee could only ride in the bed of the truck.

"For the dog to be functioning for me, she has to be right with me. And that is the rule. That's the law. And he goes, 'No way,' and he drove off. And it made so angry and frustrated, I started shaking and crying," she said.

Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the company's "driver-partners" agree to accommodate service animals before they're approved to access to the platform and pick up fares. Uber also provides a video to its drivers that outlines the ADA requirements for accommodating riders with disabilities.

Uber shared that video with NBC 5. Click here to view the video.

Whaling also noted that the company's recently updated website makes it clear to all disabled customers that they have the same rights as able-bodied customers.

The website statement says, in part:

"A partner's violation of such laws, including with respect to the use of service animals, constitutes a breach of his or her contractual agreement with Uber ... Accordingly, service animals must be accommodated … Any report of unlawful discrimination will result in the temporary deactivation of a partner's account while Uber reviews the incident."

Steele says it's a "great policy" to suspend drivers who don't follow the ADA, but it doesn't help customers in-the-moment who feel cheated, belittled and degraded.

"When you're denied service as a paying customer, you feel subhuman," Steele said. "I've had drivers tell me that they can't let my service animal in their car because it's a new car. Well, how do I respond to that? I have a disability. Are only able-bodied people allowed in your precious new car?"

"If my service dog – which I'm totally dependent on for balance – was a nice cane instead, would I then be good enough to get in your car?" she asked, tears welling up.

Steele is now pushing hard for company-wide changes to educate drivers before issues arise.

"I just feel like whatever they're doing, whatever training is offered, it's not enough. It's not working," she said.

She wants to see a pop-up advertisement for drivers as they log onto the Uber smartphone every day that reviews the ADA basics. The drivers would have to scroll and acknowledge they read the bulletin, once a day.

"Obviously it needs to be repeated daily, to make sure the drivers get it, so there's no more excuses," she said. "I don't know how big it needs to be, but before they start the day, it says if you see a service dog, just take the dog. It's no big deal. That's what we expect from you, that's what the law allows."

She's also asking the Department of Justice Disability Rights Section to pressure Uber to create a dedicated hotline for disabled customers.

"I feel like if you've had a contractor that doesn't want to comply with the law, you owe me at least someone on the other end of a phone that can say, 'We're so sorry and we're getting you a driver now, and there won't be another problem today,'" she said.

Steele said there's a disconnect in the values eschewed by Uber corporate representatives and the "driver-partners" who aren't recognized as company employees.

Steele said she's been corresponding with an attorney in California from the non-profit Disability Rights Advocates who represented a group of blind customers in a class-action lawsuit against Uber.

They sued for discrimination and won a settlement. The 2014 case was settled this summer. In the settlement, Uber agreed to take steps to make sure its drivers are aware it's illegal to refuse service to disabled customers, including customers who require a service animal.

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