Uber Canada's service animal policy criticized by some disability rights advocates
The ride-hailing app Uber is shown on a smartphone in Montreal, Thursday, May 14, 2015. (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Peter Goffin, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, November 20, 2017 12:47PM EST
TORONTO -- Uber Canada has launched a new policy on how its drivers deal with customers who have service animals, but some disability rights advocates say exemptions built into the rules could still lead to discrimination.
The company's policy says drivers who refuse to give rides to customers with service animals will be dismissed.
But drivers could get an exemption if they provide Uber with "written evidence, like a doctor's or cleric's letter ... confirming that they belong to a group protected by human rights legislation and how carrying the service animal is an undue hardship," the policy says.
Uber Canada said the exemptions reflect the two most common reasons their drivers have provided for not wanting service animals in their cars: dog allergies and religious rules about contact with dogs.
"Service animals must be fully accommodated, by law and by good conscience," Uber Canada Legal Director Jeremy Millard said. "The exemptions clause was written to reflect very new court rulings on this subject."
Uber encourages drivers to use "every method ... to avoid conflict and ensure service animals are carried," including not seeking the exemption or putting a blanket down on their vehicle's seat, Millard added.
But the exemptions have raised concerns among some who use service animals and those who advocate for them.
"It's a bit puzzling and concerning to me that they are bringing religious freedoms into the mix," said Yvonne Peters, a Winnipeg lawyer who has had guide dogs for over 40 years. "Everybody's rights need to be accommodated, but in this case it feels to me like religious freedom would trump the rights of a service animal user (under the policy)."
Matt Dierckens, who sits on the Guide Dogs Users of Canada's board of directors, argued that people who have a medical or religious problem with service animals should simply not become Uber drivers.
"If you sign up (to drive) for the service, then you are most likely going to get service dogs, it's just one of those things that's going to happen," said Dierckens, who used to have a guide dog and said he was repeatedly denied Uber and taxi rides because of it.
Allowing drivers a means to refuse rides to people with service animals puts Uber at odds with most other businesses and services, said James Hicks, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities
"If restaurants can't refuse people, if hospitals can't refuse people then why should Uber drivers be allowed to refuse people," Hicks said, noting however, that people's beliefs and medical needs also need to be respected.
"If it's just that somebody doesn't like dogs, well that's too bad," he said. "But if it's actually something that's going to cause them distress of any kind, whether it's physical or mental, then I guess that's a different story, and there's not much we're going to be able to do about it."
According to religious traditions followed by some Muslims, a person must perform "ritual ablutions" if they come into contact with a dog's saliva, said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
"Each party in this (Uber) situation have human rights that need to be considered," Gardee said. "At the same time, the National Council of Canadian Muslims strongly urges Muslim drivers to accommodate services dogs for riders with disabilities by considering a broader interpretation of relations between dogs and human beings that is found within the religious tradition."
The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on 11 different grounds, including race, age, sex, ethnic origin, religion and disability.
Employers and service providers have a legal duty to accommodate people who have needs related to those grounds, but there are limits to how far they are expected to go, the Canadian Human Rights Commission says.
Organizations do not legally have to accommodate a persons's disability, for instance, if they can show that doing so would cause an "undue hardship."
That hardship could be high financial costs, or risks to health and safety, but there is no standard legal definition of "undue hardship," the Human Rights Commission says. Each case must be viewed and judged individually.