Taking DC’s Disabled for a Ride

If you don’t want to get taken for a ride the next time you catch a taxi in our nation’s capital, be sure to speak politely to your driver and know the quickest route to your destination.

Oh, and don’t be blind.

Several weeks ago, WUSA9 conducted an undercover study to evaluate the manner in which vision-impaired patrons are treated relative to their sighted counterparts.  48 percent of the studied taxi drivers “either drove right past the passenger with a disability in favor of another fare, took them to the wrong location without warning, or charged an illegal extra fee.”

These indignities and petty rip-offs are themselves outrageous, but considering them atop the entire transportation system’s inaccessibility to the disabled can really get your blood boiling.  Although escalators, elevators, and bumpy warning strips certainly help, metro systems are often too hectic for disabled patrons to navigate comfortably.  Even without a mob scene on train platforms, threats of violence on and near the metro often make people with disabilities shy away.  The fact that violent crime against the disabled is almost twice as prevalent as crime against the able-bodied may explain many disabled folks’ wariness of public transportation.

When other options fall by the wayside, many people with disabilities, including the blind, dig into their pockets for some taxi fare, only to receive inferior treatment from certain cab drivers.  As if the inconveniences of public transportation weren’t dire enough for disabled citizens, bigoted drivers make it even more difficult for them to get around.  In a society where we exploit other people’s vulnerabilities for personal gain, these drivers have taken the logic to the limit.

We need an enhanced system of accountability and education about disability.  Teaching cab drivers about discrimination is one of the best ways to prevent maltreatment of the disabled, as is amping up preventative and punitive measures to challenge unequal treatment.

Every cab interior should contain an identification number printed in both braille and large bold lettering, beside the display of a customer service telephone number, permitting clients to issue complaints.  When it’s easy to report abuse, drivers generally think twice before charging their blind clients suspiciously high fares for rides to the wrong locations.  Each cab’s exterior should also conspicuously display the cab’s number to allow concerned pedestrians to file reports against drivers who ignore people with white canes, guide dogs, and other signs of disability.  Thankfully, some taxi companies in the DC area have already enacted these proposals.

Per recommendation of the Equal Rights Center, the Metropolitan Police Department and D.C. Taxicab Commission should also use intermittent sting operations to catch discriminatory drivers.  Refusing taxi service on the basis of perceived disability is already illegal in DC, so preventing unequal treatment is now simply a matter of forcing people to follow the law at risk of penalty.  Discriminatory drivers, as well as their employers, must be heavily fined.

Punishment without proper education is unfair, so inculcating anti-discrimination norms through formal lessons for taxi employees is necessary.  Cab drivers should be taught that guide dogs are well-trained and unlikely to harm the car; that charging extra for the use of a guide dog or wheelchair is prohibited; and that, yes, it is against the law to refuse a blind person service just for being blind.  When offered information about legal obligations to disabled passengers, employees are both better prepared and more willing to accommodate all of their customers’ needs.  Most cab drivers are good-hearted and well-intentioned, and will be receptive to these lessons.

Cab companies serious about equality should also craft driver contracts that not only require employees to undergo anti-discrimination training, but that explicitly remind employees of their legal obligations to the disabled, so as to preclude any future excuses of drivers “not knowing” that anti-discrimination statutes exist.  Beyond demonstrating companies’ commitment to the laws their employees are expected to follow, these contracts would make an employee’s violation of such laws reason for imminent expulsion.

Manipulative practices of this ilk, in which folks use others’ disabilities for self-serving economic leverage, persist when we do not affirmatively declare—and force employers to declare— their unacceptability.  Whenever the disabled are treated as less worthy, we must demand their equal treatment, with no reservations about offending the “privacy” of cab companies that can purportedly “deal with these problems on their own.” Experience shows they don’t deal with these problems unless we are vocal as a society in confronting them.

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Posted in Disability
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