In study, half of D.C. cab drivers pass by blind people with guide dogs

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 11:05 PM

In a study by a civil rights watchdog group, taxi drivers in the District often drove past blind people who were trying to hail a cab while accompanied by guide dogs.

The Equal Rights Center, in a report released Wednesday morning, said that it conducted 30 tests this year and that in half of them, drivers passed someone with a guide dog to pick up a person who did not have a guide dog. In three of the cases in which the taxi stopped for the blind person, the driver attempted to impose a surcharge for transporting the dog, the Equal Rights Center said.

Under local and federal law, businesses, including taxis, must make reasonable accommodations to blind people and their service dogs and may not impose surcharges for transporting a service dog. But blind people in the District have complained for years that some taxi drivers flout the law.

Prompted by such concerns, the Equal Rights Center undertook the investigation, assisted by the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm Hogan Lovells.

In each of the 30 tests, which were conducted between March and May, the Equal Rights Center placed a blind person with a guide dog and a sighted person on a high-traffic thoroughfare in the city. The blind person was placed about 100 feet closer to oncoming traffic so that he or she would be the first prospective passenger a taxi would encounter.

With a video camera rolling, the Equal Rights Center recorded 15 taxis bypassing the blind passenger for the sighted person standing farther away.

In its report, the Equal Rights Center said its findings made clear that more needs to be done to ensure that the rights of blind people are protected. Taxi drivers in the District and elsewhere have long faced scrutiny for passing up black people trying to hail cabs, and several years ago, the D.C. police conducted sting operations intended to deter discrimination by taxi drivers.

The Equal Rights Center said that the police, the D.C. Taxicab Commission and the D.C. Office of Human Rights need to adopt a more aggressive approach to addressing taxi driver bias against the blind, stepping up education and enforcement.

"The law is in place," said Ashley N. White, outreach manager for the Equal Rights Center, "but no one is really enforcing it."

Dena C. Reed, the taxi commission's general counsel, said that the actions described in the report are discriminatory and that the commission also has received complaints about blind passengers being passed by taxi drivers.

"But it probably happens more than it gets reported," Reed said.

The city, she said, can do more. "There is absolutely room to step up enforcement and education," Reed said.

Blind people, she said, aren't in a position to take down a tag number, which is how many complaints end up at the commission. But Reed also said that with only 14 or 15 hack inspectors, the commission's enforcement reach is limited. "We're a small agency," she said. "Something like a wholesale sting operation, I don't know if that one's on the table. I don't know if we even have the resources for that."

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