A few months ago, Kate Higgins ordered an Uber to get home from a dentist appointment in Watertown.

“I got a message from the driver saying, ‘I'm not going to cancel, but I'm not going to pick you up,’” she said.

Higgins, who is blind and uses a guide dog, a yellow lab named Dodger, felt she had no choice but to pay $5 to cancel the ride and request a new one. She suspected the first driver didn’t want to pick her up when he saw her dog. When the second driver arrived, they explicitly told her she couldn’t ride because of Dodger.

“It was like my two strikes in a row,” she said. Finally, a third driver picked her up and she went on her way.

Higgins and other guide dog users say this experience is not uncommon. It's part of a growing trend in recent years in which blind people who use guide dogs are facing illegal discrimination in day-to-day life and travel — and take on the burden of explaining their rights.

“Even though the laws have been around much longer than when I first got a guide dog many years ago, it doesn't seem to be getting a whole lot easier to advocate for access,” Higgins said.

Guide dog users point to some explanations: Uber and Lyft drivers who may be wary of letting an animal into their own car; workers who come from cultures where dogs aren’t as widely accepted as pets; and a proliferation of pets being passed off as emotional support animals, which blurs the lines for business owners.

It all leads to potential conflicts between people with sincerely held beliefs and civil rights for people with disabilities.

Service animals v. emotional support animals

Guide dogs, like the one Higgins works with, are highly disciplined dogs that go through years of rigorous training at one of about a dozen guide dog schools in the country.

As defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, service animals are dogs, almost always, that have been trained to assist their owner with a specific task related to their handler’s disability. In addition to guide dogs for blind and low vision people — which help them in all aspects of day-to-day life, including navigating streets or finding an elevator in a subway station — service animals can assist someone who is deaf by alerting them to noises, or physically assist someone with mobility issues. Service animals are legally allowed to go anywhere the public is allowed, including Ubers and Lyfts.

Under the ADA, a business owner or employee is only allowed to ask two questions to someone with a service animal: Is your animal a service animal, and if so, which task does the animal help you perform? There is no certification or documentation required for service animals. A handler must make sure the dog behaves well. Service animals are also protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, which governs air travel within, to and from the United States.

An emotional support animal, on the other hand, is an animal that supports a person’s overall well-being. They do not have protection under the ADA, although they do have some protections under the Fair Housing Act.

The recent explosion of people trying to bring emotional support animals to public places has worried many guide dog users who fear that such behavior is also affecting how people react to their legitimate service animals.

The problem, guide dog users say, is that anyone can easily pass their dog off as an emotional support animal by buying a vest online that says “service animal” or “working dog.” There is no guarantee that the animal will be rigorously trained or socialized.

“When individuals fraudulently misrepresent pets, particularly if they are not well-behaved, as service animals, they undermine legitimate service dogs. It can [be] difficult for members of the public to distinguish a legitimate service dog from a pet,” said Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations at the American Kennel Club.

Last year, major airlines started restricting the use of emotional support animals on planes, now requiring guide dog users to fill out paperwork ahead of time.

A lack of education and awareness

The confusion about the rights of service animals applies to other travel situations, guide dog users say.

Last summer, Nora Nagle was visiting a national park with her guide dog, a German shepard named Larry, when a park ranger approached her and told her dogs couldn’t enter. Nagle explained that as a guide dog, Larry is allowed, but the ranger countered and asked why he wasn’t wearing a vest — which he is not required to wear.

Eventually, people in the parking lot got involved and took sides, and the ranger eventually let Nagle go. But it was frustrating. She has worked with Larry since the snowy winter of 2015, and still encounters people who don’t understand her rights.

“I get asked all of the time, why isn't he wearing a vest? Where's his ID?” Nagle said. “That happens a lot because of these fake service animals.”

"When individuals fraudulently misrepresent pets, particularly if they are not well-behaved, as service animals, they undermine legitimate service dogs."
-Sheila Goffe, American Kennel Club

In those situations, the burden of educating someone about the legal rights of service animals often falls on the handler.

Recently, Higgins and her husband were working with a realtor to find a summer vacation rental. Her husband mentioned to the owner that she would be bringing her guide dog — not to ask permission, but as a courtesy. The landlord hesitated to give a response, even after Higgins sent over links and language explaining her rights.

Finally, after several weeks the landlord said OK — but Higgins didn’t feel good about having to go back and forth to justify a right that shouldn’t even be a question.

“So I already felt like this is discrimination. I don't feel like I want to take my vacation at a place where I'm not welcome and I worry that they will charge me for something — an extra cleaning fee, or claim that my dog did damage when he didn't,” she said.

Legal action

Carl Richardson, president of Guide Dog Users of Massachusetts, said, while it’s not an everyday occurrence, he has noticed the trend of discrimination in rideshares and restaurants. Richardson works with an 11-year-old black lab named Merrick.

“It is not unusual for me to get up from being at a restaurant for an hour, then when I get up, I walk out and people say to me as I'm walking out, ‘oh my god, we never even knew the dog was there,’” he said.

Richardson says a more common instance of discrimination is when a rideshare driver approaches, then cancels when they see his dog — although it’s hard to prove discrimination because a driver can cancel a ride for any reason.

“They [Uber and Lyft] tell us it's not a systemic issue, but those of us in the blind and low-vision community and service dog community do believe it’s a systemic issue,” he said. “We all know at least one person that has been denied, I mean, at least.”

Richardson estimates that he gets rides canceled before the driver even interacts with him about 10 to 20% of the time.

Higgins knows for a fact that that happens. “My husband is typically sighted, and he'll see it happen — he’ll say, ‘oh there's the car.’ And then they slow down and they look at us and then they drive away,” she said.

A man walks across a sidewalk with a black lab wearing a harness.
Carl Richardson, president of Guide Dog Users of Massachusetts, walks with his guide dog Merrick in Brighton on Feb. 13, 2023
Meghan Smith GBH News

Responding to an inquiry from GBH News, Uber and Lyft both said that all drivers are required to accommodate service animals, and that all drivers agree to the policy when they join.

“We have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind on the Uber platform, and we take reports of service animal denials very seriously,” an Uber spokesperson told GBH News when asked about recent incidents. When a rider reports discrimination, Uber said it takes “appropriate” action, which can include removing the driver from the app.

Still, blind riders across the country have reported being denied rides, from Wisconsin, to Tennessee, to Louisiana to Maine.

In 2016, Uber settled a case with the National Federation of the Blind of California, the first nationwide class action suit against a rideshare company to address discrimination against blind riders. Uber pledged to work more to reduce incidences of discrimination.

Then, in 2021, Uber was ordered to pay $1.1 million for violating California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and the ADA, stemming from a San Francisco woman who had documented at least 60 cases of discrimination against her and her guide dog.

"It's not a privilege. It's a basic human right to be able to bring my dog places."
-Kate Higgins, guide dog user

Lawmakers are also noticing this issue — Goffe noted that the AKC supports legislation in several states, including Massachusetts, that has been introduced to increase fines for people who misrepresent emotional support animals as service animals.

Guide Dog Users Inc. launched a survey in December with the American Council of the Blind, to collect stories from guide dog users who have been discriminated against while using rideshares. They intend to send the results of the survey to the Department of Justice to call attention to what they call a civil rights violation.

Higgins says she remains hopeful that with more awareness and education, guide dog users won’t have to deal with the “rollercoaster” of navigating the misunderstandings around their dogs in public.

“I also think that if there could be a way to spread awareness to society at large about the challenge that's presented when people make a stink about not being able to take their pets places — then people with service animals would have an easier time, because it's not a privilege. It’s a basic human right to be able to bring my dog places,” Higgins said.

This story emerged from listening sessions GBH News held with community members. To learn more about our mission to be a newsroom without walls, and how you can meet our editors and reporters, visit our Community page.