Local taxi company denies service to physically disabled visiting professor

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 - 7:36pm

On his way to attend an accessibility event hosted in Ann Arbor by the University of Michigan Council for Disability Concerns in early December, the Ann Arbor Metro Airport Shuttle denied service to Stephen Kuusisto, a Syracuse University education professor who is blind. Kuusito said he was denied service because he had his guide dog with him. 

Days before traveling to Ann Arbor, while still at home in Syracuse, Kuusisto phoned Ann Arbor Metro Airport Shuttle based on a suggestion from a University list of approved services. Despite being recommended by the University, the taxi owner told Kuusisto he would not give him a ride with his guide dog.

“The guy was perfectly cheerful, until I mentioned I was blind and have a Seeing Eye dog,” Kuusisto said.

Kuusisto said the University took the taxi company off the list of recommended services immediately following his incident, and sent the service a cease-and-desist letter to stop them from using the University's logo.

The University may have separated itself from the service, but Kuusisto’s main concern still remains. Because he was denied a cab and an alternative route to get to the campus from the airport, Kuusisto says his civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated.

“The law is very specific,” Kuusisto said. “If you have an allergy, you’re not obligated to take somebody with a Seeing Eye dog, but you are obligated to get them a ride.”

The story went viral on social media after Kuusisto wrote a blog post about it on Dec. 3, the day before he traveled to Ann Arbor. In the post, he wrote about his experience with the owner of the taxi company and posted the driver’s phone number on his Facebook page. In response, many reporters contacted the owner of the taxi service.

“I was subjected to absolute harassment by the man who picked up the phone, who said he didn’t have to transport my guide dog,” Kuusisto said. “When I told him it was the law, believe it or not, he said, ‘Trump’s victory changes all that.’ He was nasty, brutish and shouting at me.”

This incident holds relevance following the recent presidential election of Donald Trump. The president-elect's campaign has not touched heavily on public concerns about disability accommodations.

During the election season, Trump was criticized for seemingly mocking a reporter with a congenital joint condition, imitating the limited movement in his arms.

"I merely mimicked what I thought would be a flustered reporter trying to get out of a statement he made long ago," Trump later said in a statement, adding that he had "tremendous respect for people who are physically challenged."

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said in an article on Disability Scoop disability issues have generally remained a bipartisan issue in the past, with advocates working together to keep special education and other programs in place.

“One of the challenges here is that the (Trump) campaign was not very specific about disability policy plans, and those areas that they were specific about concern us,” Ne’eman said.

Reactions on Yelp and Facebook supported Kuusisto following the incident. As of Wednesday, the Ann Arbor Metro Airport Shuttle has one star on Yelp.

“NEVER USE THESE BIGOTS! This company denied service to a nationally respected professor because he is disabled and has a guide dog,” one user from New York wrote on the page. “The operator spouted some nonsense about how being a Trump supporter allows him to discriminate against disabled people.”

Kuusisto said overall there was outrage toward the events he wrote about.

“People responded with absolute disgust,” Kuusisto said. “There were plenty of other people to call for a ride. The head of the University Library, Charles Watkinson, came and picked me up. And then when I had to go home, they arranged a car service.”

Kuusisto said he would have looked the other way had the driver told him he didn’t take dogs and hung up. Instead, he said it was more unsettling than that, because the driver told him he “did not care” about his rights and would not give him an alternative means to campus.

“This got out of control,” Kuusisto said. “He was rude to me and discriminatory. This is not normal by any means. It was just an unusual incident.”

The owner of the taxi service, who asked to remain anonymous for this article, said he regrets the incident and is sympathetic toward those with disabilities, stating he has served blind people in the past. The only difference, he said, is that this was his first encounter of serving a blind person with a guide dog.

“I have respect for everyone,” the owner said. “But I do have allergies. Honest to goodness I was worried about having the dog. I have to take care of my car; it’s how I run my business. This was a big lesson for me, though, and in the future, I’m going to keep taking care of everyone.”

Since the story went viral, the owner said he has been receiving messages from reporters and people online calling him “deplorable,” an insult made towards Trump supporteres following a Sept. 9 speech by Hillary Clinton wherein the Democratic candidate referred to "half" of Trump's supporters as such. The owner said this, along with the reviews on Yelp, does not accurately reflect what happened.

“This is a sensitive issue to me,” the owner said. “This was the first time in my life I’ve been in this situation. I totally regret the incident. I made a mistake, but I’m not a bad person and this had nothing to do with politics. If given the chance, I would do it over again.”

Kuusisto said in his blog post the owner said he didn’t want dogs because they are “dirty.” The owner denied this, though, and said the reason for his apprehension was due to his allergies. The owner said though he didn’t offer an alternative means for Kuusisto to get to campus, he tried following up to offer him a ride in a voicemail.

“He changed some of the words,” the owner said. “I did offer him a ride after he called, and left him a voicemail.

Jack Bernard, chair of the University Council for Disability Concerns, said though discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, the amount of support Kuusisto received at the University event he attended was uplifting.

“Of course, it was unsettling for Professor Kuusisto and it is never good for anyone to intentionally discriminate against someone because she or he has a disability,” Bernard said. “The response to this incident was an abundant outpouring of support for Professor Kuusisto. Individuals in the community offered him airport-to-hotel ride service, others sent notes, still others discussed the matter on social media.”

Since the incident, the taxi service has altered its website, with a heading on its website stating: “We're prompt 100% committed professionals and are proud to serve and respect our veteran clients and clients with disabilities.” Regardless of the gesture, Kuusisto said, he has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Despite the situation, Kuusisto remarked on the positive response and welcome he received from the University community during his visit.

“I certainly didn’t feel unsupported,” Kuusisto said.

Bernard added, though, the University is taking no specific action other than removing the taxi company from the list of services. He said the best ways to resolve situations like this is to be more welcoming and equitable to those with disabilities.

“What we saw here was diversity, equity and inclusion operating as it should — where individuals in the community work as individuals and as part of groups to respond to make the campus a more inviting place,” Bernard said.