by Chris Millsap
Recently, Ryan O’Connell, the star and creator of the Netflix series Special, described to the Guardian how he felt that he had been born into an “ableist hellhole”. I’ve been following O’Connell in the news recently as he, like me, has a mild case of what can be a severe disability (cerebral palsy in his case, legal blindness in mine) and we both happen to be gay. For the most part, I have agreed with much of what he’s said to the press, but in this case, I thought he was being a bit harsh. At least for me personally, before the pandemic, I could go for weeks without really being reminded that I am visually impaired. Virtually all consumer electronics and computer operating systems, even including the Xbox and the Apple Watch, have some sort of magnification built in and are almost always usable out-of-the-box for me. At work, it’s much the same. Since I have a stable and mild visual impairment, all I usually need is a large monitor with magnification, and have had exactly one accessibility problem at work in the last decade. Previously, the largest problem for me caused by my vision was getting around. However, Lyft, Uber, Instacart, and other gig economy services have been a godsend in that area of my life. Pre-pandemic, I essentially had roughly the same life as my fully sighted colleagues, or it certainly seemed that way to me. Errands that would have previously taken half a day using mass transit could be done using Lyft in under an hour.
Recently, this has changed as the world shifts back to normal and the pandemic recedes. Services like Lyft and Uber that I relied on to achieve an almost complete level of independence are suddenly very unreliable. For example, I had a doctor’s appointment with a specialist which took weeks to get. As I would have done pre-pandemic, I summoned a Lyft to my apartment to take me to the doctor an hour before the appointment was scheduled. To my amazement, I was informed by the Lyft app that they would simply be unable to provide a ride after waiting 15 minutes for them to pair me with a driver. I have scheduled thousands of rides with rideshare services, and this is the first time I was unable to find a ride. Since it was too late to get mass transit to this appointment, and since canceling the appointment would mean I would not be seeing the specialist I needed to see for more than a month, I decided to run the 1.5 miles to the office. This was a route I had never traveled before, so I was unaware that there was a four-lane highway I would have to cross without a traffic light. When I reached this highway, there was so much traffic traveling down all of the lanes that I was only able to make it across the first two lanes. I then waited in the median, in the middle of the road, as cars whizzed by me in both directions. The thought crossed my mind that there was a chance I had survived a deadly global pandemic only to possibly be killed by an overzealous application of Keynesian economics. An opening in the last two lanes finally appeared after several minutes, and I dashed across to safety, and made it to the appointment with a minute to spare. Although I did make it safely, the danger was real. I have not needed to make such a dangerous crossing in more than a decade.
While this was certainly the worst experience I have had with rideshare services post-pandemic, it’s certainly not the only time recently that I’ve been disappointed by these services. Whereas before the pandemic, a ride was less than a 10-minute wait, now it can easily be a half-hour or more. If this continues, it will definitely have negative consequences for me and people like me. It will be harder for people who have low vision to get around than it’s been in almost a decade, and probably more, as the taxis that the rideshare services have replaced no longer exist.
As problems have mounted with gig economy services, however, a narrative has emerged in the media: the users of these services are spoiled millennials heading to the champagne brunches with overpriced avocado toast as they exploit the poverty and misery of others. For example, Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times on June 8, 2021, the Lyft and services like it offered a “lifestyle subsidy” for “bourgeois royalty” and now reality must return. The contempt for the users of these services resonated from his article. Meanwhile, Ezra Klein, again in the New York Times on June 13th, juxtaposed the cost of Lyft and Uber rides on one side with the alleviation of poverty on the other. It’s true that these services have to some degree been subsidized by venture capital, and this can’t continue forever. It’s also true that some rideshare drivers have been treated disgracefully. I was surprised recently to learn that most users do not tip their drivers at all, and I find this appalling.
I am not proposing that we create a Dickensian hell for gig economy workers. However, I do know that there are users of these services for whom they are not a luxury, and that the present situation is greatly limiting the possibilities for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, potentially risking their lives. Mass transit is almost never a real replacement in many of these cases. Again, I do want the concerns of drivers and investors to be considered, I only ask that the concerns of the disabled users of these services also be taken into consideration. If this isn’t done, we could all find ourselves living in a world that’s much closer to an ableist hellhole than it was before the pandemic.