Oranges, Access, Opposition and “Yes, but…”

As things begin to cool down on the discussion around whether or not Whole Foods or other grocers should sell peeled oranges (you can read about how that all started here). I would like to take the time to look back at the discourse and unpack some of the things that came up again and again.

One of the most sweeping arguments used to silence disabled activists in the debate was the argument that “the discussion was about the environment, not disability”. The thing is you can only have one without the other if you have somehow managed to exclude disabled people from the human race. There are about a billion of us after all so that’s a big erasure.

I would also like to reiterate that disabled people have as much a vested interest in protecting the environment as everyone else. Which is why it’s so frustrating that requests to be included in the conversation were often brushed aside. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the way people tried to curb to growth of the disabled population was to sterilize them. Which I can say with all due sarcasm was a complete failure.

Disabled activists have been aware of the negative impact of industrialization on people’s health since the early 20th century. Helen Keller (who was a bad ass) linked industrial working conditions to disablement in the 1920s. She advocated for better working conditions but was brushed off.

Fast forward to this century and we’re still hearing about how conditions in factories are causing unnecessary disablement (I think we all remember the Apple factory scandal).

Being aware of and fighting for the environment keeps people healthier. Beyond that when considering those of us who are already disabled, we will be joining you in either that greener future or that environmental wasteland should sustainable initiatives fail.

Someone  who commented on my previous blog post pointed out that disabled people would not fair particularly well in a dystopian wasteland. Which is  true, but on the other hand we are equally unlikely to thrive in a green utopia built on the understanding that are needs are secondary and can be put aside until the planet has been saved. It is a far easier thing to build in accessibility as you go forward then it is to add it in later. Particularly when the rhetoric going in is that we have to wait. How great do you think the drive to implement accessibility will be when our concerns have been constantly sidelined?

And we absolutely will be in that future with you, disability isn’t going anywhere, even if the current population dies off, more will be born or made through accident or injury. Disability is a permanent part of humanity, better get used to that now. We’ll all be happier for it in the end.

This debate has never been about sacrificing the environment for the sake of disabled people but asking to be considered as part of the solution.

When I engaged in debate with people, I begged them to try and consider intersecting environmentalism with accessibility and was almost universally met with a wall of “yes, but…”, rather than engage with the idea that we should try and find a way to do both accessibility and sustainability, people tried to smugly shut the whole conversation down. I will now deal with some of the big ones.

Yes, but plastic is bad.

I’m totally with you, which is why I want things to be sustainable and accessible. For example looking at alternate ways to package prepared fruits and vegetables that would be more sustainable.

Yes, but those Whole Foods oranges cost like six bucks apiece, that’s not very accessible is it?

Again, you are totally right. The thing is Whole Foods is not the only grocery store and this whole discussion really needs to be bigger than Whole Foods, for accessibility to be meaningful it needs to be as widespread as possible and Whole Foods is hardly the only grocer to include precut or prepared fruits and vegetables.

Also for context things that are accessible are far to often more expensive, that’s not a reason for the thing to not exist, it’s a reason to challenge why things that benefit disabled people tend to cost more.

Yes, but Whole Foods pulled those oranges…

I already covered why this needs to be bigger than Whole Foods but the situation is actually more complicated. Sure Whole Food’s pulled those specific oranges and sent out this cheeky tweet

Image description: Peeled oranges stacked in mason jars with the caption “Is this more a peeling?”

The thing is this tweet is just pandering to the people who were so furious in the first place. Whole Foods later confirmed to Upworthy that.

“Many of our customers love the convenience that our cut produce offers, and this was a simple case where a handful of stores experimented with a seasonal product. Orange and tangerine slices have long been a staple favorite in our stores, and we’ll continue to offer them alone with other sliced produce options for customers who are looking for added convenience. We’re glad some customers pointed out this particular product so we could take a closer look and leave Sumos in their natural packaging — the peel.”

So, they just stopped selling peeled seasonal oranges. Yet they pandered to the group of people who were ignoring disabled people and by extension shutting down disabled people. It was only later that they more quietly confirmed that they still had a wide variety of plastic packaged fruits and vegetables for the convenience of disabled people.

By the time this came out, the internet was already crowing about their victory.

Moving on, probably the smuggest of the Yes, buts was

Yes, but aren’t those plastic containers hard to open if you have limited hand dexterity…

And here you thought you had us. This was actually the most insidious argument against accessibility because if it were to be accepted it would undermine every single fight for accessibility, not just the ones involving the environment.

Here’s the thing, there is no such thing as one size fits all accessibility. Accessibility is always going to need to be looked at in terms of options not a singular fix. Arguing that this helps to few people is to constantly relegate all disabled people to a lack of access to more than just food.

the thing is that looking for sustainable options to accessibility is also a great time to start looking at ways to increase the accessibility thus widening the number of people benefited. It would also help highlight people for whom packaging proves to be to large a barrier, so that we can work to make sure that they to get access to food.

When people had exhausted their “yes, but” arguments, they tended to turn to “what, about…” arguments in which they tried to come up with fixes that still gave them the overall win. Most of these suggestions were met with exasperation from disabled people.

The reason for the exasperation was twofold. Firstly, these suggestions were most often made without actually consulting people on what they wanted, needed or were capable of. So they tended to be both ineffective and left disabled people feeling like the person they were speaking to thought that we had failed a single attempt at peeling an orange and had never considered alternate options. Sometimes these suggestions did come from people who seemed genuinely engaged in the conversation but they were generally nicer in their suggestions and acknowledged from the get go that they might be ineffective. The two most common were.

Have you tried one of those plastic (hey isn’t that the thing that got us in this mess in the first place) orange peelers, BTW you can buy them on amazon?

Yes, I have, it didn’t work.

Have you tried using a knife (occasionally specifying a paring knife)

No, and I’m not going to, that’s a quick way to lose a finger. Limited hand dexterity plus spherical object plus sharp implement is a recipe for disaster.

I was literally begging people for a dialogue but it often felt like talking to a brick wall, at one point I had just told a guy that to truly succeed at accessibility, engaging with disabled people is key when he decided that he had not only solved the orange situation but fixed decades of prejudice as well.

People had been suggesting that we ask people who worked in the produce section to peel the oranges for us. A solution that was widely panned by disabled people for a number of reasons. The suggestion usually went like this

“I work at a grocery store and if a disabled person asked me to peel an orange for them I’d be happy to and I’m sure all of my coworkers would as well”

I’ll take these individuals at their word that they’d be happy to help, I’ll take the fact that they extended the offer to include their coworkers with a huge grain of salt.

There are a number of issues with this scenario.

First we have to find an employee, identify ourselves as disabled and hope they are actually as nice as has been suggested. Then we have to wait while they take our produce somewhere clean so that it can be prepared for us.

So much could go wrong, as I and many disabled asking people for help gets mixed results. Even if they agree they might be busy when we find them so they may say “I just have to finish helping this other customer” or “Just let me finish stocking this shelf” even if they help immediately we still have to wait for them to prepare the food. Our time has value. It is far preferable to just be able to grab what we want off the shelf and go about our day.

What is the person we ask isn’t open minded or decides that we aren’t really disabled or disabled enough to warrant assistance and either demands proof putting us in the awkward position of either trying to justify our disabilities or deciding the violation of our privacy isn’t worth it.

Believe me, doubting someone’s disability and by extension their right to accommodation is real and people get nasty if they think you are either impersonating a disabled person or trying to get special treatment that they don’t think you should be entitled to. The internet is littered with heartbreaking stories of people getting hateful notes on their cars if someone doesn’t think they’re disabled enough to use accessible parking. I actually know someone this happened to (like this one). I have no doubt that even if the staff member didn’t say anything nasty, other customers will.

Sure, we could report abusive staff behaviour to a store manager but that’s just another drain on our time and I’d rather be able to just grab what I want and limit opportunities to experience hateful vitriol.

The guy I was talking about before answered my concerns about abuse with “well, disabled people shouldn’t feel like they have to hide their disabilities and telling people about them will help educate people”.

I would love it if I lived in a world where disabilities could just be a fact of life unworthy of comment, but I don’t live in that world. I live in a world where disclosing my disability shuts me out of jobs (that I’m perfectly qualified for), told that I don’t belong in university (even though my GPA was high). I am so saddened that people think that the onus on fixing discrimination is on disabled people because we can’t. Fixing discrimination needs the cooperation of the people doing the discriminating. Treating disabled people like our needs are special interests is just to be handled not on the same level as those of nondisabled people’s but on a case by case basis by “nice people” reinforces that.

Having to ask for food in a way that isn’t open and available to everyone is a form of gatekeeping and keeps our needs separate and special. This is not the way to equality.

Ultimately, the thing is if we combined the need for sustainability for accessibility, we could go beyond those oranges and start looking at better packaging for everything. I don’t think prepared foods are going anywhere anytime soon. It would be a nice first step to at least start looking for more sustainable packaging to put not only precut fruits and veggies but tubs of spinach and frozen vegetables.

It’s time to look at the bigger picture beyond those oranges, that bigger picture includes disabled people. Please include us in the conversation. Whether it be about food or any other aspect of sustainability.

We started the conversation without you, for more on how this discussion affected us and some of our brainstormed ideas for accessible sustainability click here. Please join in.




5 thoughts on “Oranges, Access, Opposition and “Yes, but…”

  1. One idea I have to make packaging more sustainable is to use the type of plastic that is made by taking co2 out of the air. It should also be recyclable. I really think oil based plastic should be replaced on a global scale with this and perhaps we could get co2 back down to pre-industrial levels.


  2. I dream of starting a company that makes fair trade assistive devices. The only thing I found so far was a company in the UK who makes wooden canes carved with designs but it’s also sometimes labeled as a “walking stick” and doubtfully designed for actual support. Making assistive devices out of the New Light carbon negative plastic would also be cool.


  3. In the US, elders and adults with disabilities cannot use food assistance on any form of even over-priced, under-nourishing prepared food, which can be a big deal for those where prep is the biggest challenge and they live alone. Of course, the able-bodied & healthy populace is far too sedentary & eats too much processed food, the former I myself I am increasingly guilty of on some better days out of habit, but that shouldn’t force folks with more serious conditions to live on cat food even if they’ll pay the extra expense.


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