Return of the Ableist Narrative: Why do We Keep Having to Demand Food Accessibility

A little over a year ago a tweet went viral.

Image Description: tweet with a picture of peeled oranges in plastic containers on a grocery store (whole foods) shelf. Tweet reads “If only nature could find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them”

This tweet had everything it needed to go viral. It featured a picture of a product that was perceived to have no real use and to be extremely wasteful. It was paired with catchy sarcastic commentary. It’s no wonder that not only did the tweet go viral. It sparked many articles condemning the environmental impact of plastic and what was perceived as a particularly egregious example of unnecessary wastefulness.

It was presented as a final step to far in consumerism and laziness.

The thing is as many disabled people pointed out at the time, prepared foods increase accessibility. Peeled oranges and other prepped foods give disabled people access to fresh food that they might otherwise simply not be able to have.

I wrote a blog post from that perspective at the time. It is to date the most viewed thing I have ever written.

The result of these conflicting viewpoints was a particularly horrifying debate that pitted environmental activists against disability rights activists. Particular highlights included: the suggestion that disabled people simply did not deserve access to easily accessible fresh food.

The suggestion that disabled people simply did not deserve access to easily accessible fresh food.

“Well you didn’t have it before now so you can keep living without it”

This, of course, ignores the reality of systemic oppression and actively promotes the idea that disabled people should not fight for or expect improvements to access and inclusion.

It also ignores how disabled people are held up as bogeymen in discourses around health particularly around discussions of dieting and exercise. People are told to eat well and exercise to avoid the spectre of disability but disabled people are routinely denied access to healthy food and exercise and then shamed for our perceived unhealthiness.

Paternalistic suggestions that instead of having prepared produce readily stocked that disabled people should simply ask staff the prep food for them.

Several well-intentioned grocery store employees expressed that they would always be happy to assist disabled patrons with preparing food and then extended this intention universally to all of their co-workers.

This ignores the fact that employees are often busy and may not be available. It also ignores the gatekeeping that disabled people routinely face when asking for accommodation. It neglects to consider that disabled people who ask for help are often met with scepticism, particularly if they are not disabled in a way that the nondisabled person understands. These scenarios often lead to inappropriate probing questions that require disabled people to prove that they are “disabled enough” to require the accommodation that they are requesting. It is not uncommon for these untrained gatekeepers to arbitrarily deny needed assistance because a disabled person doesn’t fit their stereotyped expectations.

A steady stream of people who simply did not believe disabled people when they described their difficulties in preparing produce (particularly peeling oranges), so they made suggestions that they thought we hadn’t previously considered.

This one tended to get individualized and the question “have you tried [insert completely inaccessible alternative way to peel an orange]”

This was such a popular  response to disabled people that in response to my original blog post one made this YouTube video

Not only is this a completely inaccurate interpretation of my body and how it works (or doesn’t as the case may be) making the video just horribly offensive, it also ignores the fact that I’m just one disabled person. I have just one kind of disabled body.

Even if he had managed to find a workaround for me. I was far from the only person saying that they wanted access to prepared produce. Their needs and limitations differ from my own.

This tactic is a way to attempt to silence individuals without acknowledging or dealing with the reality that those individuals are part of a larger community whose needs cannot be met with a one size fits all solution.

The original backlash around the tweet and the discussion that it created lasted a few weeks but unfortunately that discussion did not translate into widespread consideration around food accessibility. This is all too clear because we keep having to have this conversation over and over again.

Back in January Gizmodo published an article decrying the evils of selling peeled and halved avocados. It contained all the shaming language around wastefulness. A criticism that fell flat after a brief look at the author’s twitter feed which included a since deleted tweet celebrating the existence of a disposable plastic fork that came with a removable toothpick. His Gizmodo article was less an expression of real concern for the environment and more a shaming of a product that he had no use for. He has no problem with packaged food if it is something he doesn’t consider to be too lazy as this tweet about Werther’s Caramel Popcorn attests.

More recent food shaming of prepped foods has come with less of an environmental argument and seem to be more expressions of “I a nondisabled person cannot personally see a use for this”. The problem is that even this is effective. It utilizes coded language of laziness that is far too often really just a dog-whistle reference to people who are poor or disabled.

One heartening aspect of the resurgence of these food shaming narratives is that more often than not I become aware of them because someone else is using my old post about oranges to actively rebut it. This speaks to how far narratives challenging ableist narratives can go but also highlights how easy those narratives are to find and how little effort some people put in to considering perspectives that differ from their own. Part of this is just a desire for easy shock value clickbait virality. The author of the Gizmodo article never responded to disabled activists attempts to draw his attention to the accessibility perspective.

It is this desire for virality that influenced the most recent incarnation of this narrative. This is particularly clear because it is just someone who has directly plagiarized the original tweet about peeled oranges.

It is exactly the same as the original tweet. The same image and text except that it is shared by a different user.

The fact that this uncritical rebirth of this old narrative is frustrating enough but it is made more frustrating by the fact that it is just someone trying to capitalize on the old popularity of the original tweet. This person did not see those oranges in store. They can’t have. The original backlash resulted in Whole Foods removing the product from shelves. It’s not a genuine or original reaction.

It’s capitalizing on anger over a product that is no longer available so it doesn’t even make a statement about the continued wastefulness of plastic. It’s just an ableist narrative that won’t die and relies on the continued ignoring of disabled people and our needs and serves as a reminder of what options can be taken away from us when people uncritically decide that things that aren’t useful to them shouldn’t be available to anyone.

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Disability is Not the Bogeyman, Stop Using it as a Threat

About a month ago this video of Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was released onto the internet.

The video is not a lecture on physics as on might expect from someone who is perhaps the most famous scientist alive today. Instead, it is a video decrying the horrors of the “obesity epidemic”.

Vague statements are made about the dangers of being overweight or obese. I’m not going get into the science of health and weight. It’s complicated and contentious. I’m an academic in the humanities in no small part because of my total lack of aptitude for science.

Instead, I am going to look at the choice to use Stephen Hawking as the spokesperson for this message and some of the claims he makes in the video.

Stephen Hawking is widely considered to be one of the most intelligent people on the planet. This reputation tends to give him a great deal of influence. This is a problem. I’m not saying he isn’t extremely smart but a high level of intelligence does not translate into expertise in every subject. Stephen Hawking is not a medical doctor. His presence in the video serves two purposes.

  1. Using this veneer of expertise to lend credibility to the message in the video.
  2. Using the image of his disabled body as both metaphor and threat.

In the context of the claims of this video Stephen Hawking does not, in fact, know what he’s talking about. Obesity is framed as primarily an issue of laziness. A problem that could be easily fixed if people only had the strength of will to exercise and eat better.

The reality is far more complicated. Access to healthy food and exercise are not necessarily easily attainable.

In order to eat healthy food, you need to be able to both have access to it and be able to afford it. This is a major barrier for many people living in poverty.

Not being able either access or afford healthy food is not a=actually evidence of laziness.

Similarly, people need to have access to safe and effective exercise. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter,

I hate that no one will notice that he’s never lived somewhere that’s too dangerous to let ur kids play outside (link)

It’s not always as simple as just getting out and walking.

Then there’s the issue of time, depending on issues like work schedules, parenting, and housekeeping. Finding time to actually exercise can be difficult for many and none of the reasons come down to laziness.

These issues are additionally complicated if, like Hawking, you happen to be disabled. Access to healthy food isn’t just an issue of cost and availability. There is also the issue of physical accessibility of the food.

Access to exercise can be even more limited.

In the video Hawking says “And for what it’s worth, how being sedentary has become a major health problem, is beyond my understanding.”

Some possible answers are increased mechanization requiring less human involvement, more work that is heavily based around computers, etc. None of these things are inherently caused by laziness but rather the adoption of technology without considering and planning for the consequences of a widespread shift to more sedentary work.

Add that to issues of poverty and you have the makings of a widespread socially constructed and maintained problem where people don’t have access to healthy lifestyle options.

It’s an issue that won’t be fixed by labeling the issue one of laziness and trying to shame people who very well be unable to change their circumstances.

None of these concepts are I expect beyond Stephen Hawkings ability to grasp but then he’s a cosmologist and not a social scientist.

Then there is the issue of using Hawking in a video decrying a sedentary lifestyle at all. He is after all paralyzed from ALS. The video uses this and it horrifies me that Hawking let them do it.

He is shown immobile in his wheelchair opining about the laziness of others. The unspoken message is clear “how dare you lazy people choose to be sedentary, I don’t even have the choice”.

He’s used as an odd and ultimately false morality tale. Even if access to healthy food and exercise weren’t more complicated than the video lets on, ALS is a genetic condition which is not caused by diet or lack of exercise.

Yet, people are supposed to look at him and see a horrifying alternative life. They’re supposed to decide not to waste the opportunity to move because some people can’t.

This message entirely relies on the widespread adoption of the idea that a life with disability is one that is not worth living. That is a big problem that extends beyond Hawking and his personal views on his quality of life.

Stephen Hawking in this video is not just speaking for himself, he is exploiting stereotypes about the disabled experience and presenting them with all the power of his influence and reputation.

Disabled people have been thrown under the bus to promote exercise before. It often positions the idea of disability as a threat. The thing that will happen to you if you don’t exercise. Things like this position disabled people as outside the human experience because it both dehumanizes us by turning us into the monster that will destroy you because you didn’t eat your vegetables or go for that run.

As a result of being artificially positioned as the outsider, it both ignores the unique difficulties disabled people face while trying to access exercise. It also frames disabled lives as ones that are not worth living.

While that may be the belief of some disabled people, it is not the opinion of all of us (not by a long shot). The problem is that nondisabled people don’t see or hear that often enough. Getting that message from Stephen Hawking gives it more weight than it deserves.

Exercise and eating healthy is good for people. Now if only people with as much influence as Stephen Hawking could better understand the big picture of the social causes of why people don’t then maybe we could move away from the obesity shaming and blaming rhetoric which will I assure you, not fix the problems of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.

I also wish people would stop using disability as a threat or misplaced morality tale to advertise healthy lifestyles. Disabled people deserve to be treated better than that and I for one would actually like to be considered as part of humanity when they actually start coming up with real solutions to the lack of access to healthy food and exercise. An inclusion that is unlikely if I and other disabled people are positioned not as members of the community who face issues of access to healthy lifestyles choices but as the bogeymen representing the perils of noncompliance.