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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A Media Guide for Nondisabled People Talking About Innovations for Disabled People

Recently, I have written two articles on problematic media coverage of innovations designed for disabled people. The first was on the viral support among predominantly able-bodied people for a stair climbing wheelchair and a standing scooter. The second about Nike’s supposed shoes for disabled people which are actually only available in men’s sizes. In both cases none of the products being talked about are looked at critically so their flaws or limitations are never exposed.

These stories just become part of the able-bodied saviour genre of inspiration porn and inevitably do more harm than good because it leaves people who are unfamiliar with disability issues with an inaccurate assessment of what barriers still exist and the limitations on existing innovation.

I have therefor decided to provide a guide to talking about innovations for disabled people that will allow media creators to be more objective and hopefully limit the harm done by lazy inspiration porn inspired journalism or content creation.

I will use the two stories that I have already covered to show where more questions needed to be asked and more information given.

The first and possibly most pointed criticism I have of these kinds of stories is the framing. These are rarely meant to be true news stories. They are intended to be feel good click bait. This framing does not lead to a critical engagement with the content because such engagement might interfere with the intended warm and fuzzy feelings the viewer is supposed to have.

This is a problem of inspiration porn generally and it is harmful. The stories that impact disabled people’s lives should be told and they should never be diminished to the story that poses a balm to all the other bad news that surrounds it.

Doing that is both dehumanizing and perpetuates harmful stereotypes about disabled people which does not lead to warm and fuzzy endings for the subject of your feel good moment. (for more on the issues of inspiration porn go here and here)

A good way to gauge whether a story about disability is news worthy is to ask these two questions.

  1. If the subject of this story was replaced by a nondisabled person, would this still be news? If the answer is no, then you may want to reconsider it.
  2. Who is the target audience, is it everyone (this includes disabled people) or is it meant to appeal predominantly to nondisabled people? If the latter you should definitely think twice before running with it. If you are unsure, you should consult with disabled people to see how they feel about the story (the plurality of people is really important here)

Disabled people need to see stories that impact their lives in mainstream media. It is useful in both showing that media understands that the disabled experience is part of the broader human experience. Telling disability stories well also gives a more accurate representation of the disability experience to those who don’t live it, so disability stories can and do have universal relevance. They just need to be told in a more critical way.

In this article, I’m dealing specifically with how to cover innovations and technology but these ideas should be applied to all media coverage of disability.

Once you have determined that you do not want to ad another piece of retrograde inspiration porn to the world and that your story has actual merit. How do you do that story justice? The answer is ask questions. Don’t just accept the first answer.

Take the story about the Nike shoes which were widely glorified as shoes for disabled people. People who wrote about this story should have asked the following questions.

  1. Are these shoes really available to all disabled people? Look at different conditions that might require specialized footwear, is this shoe as universal as advertised. Are these shoes available to men, women and children?
  2. Does this shoe accommodate the orthotics that are common among disabled people? Things like heel lifts, AFOs, or Bioness sensors.
  3. Ask why any limitations found from the first two questions were not addressed by the company.
  4. Ask if the company plans on addressing these issues.
  5. Ask why a single company is addressing this issue.
  6. Ask other companies why they aren’t providing specialized shoes.
  7. Does a company providing a long overdo product deserve to be treated as heroic?
  8. Does the limited useability of their product indicate that the company was genuinely trying to help or just get good press?

In reality these shoes were only available in men’s styles and sizes which means that anyone who doesn’t fit those sizes cannot benefit from them. This adds up to the majority of disabled people as men and women with smaller feet as well as children were entirely left out. Nike however, still got a lot of great press and was positioned as a hero. I found no mainstream criticism of the limited usefulness of the shoes.

Attempts to engage with people who created these stories either resulted in no response or an acknowledgement but no change in content.

I did successfully get a response from the person who curated this Upworthy post on the Nike shoes.

She acknowledges the limitations but didn’t change or remove the story from Upworthy. It still has quotes like,

Nike proves that you can create a product designed for the needs of a smaller community that has mass appeal as well.”

The reality that Nike failed to deliver on its universal claims and instead only serviced a very small portion of the disabled population, isn’t really in line with Upworthy’s standard of feel good or inspirational blurbs. It is however disappointing that they would leave the story in its clearly inaccurate state even when faced with that inaccuracy (the fact that this story is blatant inspiration porn and that Upworthy is a huge purveyor of disability inspiration porn is another post altogether).

In the case of technology like stair climbing wheelchairs and standing scooters, media creators should be asking questions like,

  1. Is this  invention going to be marketed or will it stay a university engineering project?
  2. If this device is marketed who will be responsible for paying for it.
  3. Does this device answer the needs of everyone who has difficulty climbing stairs/navigating narrow corners?
  4. Is this really the the best and most comprehensive way to address physical accessibility barriers?
  5. What the the popularization of these devices mean for people whose barriers to access are not addressed by these devices?

These questions are far from comprehensive but they are a good start in contextualizing innovations for disabled people. Using them as a spring board for your story will help you have a more nuanced and realistic representation of the facts and their actual impact.

I will conclude with one final and utterly crucial piece of advice.

Always include the voices of actual disabled people, free from the spin of business advertising. Don’t just have people who talk about disabled people and the impact a given product will have. Ask actual disabled people. The wider variety of disabled voices you get, the better.