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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When Accessibility gets Labeled Wasteful

Note on Accessibility

There has been some concerns about the contrast on this blog, unfortunately some find it hard to read light text on a dark background while others prefer it. I am looking into getting accessibility options for the blog but until then if you prefer to read dark text on a light background, this post is available on Medium here.

 

So there’s a debate going on, on Twitter right now between disabled people and people who either claim to care about the environment and or just want to complain about “lazy people”

The tweet that started it all

orangegate cropped

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”

The original tweet has been shared over 70,000 times. Whole Foods has apparently agreed to remove the prepeeled oranges from their stores. Environmentalists and those who hate laziness rejoice!

The problem is that this discourse completely ignores how preprepared food impacts people with disabilities. The most common complaints about the sale of these oranges is either the wastefulness of the additional packaging (which is true but somewhat misdirected as I’ll discuss later) or that anyone who buys this must be incomprehensibly lazy.

As a person with limited hand dexterity, I look at this and see an easier way to eat healthy food. I actively avoid eating oranges, not because I dislike them (they are definitely tasty) but because I have so much difficulty peeling them. Any attempt to peel an orange is likely to result in an unappetizing mess because I’ve squeezed the orange to hard while trying to maneuver it for peel removal.

I don’t have access to peeled oranges from my grocery store though I’d probably take advantage of them if I did. I do buy precut vegetables all the time because it is more convenient and safer for me to do so.

Preparing food with limited mobility is both hugely time consuming and potentially dangerous. While adapted cooking tools do exist to help offset those issues they are really expensive (I wrote about that here).

Anything that helps make my regular acts of daily life safer and more convenient is always a plus. So I was one of a number of disabled people who pushed back against the wholesale shaming of preprepared foods. The responses I got were informative in looking at how nondisabled people disregard and try and shut down discussions of accessibility. Rebuttals to inserting disability and accessibility into the conversation included what I consider the most ridiculous attempt to maintain the moral high ground. It was,

I mean accessibility is nice and all but you know that wasn’t the thinking behind this product. It wasn’t designed for disabled people.

You know what, that’s probably entirely true. Whole foods was probably trying to cater to the convenience aspect. This is supported by the fact that the protest against the product on environmental and anti-lazy grounds was so successful.

The thing is this argument is hilariously irrelevant. In fact it shows that things don’t need to be directly conceived as accessible products to function that way. In many way things that are accidentally accessible are better than things that are specifically designed to be. This is because things that are accidentally accessible are marketed and available to everyone and are thus likely to be more easily available that an accessible product which is likely only sold in specialized stores. Seriously, accessibility that requires no thought to implement is the best.

Other arguments I got were,

Peeled oranges have a shorter shelf life so how convenient are they really?

This is true and it indicates just how much planning has to go into living while disabled. I have to plan my meals around the fresh produce I buy more strictly that others because I buy some things precut. This can be inconvenient but it pales in comparison to being forced to rely more heavily on canned or other processed foods that have a longer shelf life. My disability doesn’t disappear just because a whole head of cauliflower will last longer in my fridge than smaller prepared florettes.

and

Peeled oranges are certainly going to cost more than unpeeled and isn’t that a barrier?

Also true but here’s the thing, being disabled is expensive and costs for accessible products can be prohibitive. It is however easier to budget for the extra dollar or two that prepared fruits and vegetables are going to cost every couple weeks than the dozens or hundreds of dollars buying adapted cooking equipment will cost up front. This is a case where the cost should be the cause for protest not the cost being used as an excuse to protest the product. I’m all for my life being more affordable.

Other disabled activists dealt with other arguments. The person who argued most ardently with me was actually pretty tame and seemed more clueless than anything as they clearly didn’t think their arguments through and went away quietly when I calmly rebutted their arguments. Others were not so lucky. Things got a lot messier and ableist as Twitter user Ana Mardoll learned as she systematically tore apart those arguments (for a full view of this thread click here)

Issues arose when protesters prioritized the environment over the experiences of disabled people. Though as Ana points out those plastic food containers are hardly new. They are a ubiquitous sight at any grocery store deli housing things like artisanal cheese, salads and mac & cheese. Yet how is it that the wastefulness arguments crops up over something that is accessible, rather than the widespread use of plastic containers generally. Not to mention at least these look like the could be reused or repurposed. Where is the protest over bags of prepared salad? I guess peeling an orange is to easy but the convenience of salad in a plastic bag is to much to be denied.

Ana further points out that disability inherently comes with a greater need for product consumption. Disabled people need mobility aids and other tools that inevitably have an impact on the environment. Many of the people she encountered appeared to suggest that in the fight for the environment, disabled people are too inconvenient and should not be accommodated.

People who conceded that disabled people should be able to buy peeled and prepared food were sometimes still unwilling to give up the environmental angle and suggested that we should just ask the clerk at the register to peel the oranges upon purchase.

This is both an issue of hygiene because, I pretty sure those oranges in containers were peeled in an environment that was more controlled for hygiene than the store checkout where the clerk has been in contact with dozens of people and their money without the benefit of regular cleaning.

Also disabled people should not have to jump through additional hoops to get things which is both an unnecessary wate of time but forces us into a role where we must ask for help.

The issue here isn’t that the environment isn’t important. It absolutely is but environmentalism has most definitely ignored disability and accessibility. Basically if something is billed as environmental. It is almost certainly inaccessible. Consider the love affair with ogling (though mostly not actually moving into) tiny houses. No micro home is ever going to be wheelchair accessible and many of them depend on loft space accessed by a ladder for sleeping so even ambulatory people with limited mobility can’t use them. They are a popular trend in cutting the carbon footprint though. Downsizing generally is considered the easiest way to become more environmentally friendly. It is however just not really an option for disabled people where additional space and adapted devices are required for daily living.

Far to often if a location heavily touts its low environmental impact, you can assume it’s going to be inaccessible because they are cutting electrical use by not having things like an elevator.

I keep thinking of my stay at the Planet Traveler Hostel in Toronto several years ago while in town briefly for my sister’s wedding (before I moved here for school). It is touted as being very environmentally friendly. While there the owner bragged about all the environmental upgrades. The thing is you can’t get anywhere in the building without having to go up or down at least one and usually more flights of stairs. Stair that are narrow and pretty steep. I showed up the with my luggage and wearing my AFO so stairs not the greatest. I managed but it was uncomfortable and time consuming. If I was any less mobile than I am, it wouldn’t have been an option and I’d have had to beg family members for money to pay for a hotel (as I had been unemployed for over a year at that point and had spent the last of my money on the plane ticket)

I would love to see containers with prepared food get more environmentally friendly but more importantly environmentalists need to start considering disability and accessibility whether it be in finding more sustainable way to create the products we rely on to accessible sustainable housing. What I don’t want to see is people throwing disabled people under the bus because they’d rather get rid of a product than figure out a way to deliver it sustainably.

Also if your main concern over the peeled oranges was a rage over widespread laziness. Basically anything that benefits lazy people is going to be accessible to some degree so embrace the convenience (or just don’t buy it) and don’t add a level of shame to buying a product that actually makes our lives easier and which in conjunction with other similar products can actually improve our independence and quality of life.

Updated to add this horrendous defense

So basically disabled people should not be allowed to expect or demand better access to food because we never used to have it. *sigh*

and the argument is off Twitter and Whole Foods is being condemned by the environmally conscious site Treehugger here ableism is unfortunately winning the wider war for narrative dominance.

Update 2

The Huffington Post has gotten on the “Thank god, Whole Foods scrapped this thing” bandwagon with no mention of how disabled people have engaged in the conversation.

Both Reuters and GOOD have written about this and managed to mention the disability perspective.

Also from Mashable

Update 3

This horrible article from Global Citizen is a thing. It presents the disabled protesters as whiny and ill informed and further suggests that we have loads of accessible food options (no sources were cited for this claim)

Update 4

A great blog post from Antioch College Food Committee which actually starts to unpack the inaccessibility of much environmental activism and is committed to considering how their choices in eco living might impact access to food.

Update 5

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

So Whole Foods sent out this Tweet which pretty much confirms that they at least have not considered the disability aspect as mason jars may be more environmentally friendly but they are certainly less easy to open that a plastic tub. So much for requests for more accessibility along with sustainability. While I’m sure they are not actually selling these jarred oranges. It shows that they are not listening to this side of the conversation.