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.

 

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How Good is Your Social Justice Argument if it Capitalizes on Marginalizing Others?

So I came across this image on twitter

John Fugelsang gun control quote

It reads,

The only way background checks take away your Second Amendment rights are, my friends, if you’re a criminal, a terrorist or insane. And if you’re all three, you’re probably already a lobbyist for the NRA

Full disclosure, I am a Canadian, we don’t have a constitutional equivalent to the second amendment. I am generally flummoxed by the United States and its obsession with guns. In the end my main concern is not with gun control, it is how the speaker, comedian John Fugelsang obviously views common sense gun control as a social justice issue and that he is willing to capitalize on existing stigma around mental illness to further his progressive agenda.

While as an outsider to America’s debate about gun control, I support restrictions on obtaining guns because I have seen the horrors guns wreak particularly in the United States.

I however strongly object to the casual connection of criminals, terrorists and people with psychiatric disabilities (mad people, psychiatric consumer/survivors). Not least of my reasons being that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. That does not mean, that I disregard the fact that some of them can be violent and that people should be protected from that violence.

The quote further suggests that mental illness is connected to making decisions that are unpopular, like being a lobbyist for the NRA. This suggests that all opinions, decisions or actions that lead to violence are based in irrational thought patterns that can only be explained by illness.

Considering that people with mental illness are more often victims than perpetrators, it can be easily assumed that the vast majority of people committing violence are not sick. Unfortunately there are far to many people in the human race who are wiling to do others harm whether we agree with their reasons or not is not a good estimation of their mental health.

The problem is that people who experience mental illness are deeply stigmatized and the continued willingness for society to connect them to violence or general negativity only fuels that stigma even when it is done in the context of a joke. Particularly when that joke simply reinforces, rather than challenges that stigma.

It is made worse when that stigma is used to further what is otherwise in mu opinion a positive position. Any progressive movement which is willing to throw a marginalized group under the bus to further its aims is a problematic one.

There are many arguments for gun control that can be made without stigmatizing mental illness.

There were over 11000 gun related deaths in the US in 2013

Gun control laws enacted in other countries when properly administered are really effective (like Australia)

When I saw the above image on twitter, I responded with a simple desire to see social justice movements stop stigmatizing marginalized people unfairly to further their agenda.

I can’t link you to the conversation because the original poster blocked me and I no longer have access to it.

While I was unhappy to see pushback to a rather simple concept, I didn’t feel like getting into a big twitter argument but the original source of the image kept responding and insulting me, calling me a pedant. I was unaware that believing that social justice movements should not succeed at the expense of others was an overly academic and complicated position to hold.

I only responded after they claimed that the social stigma of mental illness was an old issue that shouldn’t overshadow the argument for gun control. To which I simply responded

“I reject the idea that one human rights movement must be thrown under the bus to support another”

The bigger issue isn’t even that John Fugelsang made the original quip. It is how quotable it is and how easy it was to make into a meme that is easily shareable allowing for the uncritical mass proliferation of the basic negative feelings around mental illness which give the idea power and credibility it does not deserve.

Fear should only be used against things that merit it. Generally speaking a group of people that are completely unconnected to one another other than a general type of medical diagnosis does not merit that fear.

When is Language Ableist or Offensive

Comedian and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid was recently featured in a Think Big video where she advocates for disabled people being given opportunities to be cast in film and television roles where the character is disabled. Currently the most common casting decision is to give those roles to nondisabled actors. The video is well worth a watch.

Since the video is on YouTube it has garnered a lot of comments and as with most comment sections on the internet many of the messages are offensive. Oddly this post is not about ignorant commenters but rather a conversation Zayid had on Twitter regarding one specific comment.

She begins with this tweet

ableism language 1

She is paraphrasing for the brevity required of twitter. In this tweet shat has used #retard to draw attention to the original commenter’s offensive language.

The first response agrees that the comment is both ignorant and offensive and concludes by calling the commenter a #moron.

ableism language 2

For context, here is a little history of the linguistic evolution around intellectual disability.

Words like idiot, moron and imbecile used to be medical terms but by the late 19th century had been widely adopted by society as general insults. In a move intended to find terms the medical community could use to describe intellectual disability without resorting to insults, a new medical term was adopted. It was retarded. Until then the word retard had been used to mean slow down or impede. Since its adoption in relation to disability however, it has become a slur that easily rivals the offense caused by its predecessors in offensiveness.

Likely because she was aware of this history one respondent questioned the use of language.

ableism language 3

While it was established that the use of #retard was in fact a direct reference to quoted language from a YouTube comment, the use of #moron was not.

This led to a conversation about whether moron is still ableist and when language is ableist, It seems to have concluded with these three tweets

ableism language 4

ableism language 5

ableism language 6

After this Mills no longer participates in the conversation and it moves on. Whether her absence is because she feels the matter is settled or is no longer comfortable questioning it, is unclear.

I am not going to take a stand on whether terms like idiot and moron are still offensive in an ableist way. Quite frankly it isn’t my call. Those words have never been connected to me medically so I am not directly oppressed by their continued use. I do however know that there are people who are affected by those words in ways that extend beyond their synonymous connection with stupidity.

I would however like to comment on the idea that ableism is only present when in the direct context of disability or when directed at disabled people because that just doesn’t make sense.

Words mean specific things. I can’t make the word ugly mean beautiful just by how I use it in a sentence.

The word retard does not stop being offensive or ableist when it is directed at someone or something that isn’t disabled. This was eloquently evidenced by John Franklin Stephens when he challenged Ann Coulter for calling President Obama a retard.

This is not just a disability issue. Just look at how the word gay which now most commonly refers to homosexuality but others have used it as a general pejorative. When someone calls an outfit or a situation gay, they are associating being gay with all things negative. The fact that no actual gay people are present is irrelevant.

Using words that reference a group of people and directing as a negative insult is harmful whether or not the people referenced are present to be directly hurt by it. This is because it culturally normalizes negative associations with that marginalized group and adds to systemic oppression.

I realize that it is impossible to have this kind of in depth discussion when limited to 140 characters, which is why I’m responding here.

I think particularly when considering ableist language when it discussed by disabled people, it is important to remember that disability may be the largest minority group but it is also one of the most diverse. Even if you ignore intersectional identities like sex, gender identity, race, sexuality, religion, etc. Disabled people are diverse in their diagnosis and sometimes this one identifier has social repercussions that are not shared with the whole disabled community. What may be offensive to one group could be unimportant to another. It is essential that while fighting for equality and an inclusive society that we don’t leave part of the group behind. The hierarchy of disability is real and it is often internalized.

When deciding if language is ableist please consider more than its effect on disability as a whole or if perhaps there is a group that you don’t fit into that may be differently affected.

Update

I have been asked by one of the people involved to remove their name and image. I have done so

Update 2

Amanda Mills has contacted me via twitter to confirm that she did leave the conversation because she no longer felt welcome there and felt as though she was being treated as overreacting.

I make this update with her permission.