Ableism Inside the
Veganism Community: How
Does It Manifest and How
Can We Make Room for
People with Disabilities
in our Movement?
[Audience responds, “Hello, hi, hello”]
“My name’s Selena – Selena Caemawr. Caemawr is a Welsh .. a Welsh word .. there’s .. a tradition in Wales for poets to have a ‘nom de plume’ or a pen name, which describes where they were born, or grew up, or lived at the time when they were writing about. And Caemawr literally means Big Field. But I like to say, Grand Meadow. [laughs] ..
“So I’m going to be talking about ableism within the vegan community. It’s something that I think a lot of people aren’t really aware of happening, but if you do have a disability it’s really quite obvious that it’s .. rife within our community.
“So I just want to give us an opportunity to explore what that looks like .. and how we can tackle it as individuals.
“So .. this is me, I’m a poet and activist. I’m the Director of.. Aubergine Cafe and Events Community Interest Company which is a social enterprise being set up to .. to employ .. the entire staff will be autistic, it’s going to be an autistic-run company. And the idea is, that we’re going to use evidence-based research to try and change the way that businesses are run, to make them more autism-friendly. What that research tells us is that when companies – quite often, big IT companies like Microsoft are very good at this, because they understand that autistic people have got an immense value to .. some industries, certainly – they’re very good at participating in this research, and what .. they show us is that to make an organisation autism-friendly, you actually make it people-friendly: Everyone communicates more clearly, people are more comfortable and happier in their work, and when you have a happy workforce or community, they .. they give back – so they’re more invested.
“So the idea of this is to .. of that organisation .. is to try and close the .. employment gap for autistic people. Only 17% of autistic adults – this is a UK statistic, not applying it to the rest of the world – but in the UK, only 17% of autistic adults are .. in full time employment. That’s compared to – if you compare that to disabled people – for disabled people it’s more like 49%, so about almost half of disabled people are in full time employment, but just 17% for autistic people.
“That’s not to say we can’t work, we’re quite often very good at it. Sometimes we’re too good and that’s why we get fired, because we’re like: “Did you know that if you put that chair there, you may be personally liable for manslaughter if there was a fire?” Yes, I’m that really annoying person who pays particular attention to the .. rules.
“I am Black, and I am Queer – in all of the ways – and I’m Autistic. That’s me. You can see that there’s a gold .. it doesn’t look quite gold on there, but there’s a gold sort of like infinity ribbon there. That’s the symbol chosen by autistic people in our community to symbolize, to go with gold for acceptance. So not just being aware of autism, but accepting it as a valid .. identity and difference.
“Here’s a question for you: Are you ableist?
[People laugh quietly]
“We were .. yeah … we were raised to be. From when I was very little .. I remember all sorts of slurs that were thrown around that we thought were quite .. were OK .. that we would never say today … I don’t want to say any of them out loud right now, but we will talk about that later. And in terms of making changes, and dismantling oppression, the first step is to .. acknowledge, that we are part of it. Just like the first step in dealing with, substance misuse perhaps, is to admit that it’s an issue. We have to own it first, before we make any deep changes. We’re part of the system. And instead of being passive, and just allowing it to happen, we can actually as individuals make changes.
“So we’ll look at ableism now. So, what does ableism look like, why should we care, and how can we make individual changes to be more inclusive.
“Dictionary definitions – hate them [laughs] .. right. But basically, ableism is discrimination in favour of able … bodied people it says here, not just able bodied people … dictionary definitions are not very good at explaining forms of oppression. If you look at racism, the amount of times I’ve had white people say to me .. ‘uh, it’s racist to have Black-only spaces because it’s discriminating against white people’, and I’m like, no, there’s this whole structural thing going on here and it’s huge and you can not, you cannot put it in like six words .. six words in a dictionary definition.
“So there we go .. but when we are talking about ableism, we’re talking about discrimination against people because of a disability, or being prejudiced, so making our minds up about people because of a disability .. that they may, or are perceived to ..
“I’m going to focus a little bit on autism, because I am autistic, so .. I have got 36 years of experience in autism – which is more than a lot of people ..
[People laugh gently]
“It is quite often characterized by this ‘triad of impairments’. So we .. these are things that anybody can have .. but you know when people say, ‘Oh, everyone is on the spectrum somewhere’, well, what they are saying that anyone can have some of these issues. But it’s only when you have a significant number of issues with your social relationships, your communication, and your rigidity in thought … it’s only when you have a significant number of those, enough of them, that makes you on the autism spectrum. So you are on A spectrum, but not necessarily the autism spectrum.
“How autism affects me is, well, sometimes I talk to much … you’re supposed to laugh! ..
“Sometimes I say jokes that people don’t get, sometimes I don’t get other people’s jokes, sometimes people laugh at me and I’m like, why are you laughing? But no .. I quite often have have sensory difficulties, so this room is lovely and quiet right now, but sometimes when I walk into a room, I hear like lots of voices and the best way I can describe it is, if you imagine there are a bunch of pins – you know those pins, like the .. with sewing, if somebody had just … if there were some of those in my head, and they were just flicking around on to the inside of my eardrums .. OK, it causes pain signals to fire off. So I feel physical pain sometimes, with sound … not, just, that’s just one of the examples. That’s one of the things that makes .. social relationships difficult, or going out to noisy places and so on. So, you can ask me about autism afterwards, if you want .. I am happy to answer any questions about that.
“So, when I’ve been talking to people with autism, about .. online interactions – and I’ll focus a little bit about online interactions, because I think .. veganism is, it is hugely present online, and a lot of activism happens online – .. what I’ve found is that .. quite often, miscommunications can happen with autistic people. There are a lot of autistic people, there are a lot of .. us online, because it’s an easier social situation to be in than .. in the physical presence of other people sometimes.
“But what can make it easier – and these are just suggestions by autistic and neuro-diverse people, people with ADHD, people with learning difficulties – if you want to .. present a message, be it about veganism or whatever, and you are going to write paragraphs like an explanation, try breaking it down into little chunks. .. Awkwardly small chunks, like, almost grammatically incorrect chunks – that will actually make it much, much easier for people to follow, people who have attention deficit and so on, or people who have chronic fatigue, quite often can’t read all that much in one go. So .. that’s a little tip, that can help both your message get across better, but also, help other .. people who have those kinds of disabilities to understand.
“Say what you mean, and mean what you say. I struggle with metaphors. I do use them, I get them wrong all the time. But sometimes when people say something sarcastically, I don’t always get it, or it can take me a little while to work that out.
“Avoid reading into comments by autistic people for subtexts. If somebody has made you aware that they are autistic, try to .. understand that .. usually when we speak, we say exactly what we mean. We’re not, kind of, saying something for you to, kind of, work out what we mean by it. So if your argument is surrounded by, ‘Oh, but you said that, and that means, you mean this’ if it’s with an autistic person, that’s probably not the case.
“Another thing to look out for is that we are often very, very direct. That can come across as aggressive. And this can be the same for people with ADHD and so on as well, because we sometimes don’t have that filter, or the ability, the cognitive ability to make it .. ‘softer’. And it’s like, if you don’t say exactly what you mean, how are they meant to understand .. OK .. [laughs] .. so, it’s like, we have to be direct in order to be understood. But by being direct, we are often mis-understood.
“I realize I’m not offering you any real solutions. I’m offering you the opportunity to think about it, so that you can go away and consider how you might make individual changes .. OK, I’m not here to change the world today .. But .. I do want to come back to that aggressive thing. I do have a friend who is told, like, every day that they are aggressive, and it really, severely harms their mental health because they’re not aggressive – they are a big teddy bear – they’re just very direct.
“Hey! Ableist Bingo! .. [laughs] .. I don’t know if you can see that .. these are some … now, I didn’t write this .. what I’ve done is try to pull things that are readily available online so that if you want to go ahead and look things up afterwards, you can go and search for them. But if you were to Google ‘Ableist Bingo’ – other search engines are available [laughs] – then you might see some of these things. So, being ableist doesn’t necessarily just mean .. being directly .. directly attacking somebody because of their disability. I want to point out this one – so, in the disability communities (I don’t know if you can see) .. ‘Everyone can go vegan’ .. and that’s said a lot, but this wasn’t – I don’t think this was written by a vegan – I don’t think IsaJennie is vegan .. but this is the message that we are presenting, we’re presenting that vegans are ableist, .. that veganism isn’t a safe place for autistic people, and it’s not just those ones that are, like, saying, ‘Oh, I can’t go vegan because .. ‘ this and that, .. no, every .. the whole autistic or disabled community, will be like, veganism is quite ableist.
“And it is. Sorry.
“I want you to .. to introduce you to Sam. So Sam here, Sam is disabled – they don’t have a colon. They’ve had lots and lots of surgeries .. to treat their disease, which is colitis, and many of the complications that they have with it. Now the thing with Sam is, when they eat vegetables, they come out undigested. So, yes, they bite into a carrot; a few hours later, out comes .. a carrot. So they can’t actually absorb enough nutrients for them to sustain life. They don’t have a choice to eat a vegan diet. So, that’s Sam.
“This is Avery. Avery is autistic. They eat only bland, mild foods; very, very simple textures, nothing too sort of like crunchy, nothing slimy, so no mushrooms, or anything like that. Trying new foods sparks very, very severe mental distress – meltdowns – and disordered eating, .. yeah, an eating disorder. But, with a lot of help and patience from others, they have begun to eat more vegetables – but so far, not enough to cover their basic nutrition. So this person, at this stage in their life, is also unable to eat a vegan diet, because they just wouldn’t get enough nutrition. They .. are trying, though. But it would be very, very easy for them to reverse that trying, if people were very pushy with them.
“Sam and Avery are both advocates for veganism. Sounds weird, yeah, but .. they both understand the importance of veganism, and whilst they are unable to eat solely vegan due to their disabilities – remember, they don’t have a choice here, we’re not talking about people who have a choice, we’re not talking about ‘veganish’, that’s a whole different .. discussion. They actively encourage others toward veganism through their actions. Sam, for example, runs a business, a community business in the form of a pub .. Way-hay! .. and all .. they have whole .. a vegan menu, if vegan groups want to come along and use their venue for events and so on, they will allow them to use it. So, they are actually reaching out to many, many people in terms of vegan activism.
“So I guess what my message for that was, we need to pick our battles – who should we be challenging, what will have the biggest effect. Is it worth us arguing with Sam on the Internet, and saying that ‘you are an awful person’ when actually, they’re probably – Sam’s probably doing more than I am, I’ll be honest. So, this vegan utopia world that we all dream of, is not going to happen overnight. So we have to play the long game, so we need to think strategically, and attacking people who have disabilities, who don’t have a choice, shouldn’t be part of that strategy, ever.
“So, yeah, does disability discrimination benefit the animals? Sam and Avery have been supported by vegans to promote veganism further and, as a result, many more people are now adopting veganism – the net result is that more animals are being saved. Yeah, it’s not an abolitionist approach, I would much prefer an abolition approach, but the net result that .. yeah, like I say, don’t attack – please, don’t attack disabled people, for they don’t have a choice of.
“So – how do we make room? Let’s make disability inclusion .. part, a central part, of our activism – not an afterthought. So, let’s not think about booking a room, and then afterwards go, ‘Oh, someone’s asked if it’s wheelchair accessible’. No. You need to think about that in the first place, OK? It should .. if you have .. an event, and you call it a March, not everyone can walk. There are other words that you can use, you can call it a .. oh, I don’t know, you’re clever people, you can work it out, it’s just a case of just thinking about it ..
“Not everyone can make it out to a protest.. but there are many other jobs that people can do online. So .. asking if there are any people who would be able to, like, work from home, for example and do some activism online, do some spreading the word, and so on. There are ways to include people who can’t necessarily walk, or be in social situations, or like me – I do go on parades, but it’s really hard, and I have to have, like, ear plugs and ear defenders and this and that because people have got vuvuzelas, and whistles, and .. ugh! Anyway.
“Familiarize yourself with vocabulary around disabilities, and if you’ve got the ability to do so, please change your language to avoid alienating potential vegans and allies.
“And I will give you some examples here again .. sorry, did you want to take a picture of that ..
“Here you go .. [indistinct audience remarks] ..
“[Laughs] You can have a look afterwards .. I picked this up off the Internet as well, again because I want people to be able to find it very easily. These are some examples of things that people say on the right hand side .. like, that ‘insane’, ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ .. these are words that are either describing disabilities as a negative thing, or maybe words that were used before, in .. like, ‘retarded’, ‘dumb’, they used to be medicalized words which we don’t .. we don’t use now. These are specifically around disabilities, whether they are physical, mental, or so on. These .. are some easy examples of alternative words that you can use. You can find them all over the Internet. So if there is a word that you are thinking of .. ‘Oh, my god, gosh that event was crazy’ you can change it to wild or epic .. if you want to be, like, super millennial.
“But also .. I do want to point out that, yeah, it is awkward and difficult to change your language that you have been using your whole life. It’s not as hard as changing your diet and all your clothes and everything to make them vegan. So if we can be vegan, we can change some words.
“It’s been mentioned in the previous two talks and .. well, in the intro, and in Dani’s talk as well that animal liberation is a natural next step from human liberation. When people consider the .. the welfare of other people, it’s natural to continue that on to animals, once we get used to that. And I think that inclusive movements do benefit everybody.
“Do you want to do better? [Audience: “Yes”] [Laughs] So I’m talking specifically in terms of .. disabilities at the moment, but this works across the board with, like, racism and so on: Support our communities, follow us online, share our work, uplift our voices. ..
“So .. if you talk to me afterwards, I can give you some ideas and some people to follow on .. social media .. and .. thank you for listening.”
(Thank you for AC Baker for this transcript!)