On veganism and disability

Vegetables for sale at a market.

Y’all probably wonder why I periodically go on vegan tirades, and the answer is this: Once, long ago, in a time far, far away, I was a vegan. Not just a vegan, though, but a self-righteous, self-obsessed, narcissistic vegan, the very epitome of every possible bad vegan stereotype, the vegan that gives the entire movement a bad name. Therefore, periodically my levels of lingering guilt bubble up to the point where I have to write a thing about vegans, by way of penance for my sins — and in the hopes of reaching those who used to be like me.

So today, disability and veganism. There are so many fascinating layers in how disability and veganism, and disabled people and vegans, interact. There’s a lot to delve into here, but the really important thing is this: Some vegans seem to almost relish harassing disabled people, who find it an incredible turnoff, and the result tends to be backlash. Which sucks, because disabled people are awesome, and the majority of vegans — some of whom are also disabled — are awesome, and they should be able to get along! But there are three little things that lie in the way.

1. Veganism and cure evangelism

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but have you considered going vegan? It will probably cure whatever is wrong with you — because you do want to be cured, right? Oh, it’s genetic? Well, you can still totally control it with diet. I mean, I don’t care what your doctor said, my friend was losing her eyesight until she went vegan and now she’s a sharpshooter with the Army. Eating vegan is just healthier for you, you know? You get all the nutrients you need, and you’ll lose weight, and have more energy, and you’ll just feel better — and you’ll be a better person, because you won’t be torturing animals!

Here’s the thing. Disabled people are routinely and constantly subjected to cure evangelism, no matter what their disability is and whether or not they want to cure it. Autistic? You should try crystals. Mentally ill? Did you know that gluten makes your brain melt into jello? Use a wheelchair for mobility? You should try yoga. And the thing is that some health conditions can benefit from dietary changes — some forms of diabetes being a classic example. But not all do (in fact, the vast majority cannot). And people with conditions that can be better managed with changes in their diet are probably already embarking on those changes in consultation with their care providers. Others have stumbled upon what does and does not work with them through sometimes painful trial and error. You are probably not the first person to suggest veganism.

Some people might actually be interested in talking about veganism — in which case, talk away! But maybe don’t suggest it if someone didn’t specifically ask for information?

2. Veganism and energy levels

Vegan diets are hugely variable. When I was vegan, I ate a lot of vegetables, because I’m hella into vegetables. I ate some legumes, and some grains. I also made a lot of baked goods. People can make being vegan as hard or easy as they want, from making tons of fermented food to buying packaged fake meat to eating entirely fruit or whatever. There are lots of ways to approach veganism and you should use the way that is right for you.

However, some vegan diets are a lot of work, and involve things like lots of time, energy, and fine motor skills. These are things that are not accessible to all people in general, let alone all disabled people. For example, a full-time wheelchair user who lives in a house without an adapted kitchen is not going to find cooking very enjoyable, and can’t easily do many of the things that are ‘so simple,’ like maneuvering heavy pots of beans or massaging kale or whatever.

Disabled people need to budget their resources, not just financially but also energywise. The demands of a vegan diet can be too much, and pressuring people into it isn’t going to make them more receptive.

3. Veganism and personal health

I saved this one for last because it’s a meme I see coming up a lot lately. A vegan comments that someone should go vegan for XYZ reasons, a disabled person politely says thank you I am not interested, the vegan pushes, and the disabled person says they have health reasons that dictate their diets. The vegan response is that there’s no possible health reason that justifies eating animal products, you are making things up, your doctor is lying, this is nonsense. The disabled person screams silently into the abyss. Rinse, lather, repeat.

First of all, there actually are health reasons that make it difficult or impossible to eat a vegan diet. Those reasons? Are not your reasons to know, vegans. Not everyone wants to volunteer personal medical information, especially to someone who is being extremely hostile to them. Maybe someone has very unique and specific nutritional needs. Maybe someone has a sensory disability that severely limits what they can eat. Maybe…any number of other things.

You should never put a disabled person in the position of having to defend their dietary choices to you, period, let alone with a reference to their medical history, but that is the point where you should recognise that you are over the line and you need to step back. The correct response to ‘I cannot do this for health reasons’ is ‘I apologise for being so pushy, and please let me know if there’s any way I can support you.’

The thing is that most vegans are cool and fun people, many of who are super enthusiastic about plant products or really passionate about animals or both. Unfortunately, a pushy and unpleasant minority makes things difficult for everyone else. When you talk about veganism, think about the way you communicate and how you do it. If you’re on a mission to evangelise to people who didn’t ask for it, you are most definitely doing it wrong.

Image: Farmers’ Market Vegetables, Matt, Flickr