“Wheelchair users are disabled because society continues to build stairs”

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Geertrui Cazaux (Belgium, 1970) owns a degree in Criminology and Environmental Sciences. After obtaining a doctorate in anthropocentrism and speciesism in contemporary criminology in 2002, Cazaux researched the sociology of human-animal relations for several years. Now she focus on issues such as ableism and veganism.

In the past, she held youth care and policy advisor positions for the government of Flanders (Belgium) and is now editor of the Crip HumAnimal platform, from which she addresses the interconnections between ableism and speciesism. From a couple of years, due to a series of chronic diseases that she suffers, she can no longer work full time, so she is usually at her country house near Bruges, where she enjoys gardening and caring for rescued animals -she and her partner live with 26 roosters and hens, several cats, three donkeys and two sheeps-. She also curates Crip HumAnimal and her other blogs, Graswortels and Brugesvegan. She sometimes does volunteer work for local organizations and occasionally makes presentations around the world on the topics she studies.

Some months ago, Cazaux went to Barcelona to give one of her presentations. At the end of May, the author intervened as keynote speaker at the sixth conference of the European Association for Critical Animal Studies (EACAS) that was held at the Pompeu Fabra University. In her presentation, one of the most commented on the event, the author explored, in front of a full audience, the interconnections between speciesism and ableism, also addressing the lack of inclusivity in social justice movements, specifically in the vegan environment.

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Lets begin with the basics. What is ableism?

It is really difficult to narrow it down to one definition, because there are so many aspects to be taken into consideration. Very briefly put it is discrimination or prejudice against disabled people (physical, mental, emotional), in favour of those considered to be able bodied.
What I think needs underlining is that ableism is both prejudice (attitude) and discrimination (behaviour) and that it is also an ideology, part of a system of oppression, so it shouldn’t simply be seen as an individual inclination or individual discriminatory practice.

It seems that the term ableism is less well known than other concepts that refer to different types of discrimination, such as racism or sexism. However, recently published research claimed that prejudice towards people with disabilities increases over time. What do you think is the reason for the ignorance of this type of exclusion?

The Dutch and Flemish term is ‘validisme’. This term and also the ideology and the fight for disability justice is also much less known than the terms racism or sexism over here.
I think one of the reasons might be that the disability rights movement (rights based equality model, focus on getting access), and later on the disability justice movement (centring justice and wholeness for disabled people) is fairly new when compared to the civil rights movement and the woman’s movement, fighting against racism and sexism.
The physical and economic barriers that society creates and also the impairments of disabled people themselves make it often also much more difficult for disabled persons to raise their voices and be heard. Disabled persons, have been and still are excluded from public debate, from participation in social and political life.
Another reason I think is the ‘compartimentalisation’ of justice movements. Separately fighting for women’s rights, for civil rights, for disability rights, while these are all connected, but that connection and overlap is often overlooked. Although that is gradually changing, cf the rhetoric about ‘intersectionality’ and more and more justice movements starting to see the bigger picture.

You speak about a medical model and a social model of disability… Could you explain the differences, please?

The medical model of disability was the dominant view on disability in the modern era till the 1970’s. Disability was largely seen as a personal tragedy. Disease and injury were seen as something that needed to be cured, through medical intervention, for the individual to become ‘normal’ or ‘as normal as possible’ again. In the medical model, the focus is on the individual, who needs to put in effort, who needs to adapt to society, who needs to ‘heal’.

This is opposed to the social model of disability. In this view, disability is seen as mainly caused by environmental and social barriers. Society needs to provide accessible spaces and facilities and if that happens, disabled people will be enabled to participate fully in all aspects of society. Because it is society that disables people, hinders them in participating in all aspects of life.
One could boldly say that a wheelchair user isn’t disabled because they use a wheelchair, but because society continues to build stairs.

Let’s talk about bodyshaming [shaming someone for their body] and health shaming [shaming someone for an apparent lack of health].

Bodyshaming is shaming people or criticising or mocking them for their body appearance. It most often comes down to fat shaming, shaming people for the big size of their body although it can be directed at anyone whose body doesn’t fall in the scope of what is considered a ‘normal’ ‘beautiful’ body.
Health shaming is being judgmental about people’s health problems. Their ill health is supposedly their own fault because, they must have done something ‘wrong’: not eating well, not exercising enough, having a ‘bad’ lifestyle.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bodyshaming, especially fatshaming in the vegan and AR community, and also health shaming. Stereotypically portraying non-vegans as fat and vegans as slim, and pointing fingers at fat vegans for not being good role models for the movement. Attributing health problems to not being a ‘good’ vegan, not following the right diet. Veganism is often presented as a miracle cure for all health problems. And also attributing all diseases in non-vegans to them not eating a plantbased diet. Bodyshaming and health shaming marginalises fat and sick people, and can also be counterproductive, leading to more health and social problems.

It’s important to underline that veganism isn’t ‘a diet’ (first and foremost, it’s a lifestyle connected to a justice movement). And vegans come in all sizes. On average, vegans do have a lower BMI, but that does not mean all vegans are thin and that all non-vegans are fat.
Just as a vegan diet is no guarantee for weight loss, it is also no full proof protection against cancer, or other diseases. There are so many other factors besides diet that determine one’s health: also lifestyle, environmental factors (think of air pollution, water pollution, radiation), genetics, play a role, and often there is no 1 to 1 link between any of these and health status.

I’m not denying that a vegan diet, and certainly a WFPD is generally beneficial to one’s health, and can reduce the risk for many chronic conditions and illnesses (type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers). But it is no guarantee.

So I really want to stress that we should focus on the animal rights issue, on the fight for justice for all, and not on singling out people because of their appearance, or on blaming them for their health problems. It’s not effective and can also be counterproductive.

One can have the impression, especially with the rise of image-based social networks, that today we have a moral obligation to be and show ourselves as people with a specific ‘healthy’ appearance. Experts like Melissa A. Fabello are aware of this requirement and go further, stating that health is a social construct. Do you consider it to be a construct?

I think disability is largely a social construct, as to a large extent, it is society that ‘disables’ people with a disability (cf. social model of disability). That being said, the physical and psychological impact of living with certain impairments cannot be denied too. So disability certainly is an ontological reality too.
Health is another concept. One can be living with an impairment (being blind), but be perfectly healthy. And one can look healthy on the outside, but all but be healthy on the inside and be living with a debilitating chronic disease or a disability.
Maybe to a certain extent health is a social construct too (not denying the real physical and mental impact certain diseases or conditions can have), as society sees those bodies and minds who fit in society, who can produce, who don’t step out of line, as ‘healthy’ productive bodies and minds. And anyone not fitting that ideal because of divergent physical or mental parameters as deviant and unhealthy.
I think the heavy focus on health (on social media, on presenting oneself as ‘healthy’) is part of the neo-liberal discourse: anyone not fit enough to produce, is a burden to society. So people really want to present themselves as ‘fit’, as ‘healthy’. It also contributes to internalised ableism.

Also, it seems that everyone can critique anyone they don’t know because of their appearance and even dare to give unsolicited advice -for instance, with fatphobia- with an excuse of caring for the other’s health… What do you think about all this?

It is paradoxical that in an age where scientific knowledge is at our fingertips, pseudoscience and fake news seem to spreading more than before. I find it funny (although more frustrating actually) that people who don’t even know how to pronounce or write the names of my diseases can be very quick to offer out of the hat health advice to ‘cure’ me, without any sound scientific basis.

If I think about social media and empowerment, the images of ‘inspirational porn’ that you spoke about in your presentation in Barcelona come to mind. Could you explain what ‘inspirational porn’ is all about?

‘Inspiration porn’ is a term launched by the late disability activist Stella Young.

It is the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability. It objectifies people with a disability. It reduces them to their disability. Think of the memes of disabled athletes, with the caption ‘what’s you excuse?’.
Inspiration porn is problematic because disability is portrayed as a sort of personal tragedy that a person has to work so hard to overcome, and their disability is never shown as a perfectly normal part of life. Their disability is used as a sort of ‘prop’ to inspire able bodied people.
I do not want to be an inspiration to people because I am chronically ill and sometimes use a wheelchair. I want to inspire through my activism, because I fight for justice. I would dread it if for example a photo of me (using my wheelchair) would do the rounds with a caption ‘what’s your excuse?’.

What about internalized ableism?

Internalised ableism is when people with disabilities themselves think they are of no value, they are not good enough, they think they have nothing to contribute or are ‘redundant’. Internalised ableism exists because the dominant system makes them ‘internalise’ ableism. When you constantly hear the message that disabled persons are ‘less’, have less value, have nothing to contribute, as the dominant message in society, it is difficult to break through that discourse — even for disabled persons, who will sometimes also internalise and reproduce that exclusionary discourse.

And what can you tell us about medication shaming? (But also keeping in mind the issues with the pharmaceutical industry?)

Medication shaming is judging people for taking medication. For example because some people stress ‘natural healing’, see all medication as ‘toxic’, or believe that with following a ‘correct’ and healthy diet there would be no need for medication. Then there’s also the added issue of animal experimentation for medication: all drugs and therapies are tested on animals, because it is mandatory by law.

Of course a lot of the drug use is very problematic (issues related to addiction, side effects, use without medical indication). The pharmaceutical industry is also certainly no philanthropic institution but has one goal: to sell as many products as possible and make a profit.

That being said, some medications really do work therapeutically and are sometimes even vital for certain people. Some wouldn’t be able to live or survive without medication. Again, diet, ‘positive thinking’ and lifestyle can’t cure or treat everything.

I take medication and I can say if it weren’t for that medication, I wouldn’t be here today, doing the activism that I do. The medication does have many side effects, but it’s really not an option to stop with it. It does sometimes feel like choosing between pest and cholera.
Of course I am against the use of animals for experimentation, and I am standing on the barricades to end tests on animals, also for medical experiments. But me using or not using medication that is developed with knowledge acquired through animal testing will in no way affect the legal requirement for animal testing. It’s not the same like for example buying cosmetics or body and care products, where one has the option to go for alternatives (cruelty free products), because all medication is based on animal testing and here are no alternatives.
Another note: medical knowledge is not only built on animal rights violations, but also on unethical testing on humans, human rights violations, too. Medical science always makes leaps forward in times of war for example. Of course I am against such human rights violations too but I cannot undo those tests on humans from the past, and the scientific progress that has been made because of it. I can however advocate that such violations no longer occur, as I also do for tests on animals.

Earlier, you mentioned intersectionality, a concept coined by African-American author Kimberlé Crenshaw, which focuses on two axes of oppression: racism and sexism. Tell us about the intersections between the different discriminations and how ableism fits into all of this.

All the different ism’s, like racism, sexism, speciesism and also ableism, are connected in a system of oppression.

These oppressions are not only connected, and sometimes they intersect, but they operate in the same way and use the same tactics, of objectification, animalization, devaluation, for ‘othering’ people of colour, women, animals and disabled people.
That’s why I think we cannot separate the plight for animal rights or animal justice from the plight for human rights or justice.
Tackling just one of these oppressions, for example speciesism (the fight for animal rights), without taking into account the other oppressions, while colluding with the racist, sexist and in other ways exclusionary system, will not work. Just as fighting for human justice, without also taking into account the plight of animals and tackling speciesism, will never be able to dismantle the system.

Do you think there are gender biases within ableism? Is there a double discrimination in this regard, when you are a woman and you have a disability?

Yes, there is a gender difference with respect to ableism. Disabled woman, or non-binary persons, not only face discrimination and prejudice for being disabled, but also for not being male.
Disabled people are more at risk of being physically, sexually, psychologically and financially abused, and of being neglected. And this is even more the case when they are women, persons of colour, lesbian or gay, or older or poor.

Could you speak a little bit of your personal experience, living with a chronical disease? And your experience as an activist?

I have several auto-immune diseases, and I have pain and other physical issues and mobility issues. It not only affects me physically, but living with chronic pain also has a mental impact. I have difficulty concentrating and often have brain fog. And I am chronically tired. It’s like constantly wearing a jacket in lead.

What a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that having a chronic disease doesn’t entail a constant state of ‘being sick’. Although in some aspects my disease is progressive, my condition fluctuates, sometimes on a day to day basis. One day I’m relatively fine (there’s always the pain and the fatigue, but some days it’s more manageable than others), the next not. Being chronically ill doesn’t mean I spend all my days in bed. Having a chronic disease is not a constant level of feeling the same all the time.
Which sometimes also leads to disbelief and prejudice from people. So you get reactions like: You have a chronic disease? You cannot work anymore? But you can ride a bike? You can go to a concert? you can work in your garden? Yes, sometimes I can do those thing, but it then most often takes me days to recuperate and I need to manage my time carefully.

What I find very frustrating is the unpredictability. As I never know in advance whether I will be having a good day or a bad day, I find it very difficult to make commitments, appointments. That’s why it’s also hard to work in the traditional 9 to 5 system, or working with deadlines. Social events are also very physically and psychologically draining.
Street activism, although some activists seem to think that is the only real or legit form of activism, is just not for me.
As an activist, I do what I think I can do best and I am capable of doing: writing, and occasionally giving a presentation.

Being chronically ill feels like living part-time. There are the same amount of hours in every day for everyone, but I can only use a portion of those hours compared to healthy people.
Being chronically ill also means spending a lot of time for therapy, visiting the clinic and waiting in waiting rooms for doctor’s appointments.

At the conference you spoke about the ‘monkey woman’ and the ‘elephant man’… Please speak us a little bit about the animalization of people with disabilities. How it is connected the speciesism with ableism/sexism/racism, etc. in this or other cases?

Animalisation is one of the techniques to devalue ‘others’, whether those others are people of colour, woman, gay, or persons with a disability. For example portraying disabled people as ‘walking like a monkey’. With the white, male straight abled bodied man being the standard and everyone else being a deviation from the standard. By relegating them to the status of ‘animals’ they are inferiorised, and through that devaluation, their differential treatment and discrimination is also justified. Because they are ‘just animals’.

We are talking about a direct connection between ableism and speciesism. I understand that, according to your vision, speciesism could be a form of ableism, have I understood correctly?

Speciesism is in itself ableism, because it is discrimination of other animals because they do not possess certain abilities.
Throughout history, several abilities have been the demarcation line to give moral status to some and deny it to others: being able to speak, being able to reason, eyes that face forward, walking on two legs. … This also had implications for humans who do not possess those abilities (who cannot speak, who cannot see, who cannot reason): they were or are still seen as less human. Disabled people were also seen by some as the missing link between animals and humans.

Is there ableism in the social justice movements?

Unfortunately yes. Although the social justice movement claims to work towards justice for all and liberation for all, ableism and the fight for disability justice is still overlooked by many. And so is speciesism and the fight for animal justice.

What could be done in order to become more inclusive in our activisms? What can we do to make actual changes?

Listen to marginalised groups. Listen to disabled people. If possible, let them be actively involved in campaigns targeting their peers, and if possible let them lead the campaigns.
Make sure your campaigns and actions are accessible. Provide information about the accessibility.
Be aware that different types of activism appeal more or less to different people and the time, place and location will determine who you reach and who can come.
Note: being inclusive is more than just ‘cosmetic diversity’. It’s not because some persons with a disability participate in an event, or are a member of an organisation, that the event or organisation is truly diverse or inclusive. Don’t use people with disabilities as tokens in campaigns.

Communication researcher. #Veganism #Feminism #EarthLiberation ->Read me in Spanish at www.elsaltodiario.com/autor/maria-carreras

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