As a student, I spend a lot of my time hunched over a desk, screen to my face, reading, writing, and emailing about classes, exams, papers, etcetera, etcetera. You know what rarely comes up? “Walter, what are you going to eat next?” You know what I’m always thinking about, through meetings, classes, study sessions, and readings? “What am I going to eat next?” I love food. Thinking about it, cooking it, making it, looking at it (though this one’s my least favorite if it’s not inbound to my mouth). I think it’s safe to say that most people, albeit at different levels of intensity, are spending quite a bit of time thinking about food. This, simply, is our lot as living beings.
Food, right up there with air and water, is essential. Consider its benefits outside the realm of immediate sustenance, and the necessity of its presence in our lives is only impressed further. Sharing meals strengthens our relationships with others, while access to quality ingredients and agency over their preparation is critical when it comes to developing healthy eating habits and receiving essential nutrition–not to mention the room for creativity and self-expression that validates one’s sense of individuality while connecting them to the culinary traditions from which they draw inspiration.
With that being said, it’s no grand claim to say that nutritious food, control over its preparation, and reliable resources for securing these two things, should be accessible for everyone.
Of course, this is abysmally far from the way things are, especially when it comes to individuals with disabilities. Across the board, whether it’s the design of kitchens, cooking technology, instructional materials, or the food industry as a whole, there is a deficit of practices and policies that accommodate disabilities, and just as the spectrum of disability is wide and varied, so too are the unique obstacles faced by each disabled cook and their accompanying solutions. Where a kitchen remodel to lower the countertops may suit someone in a wheelchair, another individual may have a reliable space to cook in, but will require recipes that make use of task analysis
or the PECS
(Picture Exchange Communication System)—a far cry from the busy, exhaustively-forwarded online recipe pages that often reload from ads too often for a text-to-speech application to even keep up with.
If someone can get past these structural barriers, there exists a whole other host of obstacles in the shape of attitudinal barriers. A study
by Montclair University found that it’s often these attitudinal barriers between disabled individuals and food that pose the greatest disadvantage, with members of the study reporting that they encountered “Shopper’s assistants . . . ignoring disabled people’s wishes because ‘they don’t know any better,’ not allowing people to make their own choices,” “Employees asking disabled customers if they can afford to pay for their groceries,” “Shoppers expressing annoyance if a disabled person is ‘in their way’ or ‘taking too long’,” and “Customers mocking a disabled person’s condition, showing evident discomfort, or not wanting to be near them.”
It makes sense that these sentiments are often the most discouraging obstacles faced by those with disabilities when it comes to having agency over their food and its preparation. After all, while demanding of resources and often difficult to secure, it’s conceptually a simple act to successfully add a cement ramp to a grocery store entrance, extend and lower a counter for a wheelchair, or access adaptive kitchen equipment
. However, stigma, stereotyping, and misinformed yet deeply-held beliefs about disability prove, just as with any other prejudice, to be no small task in overcoming. Yet just as with most prejudices, these beliefs—and the resulting impact they have on the community they apply to—are primarily reinforced by a lack of experience with the actual people that these judgements apply to.
When it comes to the representation of disability, the food industry is at a complete and utter deficit, and as the sector that maintains the greatest control over the attitudes and beliefs of how people think about cooking, food media is largely to blame for the stigma about disability and cooking. Out of the thousands of episodes of culinary-focused food and cooking shows that air annually, only a novel handful of guests, participants, and contestants are disabled. In a society where individuals with disabilities are consistently told either implicitly or directly that they can’t cook, it can all come down to the representation of the lives and stories of disabled individuals to determine whether someone works against or accepts the injustice of these structural and attitudinal beliefs. Of course, to hire and represent more individuals with disabilities, it’s not just food media but the food industry as well as food education as a whole that needs to be reimagined, so that we can have more disabled cooks and culinary professionals in the first place.
The issue is complex, and can hardly be addressed in full within the confines of a blog post. But the aim here is to point out that amongst the countless barriers to be overturned on the path towards increasing access to nutritious food, control over its preparation, and reliable resources for securing this, there’s a straightforward step to take, and it’s nothing new when it comes to the development of empathy and the resulting policy change for disability rights: increased representation of individuals with disabilities and their voices. And it starts with where the greatest audience is: food media.
Walter Greene is, first and foremost, an eater. The rest of the time he studies as a student at Bennington College, where he is editor of the student arts journal SILO, celebrating more than eighty years of student-ran publishing. Through working to publish work that reflects the diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences of the student body, he has developed an understanding of the critical need for representation in the arts. He hopes to continue building and acting on this appreciation through working with Art Spark Texas. This winter, he is collaborating with members of the True Tales by Disability Advocates podcast to release a series of blog posts focused on each member of the True Tales team, which will be rolled out in the coming months.