Veganism, Ableism and A Lack of Understanding
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
! Trigger warning: discussion of diet and disordered eating !
Hi, I’m Lorna and I’m a disabled vegan. I promise this is relevant.
I decided to go vegan for the animals. It was a gradual process of first going vegetarian and then reading up on animal rights and environmentalism, until I eventually decided to commit to removing all animal products from my diet and, where possible, my lifestyle. I will admit that I had also, somewhat naively, bought into the myth that veganism could help alleviate the symptoms of chronic illness. A notion that 3 years of progressive ill health on a vegan diet has disabused me of.
Once I had made the choice to commit to being vegan, I found it relatively easy to do. I have certain privileges that allow me to follow this diet with minimal difficulty. I have people to do my shopping and food preparation for me when I cannot do it myself. I have the cognitive ability and internet access to research nutrition, and I have access to the funds necessary to supplement my diet appropriately. I am also in a position to afford the more luxurious vegan treats occasionally, to keep my diet varied and enjoyable.
As I became more committed to my veganism, I began to join various online vegan spaces, keen to learn more about animal rights, vegan recipes, nutrition, cooking tips and other vegan products available. I quickly became aware that so many of these spaces were not inclusive. I’m in the camp of vegans that thinks we should respect other people’s choices when it comes to their veganism, even if they aren’t doing it as strictly as we would like them to. And I also firmly believe that a vegan diet and lifestyle is just not possible or accessible for everyone. Sadly, I’ve seen that a large majority of online vegan spaces refuse to accept this. So many of these groups seem to view veganism as a black and white issue, and if you’re not vegan the only possible reason could be that you just don’t want to be or don’t care enough to try. Like all things in life, veganism is not a black and white issue. I believe that it is possible to care about animal welfare and still eat meat. I believe that there are other ways to combat climate change. I also believe that another person’s diet is a deeply personal thing and, frankly, none of my business.
I know that vegans believe passionately in ending any form of animal harm or exploitation, and care deeply about the environment. I think it’s admirable that so many people live and breathe the lifestyle and the cause, and I know so many brilliant, open-minded, caring vegans who are willing to listen to other points of view without judgement. So I’m sure this is going to be a little inflammatory but I do believe that veganism movement as a whole has a huge ableism problem. I am generalising of course, but this certainly isn’t a rare issue or a case of “a few bad apples”. This is something I’ve heard discussed in online disabled spaces for years now. This week, out of curiosity, I ran a survey for my online disabled friends – those who either are vegan, have tried it or wish to – and asked if they had experienced or witnessed ableism within the mainstream veganism movement or online vegan spaces. Out of 147 people who responded, 85% said yes. Of course, this is anecdotal, but I really think it’s an issue that needs to be acknowledged.
Just this week I have left another online vegan group I was in because it felt ableist and unsafe. This is about the fourth or fifth online vegan space I have left now for the same reason. I shared a post which asked people to remember that veganism is not possible or accessible for everyone – particularly many sick and disabled people – and that for some, it is downright dangerous. I had hoped that people would understand this, and yet it was the exact opposite. In fact, whenever I have tried to raise this I have been met with derision and sometimes verbal abuse.
Over the last couple of years of I have seen so many of my disabled friends discuss online their feelings that veganism, as a movement is not very inclusive or accommodating of those with disabilities, which I find more than a little ironic. How can you purport to be about protecting life but not extend that same respect to the lives of sick and disabled people within, or even outside of your movement? Any time I have asked people in my online vegan spaces to be respectful of other people’s approaches to their veganism, or to listen when someone says it is inaccessible to them, I was met with ignorance and disbelief. Of course, this is a generalisation, and I know there are lots of vegans who will listen and take this on board. But I can’t overlook the fact that there is a prevalence of ableist attitudes within these spaces.
I wanted to hear from other sick and disabled folk about their experiences of this, and so I reached out on my Instagram and asked people who have wanted to, or tried to go vegan why it wasn’t safe, accessible or possible for them. I received heaps of replies, and I have organised them into loose categories below. As much as I would love people to just listen and believe sick and disabled folk when they say something is not accessible to them, without having to provide examples or proof, I also understand that is sadly not the world we live in. So I’m hoping that by sharing these I could help enlighten those who assume veganism works for everyone, and to encourage people to be a more open minded and less combative.
Cooking & Prep Inaccessibility, Disability & Chronic Illness
“For many recipes there is a lot of prep, so it makes it difficult at times.”
“My diet is limited by what I have the energy to prepare, eat and tidy.”
“I have difficulty cutting/prepping veg.”
“I don’t have the energy to cook more, I just need fast, easy and cheap things to eat.”
“A lot of the easy meals I rely on when I’m ill aren’t vegan. I have a kettle next to my bed for if I literally can’t get out of bed, and so only eat whatever can be made with a kettle – like pot noodles, pasta pots etc. I’ve found hardly any of these that are vegan.”
“I have M.E and IBS, so it takes immense amounts of energy to cook it. And I cook for a family who probably wouldn’t want to go vegan, so it would mean cooking twice.”
“I have CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) – I don’t have the money to buy vegan ready meals that I can depend on when I regularly can’t cook or prepare a meal from scratch.”
“My executive dysfunction makes it so that I forget to eat. When I do remember to eat vegan, I lose unnecessary weight if I’m only eating vegan meals.”
“I don’t have the energy to cook from scratch nor the money to buy expensive ingredients, plus I struggle with many food intolerances.”
“I don’t have the energy to cook more. I need fast, easy, cheap things to eat.”
Dietary and Health Reasons: Allergies, Intolerances, Gastrointestinal Issues, Neurodivergence
“I have been advised to eat meat by an experienced nutritionist, to help manage my M.E and that works for me.”
“I have MCAS (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome) and Gastroparesis, and so I literally can’t eat 90% of foods.
“My medication that I need to live comes from Cow’s Thyroid.”
“I was vegan for a year, but it made me so unwell. So now I eat chicken and eggs. It helps my Crohns Fatigue.”
“I have ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.”
“I’m iron and B12 anemic, but maybe I could supplement enough?” (I will add here that I find that good quality supplements are notoriously expensive and therefore largely inaccessible)
“Diet is limited: I experience bloating and flare ups.”
“I have MCAS (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome) and I am allergic to plant based proteins, so my only option is meat.”
“It made me really ill. I’ve got loads of food intolerances so have to cut out a lot of things already.”
“My body can’t fully digest plant proteins so I can’t absorb the nutrients I need and become deficient, even though the meals I ate were nutritionally balanced.”
“I’m intolerant to nearly all plant-based protein.”
“I have an extremely small amount of foods that do not make me ill – including meat and dairy.”
“My MCAS (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome) and allergies make vegan protein sources potentially life threatening.”
“My GI system doesn’t tolerate most vegan proteins. I can’t live on nuts alone.”
“I have severe allergies to all grains and legumes.”
“I have pernicious anaemia and a bunch of other malabsorption issues, so I struggle to get everything I need from a plant-based diet. I also can’t have dairy, so it seems like a natural alliance but just mentioning needing animal protein to survive kicks off disbelief and harm.”
“I need to follow a low FODMAP diet which removes most pulses, grains, fruit and veg.”
“Intense food aversion/nausea/gagging etc. Dairy is my only protein.”
“I have cystic fibrosis; the supplements aren’t enough for me.”
“My body has the hardest time with getting nutrients as it is. Plus, vegan products are really expensive where I live.”
“I have IBD – I struggle with beans, bread, raw veg. Vegan cheese gives me reflux. Plus, I can’t hold on to B12 or iron and I’m now anaemic. I still won’t eat meat, but I do eat eggs.”
“I need collagen, iron and protein in amounts that wouldn’t be affordable to me if I were to eat a completely vegan diet.”
“It just doesn’t work with my IBD.”
“My body can’t process carbs, and to be well enough to function I need meat and veg.”
“Eating a high veg content diet upsets my stomach so much, and only eggs and meat solve it.”
“I’m intolerant to soy, gluten and pea and mushroom protein. They cause M.E crashes and impact my IBS.”
“It almost killed me by causing bleeding ulcers in my colon.”
“I have Urea Cycle Disorder and a ton of food allergies and food sensitivities. I am vegetarian and, for a time, I was vegan, but it is too restrictive for my needs and I became extremely orthorexic, trying to get nutrients from food with such limited options. I felt sick constantly because I wasn’t eating things my body could tolerate.”
“No soy, no legumes. My body feels best when I eat meat and I’m not going to feel bad.”
“If you have endometriosis or even bad periods, soy can be a massive trigger.”
“Due to sensory issues because of my autism there are fewer foods that I like than dislike, and the worst is vegetables. There are so few veg and pulses, grains etc that I can eat easily. For environmental and animal rights reasons I’ve cut down my meat and animal products but there’s only so far I can do that.”
"Introducing any new foods is difficult for me because I'm autistic."
“I have a history of anorexia, so cutting out food groups/restricting my diet in any way would be extremely triggering.”
“I have had eating disorders in the past, and they started with veganism.”
“I had bulimia for 15 years. No restrictive diet is safe. I also have gastro issues so veg is a minefield. Also, I have to take essential meds with food so I have to just eat whatever I can access. But I feel super guilty about it, especially when everything is about Veganuary just now.”
“I have an eating disorder and while there are lots of vegan options, it always feels like I’m restricting. Going back to eating meat has been so much easier and less stressful.”
“I don’t have the ability to cook fresh meals and vegan ready meals are more expensive.”
“I simply don’t have the money on welfare to source and prepare wholly vegan meals.”
“The supplements needed are too expensive.”
“Although it is better than it once was, vegan products are still largely more expensive. Also, I am a coeliac and it is hard to find vegan AND gluten free options.”
“Potentially I could experiment with more supplements, but I already spend so much on these.”
“Vegan ready/easy meals are too expensive and I’m unable to cook from scratch (without carers). I had 2 vegans tell me I could just eat rice and veg, but I just don’t think that’s healthy so staying vegetarian for now.”
“I don’t have the ability – physical nor financial – to shop regularly for fresh veg.”
False claims of cures, ableism within the movement and other inclusivity issues
“Veganism is so often touted as a “cure” to my chronic illness – it isn’t.”
“Most info/communities I’ve found were super fatphobic, diet culture-driven and healthist.”
“Online vegan spaces became unsafe for me after telling people I won’t listen to stories of their friend/relative being “cured” by veganism.”
“Maintaining it often means needing to shop at several different places. This isn’t possible for me, as I am housebound and limited by costs and access.”
“My local supermarket doesn’t have much choice and I’m too ill to go searching multiple shops.”
“Honestly, I have that hard a time just keeping myself alive some days that I don’t have the bandwidth to even consider completely overhauling my diet.”
This is just a sample of the answers I received. There are so many people for whom veganism isn’t safe, possible or accessible and a lot people shared with me their less than pleasant experiences in online vegan spaces when they had tried to raise these issues.
Ultimately, I feel this boils down to the fact that we, as a society, still do not value disabled people. Disabled people are usually the last people to be considered or included, anywhere. It is also clear to me that we still have such a poor understanding of long-term incurable illnesses. Especially those that cause chronic fatigue. So many of the responses I got from the people in my vegan group were arguing that veganism is accessible for everyone because, for example, vegetables are cheaper than meat. Vegetables do not a meal make, though do they? Who is washing the veg? Chopping and preparing it? Cooking it with the other ingredients needed to make it into a meal? I just don’t think healthy, non-disabled people can imagine that some people have neither the energy nor the strength to do little more than ping a ready meal in the microwave. And that’s on a good day. There is still such a large gap in public knowledge when it comes to chronic conditions, that when I’ve raised these arguments people refuse to believe me and have insinuated that these people simply aren’t trying hard enough. And we all know that people with certain chronic conditions and disabilities are met with this attitude in all corners of society, and to put it bluntly it’s shit and really hurtful.
So, if you are a non-disabled vegan reading this please remember that if someone tells us something is unsafe or inaccessible to them it is not our job to question this or convince them otherwise, no matter how passionately you believe in your cause. They are not “looking for excuses”, they are doing what they need to do to keep themselves safe. They know their body best. It is never ok to assume you understand someone else’s access needs, or what kind of diet is best for their body. If, and only if, a person is asking for help or advice should we ask what the barriers to access are and see if it possible to help remove some of those barriers for them or find workarounds.
I love animals and I believe passionately in animal rights. But I also believe in a person’s right to make personal decisions that keep them safe and healthy. Especially if that person is sick or disabled and therefore facing barriers you know nothing about. If you are a healthy, non-disabled person you have absolutely no idea what it takes to maintain a sick body, or even to exist in a world that constantly devalues and harms you. You do not have the right to guilt anyone about the choices they make to keep themselves safe and as healthy as possible, no matter how noble you believe your intentions to be.
You are not being revolutionary when you attack these people, you’re just being ableist and, honestly, a bit of a twat. So stop it.
To my lovely vegan friends who already know and understand this, I thank you. I was complaining to one vegan pal about my experience online and how sad it had made me feel, and she reminded me that although some people refuse to hear it, there are plenty who listen and learn. And for each person who does this little seed is planted, that will hopefully one day grow into a great big, gorgeous forest of juicy disability inclusion. Or something.
Sorry about the naff metaphor, I am very tired and haven’t taken my B12 for a few days.
Just wanted to add that I am aware that mainstream veganism, like all areas of society, also has a racism problem. I haven’t addressed this here because I don’t feel I am informed enough about it yet and that my voice isn’t the one you should be listening to on this subject. I am currently doing as much reading as my disability will allow, to educate myself on this and when I have the energy I will write a wee something to signpost you to the Black, brown and indigenous folk who are already doing work on this and have been for years. Those are the voices we need to be centring and listening to. If you have any recommendations for me, please do send them my way. I’m keen to learn more about this.