Ableism within traditional conceptions of veganism

The number of people who describe themselves as “vegan” is increasing rapidly. From 2014 to 2017, the number of vegans in the UK tripled, and in the US increased six-fold. In 2018, a greater proportion of Australians Googled the word “vegan” than any other nationality. In addition to these persistent upward trends; over the past few years, interested in veganism has been intermittently piqued by events like this month’s Amazon rainforest fires. Incidents like these force us to readjust our perspective on what is abnormal when it comes to environment. As such, it is hardly surprising that lifestyle changes which were once labelled as fringe are now considered in the realm of normal acts of social and ethical consciousness.

In theory, veganism is not just a diet, but a way of life. According to The Vegan Society, the goal of veganism is to avoid the “exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals”. This means that, in the absence of total societal reform, true veganism is currently impossible. As vegan Michele Kaplan describes, “When I go to the market to get vegan food, I go to a market that has a whole section dedicated to meat, eggs and dairy. Therefore, I am essentially, though indirectly, financially supporting a business that profits from the animal agriculture industry.”

So, calling oneself a vegan requires that you make certain concessions. The Vegan Society itself includes in its definition of veganism the phrase “as far as is possible and practicable”. Such a disclaimer gives the impression that veganism is inherently adaptable – that veganism could look different for people with different circumstances, that constrain their control over their consumption of animals.

But the reality of the situation is very different. As a member of the vegan community, Kaplan describes that “there is this idea in the animal rights community, that there is no such thing as a half or partial vegan. You either do it 100% hardcore or you can not [sic] claim the label. And if you can’t call yourself vegan, then you are deemed as an unethical and a lousy human being.”

She continues, “This in itself is ableist because if a person is legitimately not able to go the 100%, then they shouldn’t be shamed for that.”

The vegan community was built from, and exists within, an ableist society. It should therefore come as no surprise that (in the words of activist and poet Selena Caemawr) ableism is “rife within [the] community”. Whilst the vast majority of vegans do not engage in online-abuse or public-shaming of disabled folk; where vegan activists do overstep the line, it simply throws light on the issues with the current conceptualisation of veganism.

Kaplan herself is disabled. She describes having to use non-vegan goods which able-bodied people could avoid – for instance, relying on food deliveries in plastic bags which contain animal biproducts. However, according to the Vegan Society, this would disqualify her from being able to call herself a vegan:

 “one thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods…as well as avoiding animal-derived materials, products tested on animals and places that use animals for entertainment.”

The Vegan Society’s ideas about what is practicable and possible clearly neglect considerations of disability. Aside from the fact that living in an inaccessible society can change the realms of what is “practicable” for disabled folk (e.g. a lack of access preventing people from being able to use certain shops); some disabilities are associated with medical issues which mean that adopting a plant-based diet, or using certain medications, would be completely im-“possible”.

Even where animal-rights activists are able to accept that some people cannot avoid the consumption of animal products, the response is usually of despondency. Rather than embracing different abilities and access requirements, the vegan community would rather just reluctantly accept that “veganism” isn’t possible for everyone.

But does this sort of response offer a solution to the ableism within the vegan community? It seems, rather, to imply that it is disabled folk who are broken, rather than veganism itself.

Veganism could be inclusive – if only it were understood as a more fluid, and therefore more inclusive, concept. Given that the consumption of meat and dairy is most tangibly related to the exploitation of animals, it makes sense as to why a plant-based diet is often seen as the key pillar of a veganism. However, making this a “requirement” for assuming the identity of vegan is no more than an exercise in gatekeeping.

The assumption that becoming (what is traditionally conceptualised a) is a vegan is the only ethical way of inhabiting our planet is short-sighted at best, and damaging at worst. For a start, veganism only really directly addresses animal welfare for domesticated species. Furthermore, livestock farming is also only one factor contributing climate change and deforestation.

Vegan communities have the potential to be great platforms for promoting environmental and ecological consciousness. As veganism increases in popularity, the only way to fully exploit the power of veganism will be to restructure and redefine veganism, so that it is accessible for all.