Speciesism and Disability: Thoughts on disabled bodies, neurodivergent brains and cross-species bonds
By Agnes Trzak
Let me start with an anecdote from a talk about ableism and speciesism I gave a while back. The discussion moderator, someone I personally admire, had prepared some questions for me and prefaced the discussion with a self-deprecating sentence along the lines of: “I am not good with big words….and maybe I am too stupid” before asking interesting questions about my work.
This stuck with me, as I felt great shame for making anyone engaging with my work feel inadequate by using “big words” – that is, inaccessible discourse designed to gatekeep knowledge.
I am sure some of you have encountered similar sentiments towards your work, especially if you present outside of universities, where people are still less afraid to admit they don’t know something. Or perhaps you have also made a little self-deprecating joke before posing your question to a panelist at a conference. More often than not it is younger activists and thinkers who are not men that feel the urge to introduce their line of thought when engaging with academic work with a sentence that positions their curiosity and intelligence hierarchically lower to the author of said work.
Regardless, it was not until that recent talk where I started wondering, why, I was still perpetuating the very thing that made me leave academia behind: This rigid way of producing knowledge and scripting thought that allows Eurocentric ableist society to ascribe social and monetary value to my writing and speech. Why could I not present my thoughts and texts the way that comes naturally to me and makes them more accessible to others and myself?
It occurred to me that in my academic work, like in many other areas of life I was masking. Masking is the effort neurodivergent people put into presenting and passing as neurotypical and non-disabled, so as to avoid exclusion and discrimination. We hide the nature of the way we express ourselves, cognitively, verbally and through our bodies, by adapting it to dominant, neurotypical styles of communication that are rewarded by an ableist society.
When I am not masking, I communicate in a non-linear, more intense and urgent way – especially in verbal interactions. I often find it hard to focus on more pertinent aspects of the point I am trying to convey and give a lot of seemingly irrelevant context. This is often an inconvenience to neurotypicals participating in a conversation with me. Because I am now dedicated to unmasking, and exploring my idiosyncratic style of communication you are officially warned, that you might be in for a ride with this text. But instead of wondering where that ride might be taking you and where it might end, I invite you to engage with each sentence and each word as you receive it. I invite you to leave behind the rigidity of an introduction, a main part and a conclusion, and feel free to pick and choose what is relevant and significant to you at any given time. Dislodge my words as far as possible from a wider context of meaning and try to refrain from categorising and comparing what I communicate to signifiers that you are already familiar with.
So this text is about ableism – this system of oppression that discriminates against disabled bodies and minds. A system that removes them, removes us, from society whilst simultaneously examining us, opening us up, cutting us open, scanning our bodies and seeing into our brains, so as to identify and name us, pathologise, medicalise and assimilate us.
I will also write about speciesism, the system of oppression that discriminates against those categorised as animals or those who are not considered human-enough. Individuals that are assigned species other than homo sapiens, but also individuals categorised as homo sapiens who might be dehumanised in the dominant socio-political context, including disabled people.
The questions I want to explore today surround the ideas of moral consideration. In Eurocentric capitalist patriarchy, that I am part of: Who receives and who distributes the right to aid, care, love and dignity? I reflected on these questions in a chapter for the book Disability and Animality: Crip Perspectives in Critical Animal Studies (Taylor et al., 2020).
“It was the end of summer when I was introduced to Nica, who had suffered a stroke during her journey from Romania to Germany, having been crammed into a trailer amongst many other, much bigger dogs who had nowhere but the trailer to relieve themselves. Ever since that experience she was struggling to walk in a straight line or stand still; she could reach her water and food bowls only with great difficulty. During the first few days living with this dog who, due to a veterinarian’s estimate, we were expecting to die any minute, my emotions alternated between admiration for these kind-hearted humans who took this old, disabled dog into their care and strong doubt regarding the quality of life she had. I almost instantly became aware of the ableism that produces both of these feelings. Similarly, finding out how to relate to Nica was hard at the beginning for two reasons. Firstly, I had never cared for a dog with whom I could not communicate by decoding typical behaviors, such as tail wagging, their tone of voice and their ear movement. I knew getting to know her would take more time than it would take with other dogs. Secondly, the social contract between me and my new housemates, whom I was also getting to know, made it hard for me to voice any suggestions regarding Nica’s care when I first moved in”.
Even though my new housemates and I shared common anti-speciesist and anti-capitalist values, the feeling of me living in their house and Nica being their dog made it initially difficult for me to relate to Nica the way my own moral compass and capabilities would allow.
Nica and I quickly developed a bond and I understood her gentle ways of communicating with me through subtle gestures such as slightly lifting her paw when wanting to leave her bed or smacking her lips for water. I was used to dogs making themselves perceptible to me rather overtly, whereas I had to pay continuous attention to Nica’s gentle communication. Even though at this stage she was painfree Nica was medically categorized as a dying dog, even a dog not worth keeping alive, as she could not care for herself and could only barely ask for help from humans. She could not fulfill the cliché meaning we ascribe to dogs as man’s best friend.
As I describe in Disability and Animality: “Nica ruptured this clear cut purpose of having a dog. She could not fulfill the role of a happy-go-lucky dog, frolicking in the yard, interacting with other dogs and humans. Instead she was utterly dependent on us humans. This made it very easy for outsiders to comment on our “keeping her alive for no purpose,” tying the purpose of Nica’s existence completely to the entertainment of humans that they could no longer see her providing. This logic assumes that the purpose of a dog’s existence lies only in their relation to humans.
Nica’s role as a valuable part of the community in our household and her intrinsic value were lost on anybody who could not perceive her without animalizing and objectifying her existence.
When Nica’s hind legs weakened, she used a wheelchair which gave her the stability she needed to walk straight. Now what was really interesting however is that Prior to this, Nica had been constructed as a “poor” dog, suffering under my inability to let go of her. In her wheelchair, however, her presence in public had a very different effect on people: she was fetishized as cute, strong and a “little fighter,” whereas people met me with admiration and compliments for being “kind” and “empathetic” (2020:82).
In the same text I also describe co-habiting with a dozen ducks in the same household, I shared with Nica: “They had their own fenced-off area in the yard that they could leave, a pond and a shed to sleep in as well as two lakes very close to the house. Despite that, the ducks stayed in the yard, where they enjoyed regular, guaranteed meal times and relative safety. After an attack by predators, however, one duck was badly injured, suffering from an open wound under the wings and immobility.
Her wounds were deep and her legs seemed broken as she slid across the ground. The responsibilities we, as humans, had towards this duck were not as obvious to us as they were with our canine companion Nica. In the system of signs and meanings that I have learnt, ducks represent wild animals who, in general, are far less exposed to humans than domesticated animals. We don’t give them names, we don’t coddle them, nor do they depend on us for food and walks. This particular duck however did share a home with us and she did depend on us for sustenance. I suspect that it is this rupture of the clear line between “wild” and “domesticated”, that made my housemates and me debate our ethical responsibilities after the attack that left the duck injured and disabled.
Shocked and under pressure to relieve the duck from her pain we discussed all the options we could think of: we could simply not intervene, which would let the duck either recuperate or die a dignified death without additional stress caused by our intervention. Another option briefly addressed was to help the duck pass on straight away, even using her body as food for the dogs who lived with us. Imagining Nica’s dead body being eaten by other animals caused me great pain, whereas it almost felt to me as if it made sense that we serve a dead duck to the dogs. Both of these emotions are completely anthropocentric. Perhaps most striking, however, was the fact that killing the duck was made an option so early on in our conversation. Perhaps this was because death is understood as relief from suffering or perhaps it was because caring for someone is seen as a burden. At this stage we had no idea whether we were dealing with a temporary injury or expecting to care for a long-term disabled animal.
As the result of our discussion, we decided to intervene, remove the duck from the others and bring her inside. Providing human ways of care to her, keeping her wound clean, her body warm and her environment quiet and dark, we were hoping she would survive and not die from the additional strain we were putting on her through intervening. Friends and family whom we had told about the incident, univocally supported and even applauded us for caring for this animal. Whereas with Nica many people judged our actions as ridiculous or even cruel, not a single doubt from outsiders was voiced with regards to what we were doing with and to the duck” (ibid.).
Aiyana Goodfellow recently initiated a project dedicated to “Radical Companionship” by which gives words to the approach I usually try to take when relating to others. The concept of “Radical Companionship” describes exactly what I have been trying to express in my writing about the relationship to Nica and the duck, and really all animals I shared dwellings with over the years.
“Radical Companionship” Aiyana Goodfellow writes on the project’s website (www.radicalcompanionship.com) “is a developing theory for evolving our relationships with others through an anti-speciesist, utopian lens.[…]. The ideas behind Radical Companionship generally focus on human-nonhuman relationships, particularly those we share with “companion animals”, or […] animals colonised into pethood. […] At a basic level, Radical Companionship is a way of creating thoughtful interspecies relationships in a way that evokes liberation-oriented principles. Radical Companionship is flexible – and to an extent vague – so there is lots of space for growth and additional thought. This theory is a refusal of the binary dualism between humans and nonhumans. I wish to embrace the chaos of multispecies anarchy.”
Taking Aiyana Goodfellow’s words into account, it becomes even clearer that my account of living with Nica and the duck was only one aspect of the many ways the animals and I related to each other and is obviously just a succinct summary of the time I spent with Nica and the duck, who by the way, after many weeks in isolation, expressed very clearly her need to return to her family and so was reintroduced successfully. I was definitely guided by a version of “radical companionship”, however I could still not completely dislodge myself from the traditional human-animal divide and found myself being subjected to all kinds of questioning, evaluating and at times passing of judgment on topics such as the quality of life of the animals, my ethics and my sanity. We also kept re-evaluating the extent of responsibility for the animals´ lives and deaths and the necessary amount of intervention. I also noticed a continuous change in feelings for the animals I cared for. To what extent did I care for them because my local and temporal trajectory in life overlapped with theirs and to what extent did I build a friendship, perhaps even a loving relationship with both individuals? These are obviously not mutually exclusive conditions.
To explore these questions I find it useful to think about the concept of humanness. I think it has a lot to do with how we learn to dehumanise some individuals to elevate the status and moral consideration of others through a process of comparing them against each other.
I like to do this little exercise with my readers to point out how deeply entrenched the intersection of ableism and speciesism really is in our minds: Let us think about humanness. What makes us human? Is there something that distinguishes humans from other species? What makes humans different from a stone or a plant or a squid? Take a moment and without judging your own thoughts, reflect on that question. What makes you specifically human? Are you thinking about biological specificities? Perhaps spiritual ones? Any specific capabilities that only humans might have? Perhaps these are some that might come to mind:
- The capacity to feel and to express feelings such as grieve, pain,
- The capacity to communicate, use vocabulary and understand grammatical
- Anatomy: Our human-specific physiology, our bodies’ bio-
- The concept of reason, reflection,
- The idea of an economy and the exchange of goods, the production of
- A sense of spirituality and feeling part of something Faith.
This is a list of what Eurocentric patriarchy teaches us to be specifically human features. It is obviously incredibly flawed and it pinpoints the intersection of speciesism and ableism very well. Firstly, because examples of all of these, communication, feelings, reason etc. can be found amongst non-human species as well. And secondly because the way humans embody and express these items varies greatly and not everyone who was assigned to the human species, can or wants to comply with these characteristics. Thus these features are not specifically human.
Nonetheless in Eurocentric society we do tend to think of these features as distinctly human or at least more human than animal. This is so, because from a very early age dominant society teaches us to categorise everything we perceive into systems of hierarchies, where what we code as “human” traits are given more moral consideration and value than “animal” traits – whatever these might be. Of course, these hierarchies are dependent on the time and place we find ourselves in Mel Y Chen, shows in their work on “Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect” (2012) how we create grammatical structures of hierarchical ordering, giving most value to the subjects we are most familiar with, the ones that are best represented and most dominant in our communities and we animalise and objectify others, who are less relevant to our lived experience. This rings true across most languages. Who is more or less represented depends on the circumstances we find ourselves in, the languages that we speak and the location we occupy.
I am speaking from a Eurocentric patriarchal capitalist point of view, where the most represented and familiar body is that of the abled white cis man. We are experiencing a growth in awareness at the moment where we are coming to understand that the hierarchies that place him at the forefront of representation are socially constructed. Social constructs can be disassembled and reassembled and changed and discarded. However even though we are slowly coming to understand that the hierarchies are social, we still very much assume that the discrimination that follows these hierarchies is natural. The under/ and misrepresentation, exclusion and disregard for anyone who cannot or will not assimilate and present as the archetype of “abled white cis human man” is still very much naturalised, a fact of nature, fixed by the laws of the hard sciences and thus unchangeable.
This becomes most obvious when examining the mechanics of dehumanisation and objectification in ableism and speciesism.
Discrimination againstis so difficult to identify because differences in ability and species are still naturalised and so their exclusion from dominant society goes unnoticed and is justified – obviously falsely justified. Similar to other “natural” differences such as those of the colour of our eyes or our skin, differences in ability as well as species are natural. They occur in nature and are not necessarily manufactured. However the superiority of one individual over another based on this natural difference is indeed manufactured.
The artifice of this system becomes clear when we distinguish between the medical model and the social model of understanding disability. The medical model holds that a disability is the result of a physical condition that causes the affected individual to experience a decreased quality of life. This model makes disability a biological and thus intrinsic part of the disabled person. It naturalises the circumstances, placing the focus of the narrative on a lack the person is organically experiencing. This train of thought assumes a normative state, one that is more complete and better and one that the disabled person diverges from.
The social model of disability however, acknowledges the natural differences between people but in turn shows that people are disabled, made less able, by the environment they are placed in.
This approach does not assume disability to be a lack or fault compared to normative bodies and minds, but rather acknowledges that barriers are created by society. The focus here lies not on the disabled person to prove their disability or their willingness and ability to “overcome” what disables them, but rather on the normative, represented and dominant part of society to make life more accessible and inclusive.
Following the medical model disability, bodily non-conformity, abnormality and a misfitting into one’s environment under capitalism are constructed as impairments and drawbacks; a lack.
Disability is pathologised and so becomes something that is to be treated with different forms of therapy in order to be cured or otherwise overcome.
This also means then, that the responsibility is placed with the disabled person to become abled-enough to participate in society, instead of society to become inclusive enough to make our sociopolitical infrastructures accessible to disabled people, for dehumanised people, and for individuals of other species.
Sunaura Taylor (Animal Crips, in Taylor 2020) makes clear the fallacy of this medical understanding of disability by juxtaposing the concepts of “cognitive empathy” and “learned adjustment”.
With a cognitive empathy approach to disability an able-bodied person will assume and imagine what it would be like to be disabled, but as Taylor reminds us “This imagining might not be accurate, and more important, it is only possible with disabilities and injuries with which we ourselves are familiar – ones that are diagnosable and recognizable within our culture” (2020: 17). So – ones that have already been named, defined and discovered by dominant culture.
Whereas with a learned adjustment approach towards disability, to put it very simply, the able-bodied person will refrain from assumptions about the disabled person they encounter and instead adjust their behaviour to accommodate the other person.
It is this medical model based on cognitive empathy that makes room for the idea that disability and animality are comparable, as we measure ability based on performance criteria that are constructed as specifically neurotypical, able-bodied and human.
A growing number of disability and animal activists, including Taylor, urge us to turn our backs on this train of thought as it is the crux of many rights and personhood debates for and against the ethical consideration of disabled and/or animal individuals and will always lead only to the elevation in moral status of some and the continued disregard for others. So for example, an able-bodied chimpanzee or a dolphin are considered highly intelligent and might so be granted more status than a cognitively disabled person.
There is also an additional layer to the intersection between ableism and speciesism which becomes obvious when considering examples of how non-human animals are affected by disability as well as how humans are disabled for caring about non-humans.
Animals in captivity (this can also include our companion animals) are routinely pathologised and diagnosed with madness when for example acting out against their oppressors. When captive animals become harmful towards the humans that hold them prisoner, or when they self-harm, these animals are routinely diagnosed. Either they are put on medication to tame them, make them more “manageable”, or they are disabled physically by common practices such as debeaking or dehorning for example. Often, of course, the cheapest option is to kill the resisting animal. Either way, all three scenarios remove agency from the animals and disable them.
I try not to give graphic descriptions of violence in my texts and I am sure that many of you are familiar with common industry practices in so called “livestock” business, but I would like to draw our attention to “farmed animals” for a moment: On most farms, bodies that are so far animalised that they are constructed as “edible”, are routinely disabled by either the brutal treatment they experience, or the built environments they find themselves in as well as hormonal drugs that manufactures their physiology and anatomy to maximise profit.
This quote by Chloe Taylor and Kelly Struthers Montford succinctly summarises how the animal farming industry contributes to disability of humans and non-humans:
“All of this disabling of animals takes place in an industry that pollutes the environment, which can produce further disability, in order to produce foods that cause health problems for consumers, and hence even more disability. The high rates of repetitive strain injuries and disabling workplace accidents in slaughterhouses, as well as the psychological harms caused by industrial slaughter of animals, are also noted in vegan and animal activist literature” (2020: 137).
People refusing to participate in this industry are also routinely pathologised. For example: Orthorexia Nervosa, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder and other selective eating disorders are frequently diagnosed by medical professionals if one refuses to partake in carnism, the speciesist act of consuming the bodies of those who have been animalised.
And let us not forget that many animal liberation activists bearing witness to the cruelty against animals and disrupting it through direct action also suffer from the results of the trauma they experience. Not only is this secondary trauma from bearing witness to someone else’s suffering but also do their own bodies have to withstand the force of those securing the continuation of animal industries, such as farmers or “live stock” lorry drivers, zoo and aquarium keepers and animal trainers in circuses, and the law enforcement securing their businesses run smoothly. Not rarely, judicially the structures are in place to also long-term criminalise activists who are then removed from society and long-term incapacitated. Further, experiences like these then lead to PTSD, Anxiety and Panic, and Depression for example.
So where does this insight into the processes that disable and dehumanise individuals -no matter of what species – leave us? In capitalist Eurocentric patriarchy a lot of anti-discrimination and inclusion work is advocating for rights and personhood of those ostracised, violated and injured by dominant society. Following the logic of rights and personhood, those who are human-enough, are granted rights to influence the shape and form of the society they live in. The idea is then, that we as individuals have to prove that we are human-enough, capable-enough to make decisions about our own lives and gain grounds to actively participate in shaping the communities we want to live in. We have to prove that we have the capacity to express ourselves enough to be understood by the dominant culture. In other words, we have to assimilate to be considered of moral value and to be given agency and access.
Assimilation is not the process of making equal but rather the process of homogenisation, of becoming the same. When we assimilate ourselves or when we are assimilated, we camouflage our differences in thought, we hide our bodies, we deny our perception of the world and our own desires in favor of being perceived as more human and so being granted more agency. It is precisely this mechanism, that lies at the essence of masking and brings us back to the beginning of this text: Disability and Animal liberation activists and scholars offer many philosophical and concrete infrastructural solutions to dismantle and undo ableist and speciesist oppression but it is up to those who are privileged by these systems, who uphold these systems, to relinquish their positions of power and give up their space.
Chen, M.Y. (2012). Animacies : biopolitics, racial mattering, and queer affect. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
Goodfellow, Aiyana <www.radicalcompanionship.com> accessed: 31.5.22
Taylor, S. (2020) “Animal Crips”, in Disability and Animality: Crip Perspectives in Critical Animal Studies, Stephanie Jenkins et al. (eds.) (2020). New York: Routledge. pp. 13-34.
Taylor, C. and Struthers Montford, K. (2020) “Veganism as Universal Design: Accommodation and Inclusion in Law and Social Justice Practice”, in Disability and Animality: Crip Perspectives in Critical Animal Studies, Stephanie Jenkins et al. (eds.) (2020). New York: Routledge. pp. 129-157.
Agnes Trzak is an educator, activist, and scholar, specializing in anti-speciesist theory and the deconstruction of the (Hu)man, a term originating from her doctoral thesis. She is also the founder of the Anti-Speciesist Collective, a grassroots group run for and by non-binary people and women to facilitate accessibility to knowledge and, through this, empower those on the margin to take action for humans and animals. She works as an integration pedagogue with primary school children and is currently located in Berlin.