December Rewind: Alice Wong Says #SuckItAbleism
In 2018, the internet lit up with debates about plastic straw bans. Disabled activist Alice Wong talks about how these kinds of conversations silence the voices of disabled people.
Hey friends. For the rest of the year, we’re bringing back old episodes of Boss Barista. Part of the reason we’re doing this is because the community of listeners who are part of Boss Barista is so different than it was just a few years ago. But also, many of these episodes carry lessons and ideas that I still carry with me and are worth revisiting. If you haven’t subscribed to the newsletter yet, here’s a handy link to do so:
Below, you’ll find an episode from Alice Wong, editor and founder of the Disability Visibility Project. Back when this episode aired in August 2018, there was a lot of talk about bans on plastic straws, with many arguing that they were wasteful and bad for the environment. Alice came on the show and rightly challenged that idea, saying that the straw-ban debate erased the perspectives of disabled people and was an example of performative environmentalism. Since this episode aired, Alice has edited a book called Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. You can pick up her book; visit her website, DisabilityVisibilityProject.com; check out the podcast that Alice works on—and listen to our conversation. Here’s the episode:
Ashley: Oh, man. We’re doing this. So could you introduce yourself to us?
Alice: OK. Hi, my name is Alice Wong. I live and work in San Francisco. I’m a longtime coffee drinker and a coffee lover, and I’m a disabled activist.
Ashley: You have a project called the Disability Visibility Project. Can you talk a little bit about what that is?
Alice: Yeah! So I founded the Disability Visibility Project in 2014, and it’s basically kind of two things. It’s a campaign to encourage people with disabilities to record their oral histories. I have a community partnership with StoryCorps, which is a national oral history non-profit.
The reason why I started this project is that I don’t see enough media and enough history about our community. So this is my way of giving back and also encouraging people to tell their stories and create their own history. And one thing that’s really exciting about it is that, as a partner with StoryCorps, they have a relationship with the Library of Congress. So anybody who participates has the option of archiving it at the Library of Congress. And since 2014, we have over 140 oral histories recorded so far.
That, to me, is kind of amazing, because this is a gift for the future, and it’s a way of recording who we are right now. And that’s, I think we can think of history as something way back when, but we are constantly creating history. Even right now as we speak, you and I are creating history on Boss Barista!
And the Disability Visibility Project kinda snowballed into an online community. So I have a podcast, just like you, and I have various online communities on Twitter and Facebook. And it’s really giving us a place for us. So that’s kind of what I’m all about.
Ashley: So obviously, you’ve been doing this activism for a long time. But recently, I think your activism sort of intersected with the coffee community because of all the straw bans that have been going on all over the United States and even internationally, I realized.
In your article that you wrote for Eater, you mentioned that, I think, Scotland and Taiwan are moving to removing plastics and removing straws in basically all aspects of life. So can we talk a little bit just about that in general? Like, what were your initial thoughts when you started reading that more and more municipalities were considering banning plastic straws?
Alice: Yeah. I think as I started reading more and more about the ban in Seattle, the ban in Vancouver, you know, I really listened to what disabled people were saying. And on the ground, people were saying how a lot of the decision-makers at the city level were just not really paying attention to what concerns people with disabilities are having.
Each kind of ban is different; some have an exception for people with disabilities, and even that is problematic in itself because of how these exceptions are written and enforced. Again, you know, bans are, I think they really need to be carefully constructed.
And based on my observations of a lot of these bans and this trend toward phasing out plastic straws, a lot of it has been just in reaction to PR campaigns by environmental groups who are just seizing this moment, using celebrities, and raising awareness without really thinking about the implications on actual marginalized people.
And that’s where the performative aspect is really disturbing—because Starbucks announced their [ban], it was really, it made a lot of news when they said they were gonna phase it out. And we’ve seen after the Starbucks ban that so many other larger [companies such as] Shake Shack, all over the country and the world, large corporations are doing this.
And this is part of the, I think, trend toward social responsibility. A lot of these corporations are just trying to appeal to Millennials and really be as “woke” as possible. And I think you know, in the rush and in the urgency to do that, and to do good, they’re really neglecting some real moral concerns. And that’s really unfortunate.
Ashley: What drove you to be more vocal about this on social media? Because you are. You’re pretty active about it on Twitter, and you wrote an article that we mentioned earlier for Eater about some of the responses that you were getting.
Alice: Yeah. The straw ban really is visceral. It really hit me in the gut, because this is about a daily activity: drinking. If that was threatened by, if your right to drink and eat was threatened, I mean, it’s very real. And I think what’s really—and it’s not exaggerated, right—I think what’s really sad is that people think, “Oh, don’t worry about it.”
I’ve had so many non-disabled people online tell me, “Don’t worry. You know, these bans, these exemptions, you’re gonna be fine, you know? There’s no way you would be denied a straw.” And I’m just like, if you just understood what it’s like to be disabled and how every day, even with an apparent visible disability like mine, you are constantly scrutinized.
The microaggressions are just so real that people just assume that everything is going to be OK and that we should all—pun intended—suck it up for the greater good. And I think that’s what’s really missing, is that the conversation has always been about if you’re not with us, you’re against us. And we’re saying this is just another erosion in our way to participate in public, in our ways to be part of society.
Some of my friends online have already shown me these little signs posted at restaurants that are really passive-aggressive about, “We’re not serving, we’re not providing any straws anymore because we care about the environment. Thanks anyway!”
People are actually being really proud of not providing straws, and that, to me, is another sign that—let’s say, people are saying, “Straws are bad,” and they say, “Oh, people with disabilities should bring their own straws.”
So let’s say they bring their own straws and start using them? In this kinda climate, you can imagine the kind of possible harassment or criticism they’ll get just for using a straw in a public space. If you look at Santa Barbara, where they have one of the most punitive bans with really steep fines and even jail time for establishments that provide plastic?
I mean that’s really where you’re creating conditions that send a message to people with disabilities, older adults, all kinds of people that may need straws, that your way of life is not welcome. Your way of life is not normative. And what do you do with that? You’re just basically marginalizing us, shoving us away, and telling us that we don’t belong in the same place as you do.
And this is 18 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, after decades of disability rights activism that really fought against segregation and against the days where there were laws called Ugly Laws.
So I’m not sure if you realize this, but in the old days, there were laws that disabled people and all kinds of people were not allowed in a public space because they affected people. Just their mere existence made people uncomfortable. And I really do see a connection between these straw bans and these kinds of historic laws that discriminate.
Ashley: You just said a lot of things that were really interesting, and I kinda wanna unpack some of them. So one of the things I think you mentioned in the straw ban is that there’s this mentality of, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
Ashley: Have you gotten that kind of feedback from people like, “Oh, you must not care about the environment”?
Alice: Yeah. Definitely on Twitter and on Facebook a lot of folks have said, “Well, I just don’t understand why you have to use plastic. Why can’t you use a reusable one?” Or, “Why can’t you use a compostable one?” And then I would explain, and somehow, these explanations are not adequate. And a lot of people straight-up said, “This is what we all have to do in order to reduce plastic pollution.”
And you know, I am all on board with reducing my consumption, but I’m gonna do it in a different way. And I think this is the limitation of this whole movement toward zero waste, that it doesn’t account for different lived experiences. It’s very dogmatic. It should be an ideal, and the way we do it, we should be able to build in flexibility.
People have definitely been very, very confrontational and very aggressive about my own story, about my own life. One person said I look weak. He actually said my story and the way I talked about needing a plastic straw, he’s like, “She seems weak in telling this and explaining this.”
I was just so stunned by that because it’s as if I’m trying to ask for pity or that somehow I’m inviting pity, when I’m just really being honest about where I am and where my relationship is with plastic. And I think we all have to have honest conversations about our own relationships with plastic and with consumption and capitalism. And I just, with everything I do, I try to keep it real.
Ashley: Right. And I think you mentioned in the article too that there are ways that you can cut consumption of plastic—in way, way more drastic ways—and those are things that are not being talked about at all. But even just the idea that you have to justify your story seems to be a big theme, just in activism in general, the fact that you or others in your community say, “Hey, this is a thing we need, or this is a thing that hurts us.” And the question isn’t about, “Oh, how can we help you, or how can we do better?” But the question is, “Well, how does it hurt you?”
Alice: Yeah. And I think it’s been a common occurrence. For anybody who uses Twitter, all they have to do is go to #StrawBan and #SuckItAbleism, which is a hashtag that I think I created, but I’m not really sure if anybody else might’ve thought of that earlier. But you can see a lot of disabled people over and over again being demanded by non-disabled people to explain themselves, to provide free education, and always having to confront not being believed.
And that kind of interrogation is a real example of the power dynamics, as if there’s this sense of entitlement, as if we have to slice and expose so much of ourselves just to say, “Hey, we’re human. We also, we’re just like you,” where actually, that should be the default that our needs are just as valid as yours.
And I think right now, we’re still—it’s 2018—and we’re still at a place where our needs are not, they’re not seen as equal or as important as anybody else’s. So that, to me, has been really telling. And it’s really just a drop in the bucket in terms of the larger conversation about ableism in our culture.
Ashley: Yeah, can you talk a little more about that, and unpack how this issue has really opened up a bigger lens on how we view ableism in our society?
Alice: Yeah, I feel like it’s so ingrained in what we do and how we think and the language we use. I myself am learning all the time. I myself am working on my own internalized ableism. It’s really so much a part of our culture that sometimes we don’t even see it, and it’s really until disabled people have been pointing it out and naming it that we finally really see it fully manifest.
So I think that’s one of the things, one of the reasons why I started the Disability Visibility Project is that for a long time, our stories were told by other people. It might be by a reporter, and it’s framed as inspiration and like, “Oh! Look at these poor disabled people!” Or you know, “Oh, look at these amazing people who are just so angelic or so innocent!”
And often, it’s also told by advocates for us like our parents or non-disabled people who are seen as our representatives. And this is where we really need our space and our own platforms to really be true to ourselves. And this is what ableism does, where we are not centered, and I think a lot of marginalized communities are not centered.
Everything about the representation in the media, we have such a long way to go in terms of Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA folks. So it’s really interesting that disability is often still seen as an afterthought or not even considered in marginalized communities because, again, disability is often seen as this very medicalized, individual thing. That it’s a health problem. It’s something that’s broken or something that’s wrong with an individual.
But really, it’s a culture; it’s a community. And for a lot of folks, it’s a socio-political identity. That’s what it is for me. You know, we are a people, and we have a history. So whenever we center ourselves, I think that’s really the goal, to really shift from this white, cisgender, heteronormative default. In most of our broader conversations, how do we bring in everybody else? And that, to me, is always where I’m gonna be coming from.
Does that answer your question? I hope it does.
Ashley: I think it does. I think I asked a very vague question. With that in mind, we are gonna take a break, and we’ll be right back.
[ambient electronica music break]
Ashley: Welcome back to the show. We are talking with Alice Wong who is the founder of the Disability Visibility Project. And you just talked a little bit about the larger lens of ableism and how it affects the way that we talk about disability. I was wondering, what drove you specifically to activism? When did you start thinking of yourself as an activist?
Alice: You know, I really was reluctant to even use that word for a while because my upbringing is, my training has really been in academia. I went to grad school for sociology. I always thought my world was gonna be about research and teaching. I really became much more politicized as a younger adult, and I think a lot of ... I really became an accidental activist, you know? And I was always worried about identifying as an activist because I really had a very—I think a lot of people have a very—narrow sense of what does it mean to be an activist.
Sometimes I think you have to be somebody who’s a grassroots community organizer, you know, somebody who lays their body on the line, somebody that just gives their all. And I think I really fell into it as just living as a disabled person where I had to advocate for myself versus other kids.
I really realized that systemic change is what it’s all about. It’s about changing the system. It’s about changing institutions. It's about shifting the culture. And that work is much more difficult, and that work really requires collaborations, partnership, and mobilization with multiple movements.
It’s not just about bettering yourself. It’s about how do we lay the [groundwork] for the future generations so that we don’t have to repeat this work again and again?
So you know, I was an accidental activist where in grad school, I started connecting with other disabled students, moving to the Bay Area. You know, San Francisco, I feel really blessed to be in a place where there’s such a vibrant and diverse disabled community so that I really saw the power and the beauty of our community.
And then I became much more comfortable in thinking about how there’s all kinds of activism and all kinds of value. Most of my work is through online communities. There used to be this false divide between different modes of activism. And I do really believe that sharing information, telling our stories, even using Twitter with a hashtag, those are all really effective forms of activism, and they all work well together with other types.
It’s not a contest. They’re not in opposition to one another. They’re just different approaches. So yeah, it took me a long time to be able to say “I’m an activist” out of my own insecurities about what is an Activist with a capital “A.” What does that really mean? Do I even count compared to the other folks who’ve been doing this their entire lives?
So yeah. It’s been ... I’m a constant work in progress, I think.
Ashley: I think you hit on this a little bit: the idea that social media is a really powerful form of activism, and it’s not a contest. Something that I’ve seen a lot recently is this idea that social media activism is not real activism. Like, if you don’t show up, that’s not activism. And I think you touched on that really eloquently, that there are a lot of ways to participate.
And even just like you yourself had to conceptualize this new idea of an activist—because we have these very strict ideas of what they are—but that’s starting to change. Which is really great, ’cause that means that more people can participate and tell their stories.
Alice: Yeah, and I think again, there’s something very ableist about activism in itself where you have to do x, y, z. What does that mean? I think that, what are the normative expectations to be a “real activist”? There are a lot of people with disabilities and a lot of folks that can’t travel. For example, I can’t fly, and I can’t make it to a march, some rallies.
For me, it’s such an expenditure of my own energy and my own safety that I don’t go to rallies; I don’t go to marches. But that doesn’t mean I’m not in solidarity with the folks that do. And I feel like social media has given a lot of people who are really badass organizers and activists online doing the work, doing the labor.
You may not be able to see the labor in the same ways as people holding signs and people wearing their hats, but they are there doing the same work. They may be doing it from their bed, they may be doing it in front of their computer, and they may be doing it at a doctor’s office, you know? So I think there’s a whole lot of invisible, unaccounted-for labor that does happen in online spaces that really people just think of as lazy activism.
Whenever I see that kind of term, “slacktivism” or “lazy activism,” about online activism, I really do see it as an ableist attack. Because for some people, this is their world; this is the world where they are the most empowered. And why is that? It’s because the built environment and other movements aren’t inclusive enough. So we find environments where we are able to have the most potential impact.
Ashley: So I wanna talk a little bit about the built environment because for many of the people listening here, they either work in coffee shops or they own coffee shops or they interact with very physical spaces on a day-to-day basis.
Something that I was thinking about a lot in your article in Eater is the idea of hospitality, and how making barriers to getting things like straws, making exceptions that make it more difficult for you—to have to take another step to get a straw isn’t great hospitality. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it is like for you to go into coffee shops and to not experience the same type of hospitality in a number of ways, not just in treatment, but in the way that spaces are created for you.
Alice: Yeah. I really [have had] some great experiences at a lot of cafés in my neighborhood. And I just wanna give a shout-out to my neighborhood cafés that I really love in San Francisco in The Mission: I love Sightglass, I love Atlas Café. And I go there because when I go there, it’s not a big deal if I have to ask for help. And I do ask for help for a number of things.
For example, some of the places have higher counters, and I need assistance with people bringing my drink to my table, people adding sugar for me to my lattes, asking people to put a lid on my cup because I can’t grab the lid because they’re usually on a counter that’s too high, and even asking for a straw.
And so far, it’s been when people assist me and it’s not a big deal—that, to me, is great hospitality. Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not a special thing; it’s just part of good service. And I have been in places where people have really given me very clear non-verbal and verbal communication where I definitely don’t feel welcome.
For example, cafés or restaurants where it might be a smaller space, so my wheelchair might have a little bit of difficulty turning around or moving a chair out of the way. And you can tell sometimes people just give me this look, like they just can’t be bothered. They’ll roll their eyes; they get a little huffy. As if I just take up too much space.
Little things like that really send these messages that somehow, I’m just taking up too much space or that I’m asking for too much. And I think, for the folks who are listening to this podcast, you’re gonna encounter all kinds of people: people who have non-apparent needs. Sometimes you can’t see what their access needs are. Or people like me who are a little bit more apparent in terms of having a different way of moving and being.
And I think what you do is just be as open and as receptive and responsive to their requests, and try to be as accommodating as possible without it being overly unreasonable. And I think that goes a long way, and I think that builds a lot of goodwill with all kinds of people, with all kinds of customers. Because I really want to be a loyal customer. I truly appreciate places where I feel welcome.
And unfortunately, it’s because there have been a lot of bad experiences I’ve had even in San Francisco, such a “progressive” place—it’s not really always that great. So when I do feel welcome, and I do feel like it’s not a big deal when people help me, I will go back again and again because they deserve my patronage.
Ashley: Right. I think something that really just stood out to me is the idea—and you mentioned this earlier—of problematic exceptions. So you can give a straw to somebody if they ask for it, but that is just a step that further marginalizes groups. And I think what really stuck there with me was this idea that you’re being denied the same experience as everybody else. The whole idea is that you should be able to go into a coffee shop and have a drink the way that you can have it and leave.
Alice: Yeah. I think what’s really sad is that these bans, these ideas that these exceptions are good and that we should be satisfied with exceptions because, “Oh, we’ve listened to disabled people. They’re gonna be OK. All you have to do is request one.” And I think what gets kinda lost in that is that it’s assumed that café owners or restaurants are gonna be ... how do they interpret the need and the request?
I mean already, if you just ask people with disabilities their experience in public spaces, a lot of people are questioned all the time about their right to have a service animal, their right to use parking with a placard. I mean there’s a lot of people who just think, “You are not allowed. You are not valid. Your needs are not legitimate.”
And again, it’s this question of who is worthy, and who’s doing the judging? Oftentimes, it’s gonna be non-disabled people in positions where they can judge. And that, to me, is super problematic because there’s no way to enforce—no matter how much training and how much outreach a city does with small businesses about these exceptions, you can’t change the way people behave and think about disability through a ban, through an exception.
And that, to me, is where I know in my gut that there will be cases of people who will request a straw who will have to be answering all kinds of inappropriate, invasive questions about their “medical need” for a straw. And that’s just a downer for a casual hangout with your friends for brunch or for an evening out. People just wanna have a good time, and that, to me, is the total opposite of hospitality.
Ashley: Agreed. And I think that was a really important point for you to put in there, that it’s completely the opposite of hospitality. It’s exactly making people feel uncomfortable for the things that they need.
Shifting gears a little bit, I’m intrigued by people who also like to tell stories because that’s obviously something I really like to do. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your podcast. What kind of stories do you look to tell? What are the things that have resonated with you the most? And what are you hoping for the future?
Alice: Yeah. You know, there’s just so much within the disability community in terms of issues that we care about and also about our culture that most people don’t know about. And I really wanted to show the huge range and diversity of disabled people and just really increase the diverse representation of what does it mean to be disabled.
As a disabled woman of color, I really don’t see enough people of color who are disabled represented. I think right now, the default image in a lot of, for example, stock images of people with disabilities are practically all white. And if you even look at Hollywood movies, representation of disability, it’s often a wheelchair user, white male or female.
And again, this is where us telling our stories, us really amplifying people that may not have the same reach of visibility, that, to me, is really important. So you know, I talk about political issues. I talk about people just living their lives and their experience. The lived experience, to me, is really important because it’s for us, as a community, for us to be able to see ourselves is incredibly important and powerful.
I think about young folks as well who are just working through their own identities, working through their own stuff. And I also think about non-disabled people who want to be better allies, who want to be better co-conspirators to take down and smash ableism with us, that by listening and learning straight from us, hopefully it’ll make a difference. So having our stories out there on the Internet, who knows who I’ll reach. And I hope that’s why, I’m guessing that’s why you do your podcast as well.
Ashley: Yeah, that’s definitely part of it. Maybe this is a little off-topic, but I just released an episode about abortion, and I’ve never had more people reach out to me. And that felt really wonderful in a way.
Alice: Isn’t it interesting? And as a creator—I don’t know about you, but it’s like you really have no idea the impact your work will make. You put it out there with the best intentions, and it’s amazing, I think. It can’t be underestimated, the ripple effect of just a little story. And that, to me, is just so ... it keeps me going. It really, you know, every time I feel frustrated or that people are shitting on me or criticizing me, I think about, “OK, there has been influence; there has been a difference.” And it makes me feel good. It keeps me going.
Ashley: What would you want people listening to this to take away from listening to you?
Alice: Well, I hope that for the coffee community, that they think about accessibility; they think about inclusion. Whenever they talk about customer service, whenever they talk about hospitality, they think about all kinds of communities that are part of your customer base.
You may not see them. They might not be as apparent to you, but they are part of your customers and maybe potential customers. Whenever you are considering changes to your practices or policies, think about the most marginalized communities. Think about how it will impact them, and hopefully, let that be instructive in how you wanna make changes. So I guess that would be my messages. And just to be kinda open and receptive to changes.
I really wanna give a shout-out to Nick Cho from Wrecking Ball Coffee because when I first started tweeting a lot about the straw ban, he tweeted me, asking me about, “Well, what would be the ideal situation?” And I gave him my advice, and he actually took it to heart.
I suggested that if you make compostable straws readily available, that you also make plastic straws readily available. Or if your compostable ones are by request, then you also offer the option of plastic ones. You know, I guess to quote a line from my essay in Eater, if a café could offer four different kinds of milk and a restaurant can offer 50 types of beer and wine, they can offer two types of straws. And I think it goes a long way toward giving people choices and giving space for all kinds of people to be part of your world.
Ashley: That’s awesome. That is … I’m happy to hear that people are listening to you and taking that advice into account. And like you said, it was as simple as interacting on Twitter and asking for your advice.
Alice: I felt so honored by that because, above all the negative stuff, that ... this is, again, a great example of being open and connected and seeing how there is a difference, where people do change and people are paying attention.
I also wanna thank you for opening your space and allowing me to be here to share my story and hopefully, influencing more people in the coffee community. Because I love coffee! And I definitely want all communities in the food service industry to really think about inclusion and accessibility and how we all may have implicit biases. And to really be open and honest about working through that. And we can do that together.
Ashley: Thank you for being on this show and being so open and honest with us. If people wanna talk to you, or if they wanna reach out to you, what are some ways that they can find your work or engage with you on social media?
Alice: Yeah, sure thing! So for folks who wanna email me, I’m at email@example.com. So email me anytime. And also, I’m on Twitter @sfdirewolf ’cause I’m a fan of Game of Thrones.
Alice: You can also find more about the Disability Visibility Project at DisabilityVisibilityProject.com.
Ashley: I was just there earlier today when I was doing all my questions and notes for this episode, and I was reading the story about the high schoolers who started the disability museum. There’s so many amazing stories on your website. So definitely check those out.
Alice: Oh! Thanks so much! And feel free to be part of the community and join in and just be part of us. I think everybody’s welcome.
Ashley: Yes. And thank you so much, again, just for being here and being open with us.
Alice: If I could also encourage folks who are podcasters who may be listening, another aspect of accessibility that I try to also promote is to make sure that, if you do have the capacity and capability, to include transcripts with your episodes.
Because being just an audio-only format really does exclude a lot of people, not just Deaf people but a lot of people where, for various reasons, audio is not the best way to process information. So podcasts that provide transcripts really do show that they wanna have a broader listenership/readership. So if any of you are podcasters out there, please consider that.
Ashley: Yes, and that is something that will be provided with this episode and hopefully with some backlogged episodes. Because that is not something that we have done in the past, and that is really important, and I’m really glad that you brought that up. Thank you for providing me with a contact for transcription, and that’s something that we will be working on. Like I said, this will be our very first episode that is transcribed.
Alice: Yay!!! See?
Ashley: Yeah. You just have a conversation. Things are getting better.
Alice: And for disability accessibility, that’s what it’s all about.
Ashley: Oh, thank you so much, Alice.
Alice: Oh, thank you so much! I just really enjoyed talking with you today.
Ashley: Me too. Thanks again, friends, for listening.
Alice: All right. Bye!
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