Where Disability Rights and Animal Rights Meet: A Conversation with Sunaura Taylor
Disability may seem conceptually and materially unrelated to animal rights. Yet, as Sunaura Taylor shows in the book Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation, disability rights and animal rights are deeply entangled with the ideology of able-bodiedness. This ideology is made up of the cultural beliefs that the capacity to think, communicate, move, and sense in “typically” human ways is natural and superior and thus demarcates the boundary between humans and animals. Able-bodiedness fuels both the mass disablement of animals through factory farming and the justification for slaughtering sick animals. In this way, ability and disability work as the metric that determines the value of animals.
In Beasts of Burden, Taylor weaves together her own experiences, historical and contemporary stories, and disability and animal studies theory to argue persuasively that disability and animality are not only conceptually imbricated, but are also foundationally implicated in systemic violence and marginalization of all kinds. Toggling between the disablement of animals and the animalization of people with disabilities, Taylor demonstrates how the suffering that results from disability is materially, discursively, and socially constructed. Moreover, this is also an environmental story. Taylor’s work has important implications for how we think about justice: “If animal and disability oppression are entangled, might not that mean their paths of liberation are entangled as well?”
I spoke on the phone with Sunaura Taylor about this compelling book in May 2019.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caelyn Randall: Can you discuss the terms that you use, like liberation, and what led you to put disability and animal liberation together in the same book?
Sunaura Taylor: Liberation appears in the subtitle of my book, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. The term liberation offers an intervention into Peter Singer’s classic animal rights book, Animal Liberation, which helped fuel the animal rights movement. There’s a lot that I really admire about that book, but there’s also a lot of very troubling ways in which disability is instrumentalized in his philosophical argument for animal liberation. I saw putting disability in that phrasing as important. “Liberation” is also a reference to Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. It was one of the first radical disability books that I ever read, and for a long time that book was one of the only books that really looked at disability in relationship to the environment.
The language of animal rights is important. I’m not opposed to using the language of rights. But I also wanted to use language that expanded that conversation. I was pretty careful throughout the book to use liberation and justice to try to think of other kinds of frames alongside rights. From my experiences with disability communities and other marginalized communities, I know the bad taste that animal rights has often left because of the way in which movements for animal rights and philosophies of animal rights have often been presented in very able-bodied and white and male terms. There still are very powerful reasons why these movements have been presented as in conflict. But I increasingly felt like this was an unfortunate framing because I think that far from being at odds, these movements actually have an immense amount to offer each other.
CR: In your book you tell the story of the treatment of Booee and other chimpanzees who use ASL (American Sign Language). Why is that people only seem to value animal communication that is human-like? And why does an animal’s language or communication abilities determine the way we feel they should be treated?
ST: Booee is a tragic example of our confusion around animals and our confusion around empathy and abilities. Booee was taught sign language during the 70s, and, because he was property, he and a bunch of other chimps were sold to a lab. There was a public outcry because some of them were very well known chimps. Ultimately some were released, but Booee was not because he was not as well-known. Some of the other chips were not released because they didn’t know sign language. Booee actually spent 13 years in a cage.
I wondered, why do we have outrage only for animals that have demonstrated that they can perform neurotypical or able-bodied human traits? On some level the outrage was not necessarily over the caging of the chimpanzees, it was the caging of these human abilities. His story demonstrates the limitations and the problems of only using arguments like “this animal has complicated communication” or “this animal passes the mirror test.” It makes us comfortable with focusing only on capacities and abilities that are privileged within an anthropocentric and ableist society. And this gets to the main argument of my book: non-human animals and disabled people are impacted by the same system of oppression and that system of oppression is ableism. Of course, that’s not the only system of oppression and, of course, that system of oppression is entangled with all sorts of other systems of oppression.
The way that we judge what counts as language is always through human terms. That’s how so many of the abilities and capacities that we set up as goal posts function. They’re always unreachable because they’re always already written through our anthropocentric lens. That leaves out a vast array of abilities that we don’t possess that other species do. I think disability studies can really help to unsettle these goal posts to show that there are all sorts of different ways to be human as well.
CR: How does the ideology of ableism support ideas about “naturalness”? And what are some of the consequences or effects of ableism and naturalness for both animals and people with disabilities?
ST: At least in a Western context, disability is seen as a biological fact based on the limitations associated with disability that are individualized and naturalized. People think that the limitations associated with not walking, for example, are in my body. Therefore, it’s my body that has a limitation. What critical disability perspectives can do is challenge this kind of thinking, not to say that the material body doesn’t matter, but to say that it’s not the only way to understand the body. Disability as a category of difference is really constructed by society and how society organizes and privileges certain kinds of bodies.
Ableism is a system of oppression that normalizes and values certain abilities over others and then naturalizes that order. One of the concepts that I consistently return to alongside this conversation of what’s “natural” is the issue of dependency. Disability studies has looked intimately at care and dependency and what it means to be dependent and what it means to be cared for. Disability studies can challenge and expand ideas of mutuality and reciprocity in our relationships and responsibilities toward animals so that we can begin to think more about our interdependence with domestic animals rather than their pure dependence on us.
CR: How do you argue against the systemic violence that produces disability both for animals via industrial farming but also for people? And how do you argue against the systemic violence that produces disability without situating disability itself as an undesirable quality?
ST: One connection is the material and embodied reality that all the animals that we use and that we exploit in different industries are disabled. The intensely contaminated and limited environments that animals in various industries are in leads them also to have various physical and mental disabilities; these disabilities make them profitable. The meat industry would not be profitable unless it continued to disable animals. I mean that animals are bred to produce way more milk than they usually would; animals are kept in environments where their muscles become so weak that their bones break or they become vitamin deficient. Thinking about the workers in these environments, the people who are employed in slaughterhouses and factory farms, for example, is also important. These employees are some of the most vulnerable in terms of worker exploitation, they may be undocumented, low-income, people of color, or intellectually disabled people. And their workplace environments also cause and produce disability in human beings. We can also look at the ways in which these industries are contaminating the land and water, and then they produce disability and illnesses through an environmental trail.
How do we hold onto the reality that disability is often caused by systemic inequality and challenge that violence while also saying disability can be this generative and valuable space of understanding other ways of being? Disability exposes the centrality and importance of valuing interdependence and care. I think there are all sorts of spaces of liberation that I see within the disability experience that can challenge capitalist work ethics and the romanticism of independence, for example. We have to hold both realities at the same time. I don’t think that we can get to these more liberated, generative, and beautiful crip spaces unless we simultaneously are also challenging this systemic violence that causes disability.
CR: You propose what you call the “social model of veganism” as a way to think about veganism in terms of systemic access. What do you mean by a social model of veganism, and how might this idea help us to reframe and rethink debates about food and access?
ST: I’m trying to move away from the way veganism has been presented as a lifestyle choice. To me, being vegan is akin to being a feminist because it is a political stance, and it’s also an embodied act of resistance to the ways in which ableism objectifies and exploits bodies. It’s an embodied way for me to enact my political and ethical beliefs. I’m not saying that health shouldn’t be a part of that or that diet shouldn’t be a part of that framing. Obviously as a disability studies scholar, I think health is a hugely political issue, but I think that there’s a way in which, often at least in mainstream sort of framings, veganism as a health issue or as a diet is, as Dr. A. Breeze Harper has suggested, very racialized and very classed and it’s also very ablest.
A social model of veganism takes justice for animals as integral to and entangled with other movements for justice. It takes animal oppression seriously and deeply entangled with other systems of oppression, but it also sees veganism as something that is situated and that has different implications and different methods depending on where and who you are. That’s a really important point to make because I’m not making a universal argument for veganism. I think we live in a messy world and we are deeply entangled in legacies and current realities of racial violence and of colonial violence. I don’t think it’s helpful to just make a universal argument for veganism, but what I do think is helpful is to frame veganism as a political stance and to be adamant that it is also deeply entangled with our other movements for liberation.
CR: What are some of your upcoming projects?
ST: I’m looking more at the relationship between disability in the environment, about water and land systems, and particularly about environmental harm. Language about environmental damage emerges in all sorts of different places, whether in environmental policy or environmental humanities. This language associates environmental harm with disability. For example, the climate is depicted as a mutant or the land can be represented as ill, wounded, or amputated. The Clean Water Act refers to the nations waterways as “impaired waters.” So there are all these disability rhetorics that emerge in environmental thinking, and what my project is trying to do is take that language seriously and to think about a solidarity between disability movements and the environmental movement.
Featured image: Sunaura Taylor suggests that we should think more capaciously about relationships of interdependence and care when we imagine human and animal interactions. This service dog named Abby helps to take off a child’s sock during a demonstration. Photo by U.S. Airman 1st Class Devin M. Rumbaugh, 2017.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Sunaura Taylor is an artist and writer. She is the author of Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (The New Press, 2017), which received the 2018 American Book Award. Taylor has written for American Quarterly, New Labor Forum, Yes! Magazine and other outlets. Her artworks have been exhibited at venues such as the CUE Art Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. Taylor holds an M.F.A. in Art Practice from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. Contact.
Caelyn Randall is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They study the production and impact of technological and rhetorical modalities of surveillance on people with disabilities, with particular attention to the relationship between disability and race. Their dissertation is titled “Carceral Education in Madison: Behavior Education, Racialized Disability, and Law Enforcement.” Contact.