A recently posted photo on Twitter set off a full-blown Twitterstorm and ultimately resulted in Whole Foods capitulating to the will of the digital citizenry and the store’s well-heeled clientele. Proving that the moral arc of the Universe is long but it bends toward justice…or does it?
The scandal, branded as #orangegate, was ignited by a photo showing individual pre-peeled oranges in plastic clamshell style packaging for sale at Whole Foods. The initial outcry was over the wasteful use of plastic packaging and the supposedly lazy people who are willing to pay $5.99 per pound for pre-peeled oranges. The damning #orangegate photo was shared over 70,000 times and Whole Foods quickly pulled the product from its stores.
The decision to pull the product and probably more so the tone of the original wave of criticism set off a second wave of concern that is still reverberating.
Disability rights activists pointed out that pre-peeled oranges aren’t merely convenient for the lazy and the slothful but also a potential “lifesaver” for those with limited dexterity. Pre-peeled oranges and pre-prepared foods in general make fresh, healthy food more accessible. The Universe’s moral arc was now called upon to double back in the direction of keeping pre-peeled oranges on the shelf.
The blog CrippledScholar has covered the controversy and has rebutted a great number of the arguments offered by the environmentally-minded, anti-pre-peeled orange crowd (see here and here). But there is one argument that seems to warrant closer examination. The claim is that people with limited dexterity who require pre-prepared foods are free to ask for such things in the produce department of their grocery store thus alleviating the need for individually packaged pre-peeled fruit. But CrippledScholar writes that asking for assistance in this way would represent “unnecessary gatekeeping” and would be “demoralizing and humiliating”. Furthermore, it is suggested that this would make people with disabilities vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and unwanted scrutiny from store clerks. It is possible that many people would go without the product rather than ask for assistance and as explained at CrippledScholar: “[a] solution isn’t accessible if people won’t use it.”
There is no reason to doubt what is being asserted. It is absurd, insensitive, and ultimately counterproductive to argue with people about what their feelings are or should be. It is curmudgeonly and trollish to tell people what they ought to feel. If people feel humiliated that is prima facie a problem to be addressed rather than simply denied or trivialized.
But how have we arrived in a place where asking for help can reasonably and sincerely be described as “demoralizing and humiliating”? None of us are so able-bodied so as to never need help; indeed, the disability rights movement has stressed the fluidity between the categories of disabled and able-bodied. People travel from one descriptor to the other both at different points of their life and even from moment to moment as their context changes. If nothing else, feminist philosophers and disability rights activists alike have pointed out that we are born into a state of complete dependency and often experience a similar state at some point before we perish. Depending on others is a normal part of life and should not be stigmatized.
The ability to ask for help is a skill to be developed and worthy of recognition. The fact that so many of us feel the need to regularly feign invulnerability and to project complete self-sufficiency is surely responsible for a significant amount of anxiety. If it is demoralizing to ask for help, it is likely just as demoralizing to need help but to be incapable of asking (we may be incapable due to a lack of skill or because of the particular context we are in).
Not entirely unrelated is the fact that we are living in a time when genuine friendships are on the wane. Adults report having fewer close friends than they did in the past; close friends being people they would confide in. Rushing to fill this void is empty online communication and equally empty technological aspirations. In fact, genuine friendships are often cultivated by sharing one’s vulnerabilities and asking for help. Our inability to ask for help is isolating us from one another and the coping mechanisms are likely compounding the problem.
But asking for help isn’t always perceived as “demoralizing and humiliating”. Creators of the Be My Eyes (www.bemyeyes.org) app have created an app allowing blind people to ask for help in a way that many people have found to be empowering. Be My Eyes connects blind users with sighted users via their phones. Sighted users can view live video taken by blind users and answer questions based on what they are seeing.
Writing in AccessWorld, the magazine of the American Foundation for the Blind, Bill Holton says “Be My Eyes is an extremely powerful platform whose time has come” and says it is a “resource for those times when greater independence can best be achieved by knowing when and how to ask for help”.
What is the relevant difference between the potentially demoralizing act of asking for help at the produce department and the empowering act of asking for help via the Be My Eyes app?
The most notable difference seems to be that the latter is a mediated, anonymous experience. It is an experience that does not require and generally will not facilitate relationship. It is a formalized process that is facilitated by a third party. It has been described as “microvolunteering”—which could be defined as volunteering with no strings attached. It risks no lasting entanglements with people or one’s wider community.
CrippledScholar rightly points out that one more item in plastic packaging—alongside all the bagged salads, shrink wrapped cucumbers, and prepared dishes from the deli—is somewhat inconsequential. The outcry over oranges seems out of proportion. The tempers are high perhaps because the stakes are so low. In contrast, the inability to ask for help has proven itself to be incredibly debilitating and on that problem there is hardly a word spoken.
I like these thoughts, and I’d add one point: a reminder that for all the accusations of ‘ableism’, everyone can overcome difficulties if they have resolve and, crucially, love and support.
In a traditional community, a blind guy may not be so good at picking fruit, but could probably peel them pretty niftily. The person who has difficulty getting the peel off would still have other energies to contribute. Even someone totally immobile can provide soul and sustenance to others 🙂