My brother sipped hot chocolate from an orange paper mug as I balanced on a concrete parking barrier. It was late spring 2020, and we were waiting in line outside a supermarket in downtown Toronto, Canada. Three months into a global pandemic, the time had come to restock on what had become a work-from-home staple: instant noodles.
The flexibility to work from home is something that wheelchair users like my brother have been demanding for decades. Managing rigid office hours, personal support schedules, caregiving responsibilities, poorly adapted technology and the clueless questions of colleagues blocks the workplace participation and professional promotion of disabled people in every sector of the economy.
In my brother’s case, the Canadian climate (read: snowbanks) and subway repairs often complicated his commute. However, once the pandemic set in he quickly missed the rituals of going to the office: putting on a blazer, reading in transit, talking with fellow lawyers and buying snacks or supper on the way home.
As disabled twins, food became a way for us to assert control amidst the uncertainty of concurrent crises. I made lists of elaborate recipes and imagined the dinner parties I’d throw once I could invite friends over again.
My brother structured his work-from-home schedule around instant noodles for lunch. So when his supply started to run low, we masked up and returned to the grocery store that offers the best selection of plastic-wrapped ramen alongside frozen dumplings, yogurt drinks and rice cakes.
Disabled shoppers were early adopters of grocery delivery but the explosion in popularity of the service created problems for anyone who already counted on an alternative to wandering the aisles and lugging heavy bags.
Food is about choice. Disabled communities know that the power of choice can be thwarted by high prices, inadequate income support or the inaccessible designs of most kitchens.
Although disabled people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty, the food security barriers we face are under-researched in Canada. Analysis of food insecurity during the pandemic does not consider disability.
Addressing food security in disabled communities means ensuring that everyone can choose what to eat and access the support needed to prepare it.
As 2020 blurred into 2021, I exercised my choices by putting holds on cookbooks from the public library. Even though the portion sizes of most recipes defied social gathering limits, I read about the cuisines of Belarus, Newfoundland and Zanzibar.
Sharing food was impossible without bursting public health bubbles but my favourite part of any meal has always been assembling ingredients.
It’s something my brother and I share. We both love grocery stores: I scour my local discount retailer for purple yams and sour cabbage. My brother studies cereal boxes to source the lowest sugar but highest flavour breakfast options. Despite the risks of COVID-19, browsing the aisles together is an expression of disabled joy.
“No institutions exist to help us survive – we survive because of each other.” Writes Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice: “Your life is maintained by a complex, nonmonetary economy of shared, reciprocal care. You drop off some extra food; I listen to you when you’re freaking out.”
Interdependence is part of the reason my brother and I make good shopping buddies. I can reach upper shelves and manoeuvre grocery baskets around tight turns, he can carry bulky purchases home using his power chair.
Interdependence is also an organizing principle of disabled communities.
DJNO partnered with other organizations to source, assemble and deliver COVID care packages.
DJNO rushed to provide food and support self-isolation because disabled leaders recognize the ableist assumptions built into emergency medical care. Each shopping trip with my brother is a source of anxiety because I fear that when hospitals are stretched to capacity disabled people are less likely to be prioritized for live-saving healthcare.
A year after our first trip to restock on instant noodles, the army and the Red Cross were called in to support hospital operations in my hometown. Field hospitals were erected in 2021 just as April showers hit but the government refused to reveal whether triage protocols were in effect.
The focus on independence in medical assessments reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what disabled people already know: we all rely on one another.
Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve learned that interdependence is not just some weird quirk of my sibling relationship.
It’s a model of respect and recognition shared between neighbours, mutual aid networks, volunteer translators, vaccine appointment bookers and chosen families of all kinds.
Together, we assert the value of disabled lives.
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