Johnathon Byrne (27, The Accessible Vegan), is an animal rights activist from the UK. He is a student in Animal Science and Welfare and has volunteered in wildlife conservation projects in South Africa. Johnathon has Muscular Dystrophy (MD) and actively campaigns against the use of animals in medical research.
Can you tell us some more about Muscular Dystrophy (MD) and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges?
I have a life limiting disability called ‘Merosin Deficient Congenital Muscular Dystrophy’. Simplified it’s a muscle wasting disease that is life limiting. I was diagnosed at 18 months old and have been completely wheelchair bound all my life. I require assistance with my daily care needs from people that I employ privately. As I get older I become weaker and struggle to maintain the lifestyle which I have enjoyed growing up, such as full social life, working full time, etc. I suffer from daily pain and discomfort but this is something I just deal with. On the most part I try to do my best when it comes to living a ‘normal’ life and supporting others in a similar situation to myself.
When and how did you become interested in animal rights and veganism?
I have been vegan for four years now and my influence was to try and improve my health and prolong negative symptoms related to my disability. I have always been supportive of animal rights but like most of us I was completely naive in the sense that I was contributing to industries that inflect suffering on animals, such as food, clothing and medical science.
You are a student in Animal Science and Welfare. Has that influenced your outlook on animal rights? On animal rights activism? Are the courses in line or at odds with animal rights philosophy/ethics?
Throughout my degree I have learned so much about myself, my outlook on animal rights and how to correctly (in my opinion) advocate those rights. For example, I have met many activists that care a lot about animals and want to advocate. But to be able to do that you have to be open minded, be able to debate, be able to listen to other people’s views and not assume that your own opinion is correct. For myself I was one of these people, I hated the fact that people contributed to support trades such as zoos for entertainment, and I used to really be closed minded when listening to others. Now don’t get me wrong, I still do not support the idea of zoos or animals in captivity but I have learned new skills that have enabled me to understand that it’s not so black and white as ‘it’s there for entertainment’. When in fact some zoos such as Zoological Society of London’s zoo have contributed incredible research and supported conservation in many species. My course does have elements which I do not support such as animal dissections, something I refused to partake in. The course has enabled me to also learn more about my ethics and to be able to have an ‘educated’ opinion when speaking with others about my activism. From another perfective, some activism I have done (such as my work with PETA) has been frowned upon by the university.
How do you feel about animal experimentation in medical research?
We live in the 21st century and have the science and tools to be able to successfully contribute to medical research without animals. 92% of drugs that have been successful on animal testing have failed when it comes to human trials. I think it’s barbaric that we are still able to conflict so much pain and suffering on animals for failed research.
Can you tell us more on the campaign you did for PETA, to close down a dog testing facility that does tests for finding a cure for Muscular Dystrophy?
My form of MD is very rare and it’s even more rare to come across someone like myself who is also a vegan and anti the use of animals in medical research.
PETA contacted me a couple of years ago to inform me that there were facilities that are testing on dogs to find a cure for MD. This research has been happening for nearly four decades without any positive data that can support finding a cure for the disease. In more recent months, I visited Texas A&M University (where the labs are situated) were I was to meet President Young and confront him regarding the failed research. After many attempts of contact, we arranged for myself to make a public demonstration at one of his private events. The footage of this went viral within hours. Since this visit there have been many developments which we hope to make public soon. I have been holding public talks where I have been talking about my fight against animal testing. I have also faced a lot of negativity from those with MD as they feel I am fighting to take away their research but in fact I am trying to stop failed research and redirect to methods that can support those suffering with MD.
You have travelled to Africa several times. Can you tell us some more about your volunteer work there? Has it shaped your activism or look on animal rights? On disability rights?
South Africa is somewhere that remains very special to me. Everything about its wildlife gives me goose bumps. My ambition is to work in conservation and support species that are suffering to survive in the wild. I’m also wanting to use these experiences to inspire and educate others about the amazing species we share this planet with. I have spent the first two years of my degree volunteering for the ‘Wildlife Conservation Foundation’ and my role with them was to work towards lowing the poaching rates of the southern white rhino and identify what is and isn’t working to support that aim. My long-term aim is to work with charities to set up an animal hospital that can protect and rehabilitate those animals affected by humans. Such as poaching injuries, attacks, animals affected by loss of habitat, etc. I’m not sure Africa has shaped my activism but it’s given me a passion for the animals I care most about. Disability rights and Africa are very two ends of the scale. You will rarely see someone with a disability due to no medicine or support available to them at a young age. When there myself, the locals are always amazed by my wheelchair as they have never seen anything like it. Most people are willing to help where they can in terms of gaining access to places but on the grand scheme of things, it’s not the best place to have a disability. I have been very lucky to have the support of amazing friends and colleagues that have made my experiences possible.
Do you feel the vegan movement is ableist? If so, can you give some examples?
I don’t feel I know enough about the vegan movement to be able to answer this, but from my experiences so far, I would say on the most part I wouldn’t say it is. Like anyone else with a disability I have come across people (in this case some vegans) that have been discriminative towards myself. For example, social meets with some groups where my needs (wheelchair access) have often been a last thought. I have missed many group meals, vegan festivals in the past due to no or limited access. Just over a year ago I was asked to leave a festival due to my wheelchair being a health and safety risk. I was also attacked once at the London Animal Rights March by three people who threw chalk, food and rubbish at me and told me I had no place to be there. Two other reports to the police were made on the same day. But these are down to individual people and I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative against the moment.
Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities?
I think if awareness of disability and the needs of those people were respectfully met, then there would be no issues. From my understanding a lot of issues are from lack of understanding and fear from upsetting others.
Can you give some examples as to how vegan outreach and advocacy can be improved, to better reach disabled people?
A lot of disabled people use social media so that’s a great place to start. Veganism and outreach is huge at the moment and especially online. So host events in public places such as a city centre where access to accessible public transport is available for those that do not have access to their own car.
Johnathon Byrne (The Accessible Vegan) – interview Crip HumAnimal
– Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQ+ vegans, vegans of colour, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –