Disabled vegans Interviews

About veganism, health and living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Interview with Vanessa Sol

Vanessa Sol is a 28-year-old vegan writer, teacher, and animal rights activist who lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (Type 2). She has been vegan for coming on seven years, and has been an animal rights activist for two years. She lives about 40 minutes from NYC in Staten Island, NY with four rescue cats. Her YouTube channel and Instagram account have allowed her to share her life as a disabled vegan woman and connect with other disabled folks who may be interested in veganism. One of her goals is to help people with disabilities see how a vegan lifestyle can improve wellbeing and allow us to align our values with our actions.

Hello Vanessa, tell us who you are? What’s your background? Where do you live?

Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York and I’ve lived in Staten Island for my whole life (beside college and I lived in Long Island for those four years). I’m also 100% Sicilian; yes, I eat a lot of pasta, and I have a neuromuscular disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to become vegan? And how did you become involved in animal activism?

I was inspired by a friend to become vegetarian my second year of college which was in 2012. After a short time, I started feeling so much healthier and started losing weight, which was huge for me as someone who battled with my weight and health throughout my entire life. I came from a lifestyle of restrictive eating and constant dieting without ever getting the long term health results I wanted, so seeing the changes that occurred from ridding my diet of meat opened my eyes to a new perspective. I needed to know more. During my first year of vegetarianism, I tried to switch to a fully plant based diet after learning some information about the relationship between dairy and weight gain, but I failed because I didn’t do enough research on what to eat. I think my motivation was also misaligned, as I was mainly motivated by the more selfish reason of weight loss at that point. But I did try; I ate hummus wraps every day, and it didn’t work for me. It was interesting because in the few years I was vegetarian, more messages about veganism came my way. I came across a Youtuber who talks a lot about a high fruit diet for health; she often talks about and shows footage of animal agriculture in her videos as well. I remember one day I watched Earthlings , and watching that really hit me emotionally. I don’t even think I got through the entire thing before deciding I NEEDED to really try living a vegan lifestyle. I’ve always been an animal lover, so I deeply felt what the animals were going through. I knew I couldn’t continue participating in their exploitation. After watching Earthlings, the universe kept sending messages my way to guide me. During my last year of undergrad as an English Education major, I was assigned to teach a book called The Good Food Revolution, along with the film Food Inc.. That experience led me to do even more research on animal farming, which included reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. From that point, I learned more and more each day about animal agriculture and animal abuse overall. It took a bit of time for me to fully get there, but once I made the switch that was it. Switching to vegan products was easy, and every time I saw leather or fur I just saw an animal suffering. I just needed to experiment more with what healthy foods I could enjoy. I turned to various doctors like Dr. John McDougall and Michael Gregor for tips and recipes and answers as to what the healthiest vegan foods were. Their guidance led me to eating fruits, carbs, and vegetables, which are my main food groups to this day. It’s hard to weigh yourself when you can’t stand, but I’d say I’ve lost at least 70 pounds overall and have kept it off. After adopting a fully vegan lifestyle in 2014, I started advocating for health and animal rights on Youtube via my channel that used to be called Vegan Ability. Now, it’s just my name Vanessa Sol because I want to reach a wider audience to spread veganism far and wide. My goal with Youtube and other social media platforms is to reach people with disabilities who respect other animals and are open minded or who may be suffering from weight or other health related issues beside the ones that are not influenced by the nourishment of the body. Aside from starting my Youtube channel in 2014, I also began doing street activism in 2017. Now, I’m an active part of the New York animal rights activism community, participating in many forms of activism including marches, disruptions, rescues, vigils, poetry slams, and more. I also have written articles about animal rights for outlets like One Green Planet and The New York Daily News.

Vanessa taking a selfie, wearing all black clothes, sitting in powered wheelchair
Vanessa Sol – alt txt incl

You identify as disabled. Can you share your situation and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges?

So, at age three I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy which is a rare progressive neuromuscular disease that causes severe muscle weakness throughout the body. I can’t bear any weight on my legs which prevents me from walking, so I use a wheelchair all the time except for when I’m sleeping! My upper body is also very weak. I can’t lift my arms over my head or extend them much. I also can’t pick up heavy things. My disease makes living daily life difficult because I can’t do things like use the bathroom, shower, get dressed, or cook on my own. Luckily, I have personal care attendants who help me with daily living as needed. Because of my overall muscle weakness, my respiratory system is not the strongest. I used to have a lot of issues with mucus and would get sick a lot with what felt like never-ending coughs. I’m ecstatic that at this point in my life I don’t need to take any medications. Prior to veganism, I was on birth control to regulate my menstrual cycle and I was on asthma medication. It’s incredible that I don’t have to deal with these issues anymore because my disability makes life complicated enough as it is. Of course, not everyone experiences the changes that I did, but I’m blessed to have experienced them and happy to share!

What are the most common ‘bingo’ reactions or microaggressions you have received on being a disabled vegan?

Hm … I guess I’d say people are mainly shocked that I am vegan at all. I think being disabled and vegan kind of shows them that there really aren’t many valid excuses as to why someone can’t live a vegan lifestyle.

Ableism manifests itself on many levels. Many people might think of personal ableist attitudes, physical barriers or ableist communication in public spaces. It is however more than that. Ableism is also institutionalised. Can you give some examples of that and how it has affected you?

Sure, I mean we are limited by the healthcare systems in place; we are often discriminated against in terms of employment. There are so many things to talk about. For me, I’ve found it really difficult to navigate the workforce as a disabled person. Despite having all of the credentials and abilities needed to be a NYS public school teacher, I’ve found it difficult to gain full-time employment. It’s interesting because the pandemic has actually helped people with disabilities gain employment; a lot of people in the community are talking about how this is another example of ableism because disabled people have been asking to work from home for decades, yet our needs couldn’t be met. However, when able-bodied people are affected by working in person, they’re provided a safer option.

Disabled people have been asking to work from home for decades, yet our needs couldn’t be met. However, when able-bodied people are affected by working in person, they’re provided a safer option

Vanessa Sol

What are some of the issues that you talk about on your YouTube channel?

I talk about health a lot because I think as people with disabilities, we should do our best to ensure that our bodies are functioning at the highest possible level. For so long I dismissed the relationship between the food I was eating, the way I felt, and the health issues I had. So, when it finally clicked for me, I felt the need to share it with other disabled people. For example, I used to turn in the night very often. Maybe it was insomnia I don’t know, but I need someone to help me turn. When I changed my diet, I started sleeping SO much better. The more issues I could eliminate from my life as a disabled person, the better. The more independent I could be, the better. Period. So, if I could share my experiences and help even ONE person solve ONE additional issue unrelated to their disability, then sharing my experiences is worth it to me. So, yes, I talk a lot about health and food. Additionally, I talk about living in a wheelchair. I showcase some of my life. For example, I drive my car from my wheelchair, so I’ve gotten a lot of views on that. I think this is a good way to spread veganism, reaching disabled people who aren’t looking up anything about health and weight loss. My hope is that they will see a vlog or driving video, for example, and then browse the rest of my channel where I speak about veganism. I also have some videos up of protests and vigils I’ve been to.

One of your posts on Instagram reads: ‘Disabled’ isn’t a bad word. Many ableds however seem to think it is and refrain from using ‘disabled’. Or they use ‘persons with disabilities’ or ‘differently abled’. What’s your take on that?

I’ve always identified as disabled. I can definitely understand why some people with disabilities use person-first language because language is incredibly important. So, I’ll say that first. But, I think it’s important to own our disabilities. Yes, I’m disabled. But, I’m a powerful badass! Lol. So, it doesn’t bother me personally to own my disability linguistically in that way. If an able-bodied person doesn’t know what terminology to use, they should just ask the person they’re referring to what they feel comfortable with. Everyone is different.

I think it’s important to own our disabilities. Yes, I’m disabled. But, I’m a powerful badass!

Vanessa Sol
Vanessa smiling, wearing glasses, looking into camera, head slightly tilted, black/grey and white cat coming onto her lap
Vanessa with cat Henry

Do you consider yourself more of a vegan / animal rights activist or more of a disability advocate? Or does it overlap?

It totally overlaps. Nonhuman animals deserve to be respected and treated with care. However, so many people fail to see that just as they fail to see so many other social justice issues, including equality issues surrounding the disabled community. I’ll be honest, it kind of boggles my mind when marginalized communities DON’T see or act upon the commonalities among fellow Earthlings. We all suffer under the same attitudes and systems of discrimination and inequality. We are all one; when one sentient being on this Earth is suffering, we are all suffering. I’m just advocating for a better world. I want people with disabilities to see that they could still be healthy and fit without exercise and calorie restriction. I want people with disabilities to make the connection that all animals deserve love and respect. I want nonhuman animals to be able to live in peace and experience as much joy as possible without being exploited.

We all suffer under the same attitudes and systems of discrimination and inequality.

Vanessa Sol

In your intro you say that you want to connect with other disabled folks who may be interested in veganism. How do they generally react to veganism? In your impression, how is the vegan or AR movement perceived in the disabled community?

In my experience, there are a lot of disabled vegans out in the world, but the mainstream disabled community often sees veganism as ableist. I think it’s due to a number of things including cognitive dissonance, conditioning, comfort, and ignorance. I think it’s a lot easier for someone to label veganism as ableist than it is for someone to see how their actions affect themselves and the world at large. A lot of people with disabilities struggle with nourishing themselves in different ways, and so specifically when a plant based diet is presented to them, they often see it as an unattainable form of nourishment that may be unhealthy for them. However, a lot of them don’t try before labeling it as such. Some claim to have tried, but I have to wonder if they truly gave it their best effort. I want to connect with other disabled folks who truly want to try whatever they can in order to adopt a vegan lifestyle because there is always a reason not to do something, but the will and motivation has to be strong in order to overcome any obstacles that might come about. Also though, it’s important to note that some people with disabilities truly CANNOT totally avoid the use of animal products, but I think doing the best you can for nonhuman animals is definitely more ethical than not trying at all. One step I think we can all take is avoiding as many animal tested products as possible and not wearing or using animal skins/furs. Also, adopting companion animals as opposed to purchasing.

There are a lot of disabled vegans out in the world, but the mainstream disabled community often sees veganism as ableist.

Vanessa Sol

One of your Instagram posts reads: “Practising inclusivity and supporting human rights takes nothing away from the vegan message of compassion toward nonhuman animals’. Why did you feel it necessary to write this?

Unfortunately, I see many vegans and animal rights activists being dismissive of other peoples’ lived experiences and it’s really not the way to reach people in my opinion. Many prevegans (lol) see the way activists talk about animal rights and are turned off because so many people take this “no excuse” approach, which I understand completely because nonhuman animals go through so much torture. At the same time, though, we must meet people where they’re at and actually care about them in order to reach them with the message. If we want to see nonhuman animals live in peace, don’t we need to live in peace with fellow humans also?

Vanessa in powered wheelchair, with black face mask with wite letters 'stop eating animals'. Holding up sign on lap - in front of chest with words: ANIMAL LIBERATION = HUMAN LIBERATION
Vanessa at a demo in New York – credit photo @iviimoura (IG) – alt txt incl

Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities? To be more inclusive on all fronts? What are some key-problems that should definitely be addressed?

Well, I think a lot of people with disabilities truly do want to try being vegan or have tried and weren’t able to sustain a vegan lifestyle. So, we need to take their experiences and effort into account. We need to guide them in what they absolutely CAN do to support nonhuman animal rights. Also, we need to take into account that some people truly can’t live without medicines that are/were tested on animals. I also think organizers need to be aware of accessibility at events in terms of physical accessibility to events and communicative accessibility (ASL interpreters etc.). Organizers should be aware that there is always something for someone with a disability to do at an event; include us, make us feel valued.

Vanessa Sol – Interview Crip HumAnimal, by Geertrui Cazaux

You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwuce4BgL_haEGxxU3OI6zw
Instagram: https://www.instgram.com/eyeseeyoutoo_

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