Navigating disability in the kitchen is all about finding the right adaptations

Navigating disability in the kitchen is all about finding the right adaptations
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I am acutely aware of the fact that, when I handle a knife, it often makes people nervous. And I understand why: I have a neurological disorder that manifests most visibly in a pronounced kinetic tremor. My hands get so shaky that I often have trouble using pens or phone keyboards or other common implements grounded in fine motor skills. So watching a sharp cleaver twitch and jump in one of my mitts while the other holds down, say, an onion, it is easy to worry that I might end up lopping off one of my digits. Or dropping it on my foot. Or otherwise mutilating myself or others.

Admittedly, I did slice and dice my fingers fairly often when I was first learning to cook—a period that coincided with a spike in the severity of my tremors. But after a while, like most people with disabilities, I developed adaptations: ways of positioning my body that allow me to brace my arms and so reduce tremors. Methods for keeping objects on a cutting board in place without using my hands. Basic care and observation honed through years of practice. As a result, I can safely dice an onion faster than most of my family and friends. And I take a great deal of pride in that.

But the occasional wince or sharp inhale I still catch to my side, and the unsolicited offers for help because it looks like you’re struggling there, can be frustrating, tiring, or outright disheartening. Even when born of genuine concern, they represent the all too common patronizing view that people with disabilities are not safe, or do not belong, in the kitchen. In fact, this conviction is so prevalent that it keeps far too many people with disabilities from ever finding a place for themselves in the kitchen—from developing their own tricks and adaptations.

In part, this view just reflects the fact that most kitchens and appliances fall far short of universal design. Even the standard height of a countertop or sink, points out Minna Hong, who developed paraplegia after sustaining a spinal cord injury about two decades ago—and who makes a mean paella—does not work for someone like her who uses a wheelchair. Not to mention the countless utensils that are not easy for people with low grip strength or dexterity to hold or maneuver. This systematic lack of intuitive accessibility can be daunting, lead to accidents or difficulties, and reinforce the view that kitchens just aren’t a safe place for a population that, in reality, designers have simply historically failed to account for.

This view also reflects the severely limited representation of disability in cooking shows. One in five Americans has some kind of disability; one in ten has a severe disability. Yet chances are that the only time most Americans have ever seen a chef with a disability on TV, it was Christine Ha, “The Blind Cook,” who won season three of MasterChef in 2012. (Granted, PBS diehards may have seen a few more on the show Cooking without Looking.) And that is likely not just the result of low representation in the culinary world due to accessibility issues and general stigma. “I was recently approached by a TV station for a cooking show, but found out I was ultimately turned down because the studio kitchen was not accessible,” notes James Coke, a skilled and successful chef who uses a wheelchair and has lived with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis for about 35 years. “I felt I’d been used just to tick an inclusion box and was angry that I was prevented from showing that disabled cooks are winners.”

Instead, cooking shows valorize or reify proper techniques, physically intensive cooking styles, and intricate recipes that just do not work for many average, much less disabled, cooks. Fooderati also turn up their noses, points out Anna Moyer of Accessible Chef, a site with recipes and lessons geared towards people with disabilities, at things like pre-cut or canned foods, which may be vital ingredients for people with severe fatigue or limited to no hand control who want to get into the kitchen. When shows do deign to bring on people with disabilities, adds Sue Hoss, who builds resources for young chefs with intellectual disabilities at Look, Cook, and Eat, “It seems they’re there for the challenge value” of living up to ableist standards “rather than their innate talent.”

As Hoss and Moyer’s projects attest, there are a growing number of resources online for people with disabilities looking to learn how to cook—or to get affirmation that they can find a place in the kitchen. There are also a growing number of people with disabilities making cooking content on social media, blogs, and digital video platforms, improving representation and fighting stigma and stereotypes. Specialty companies also make a growing range of adaptive appliances; I have looked into, for example, gyroscopically stabilized forks, spoons, and knives in recent years. But adaptive technologies, Hong points out, are often incredibly expensive and as such inaccessible to most people. And representation and resources, Hoss argues, are still quite limited at best.

When stereotypes, stigmas, and a pure lack of resources convince people with disabilities that they just can’t cook, that is not only a huge moral problem, but also a public health one. As Moyer points out, people with disabilities often, for want of kitchen access, knowledge, or confidence, end up lacking affordable and nutritious food. This despite the fact that eating well is often key to the management of chronic disorders—and the fact that cooking with and for others can foster a sense of community, inclusion, and autonomy that many people with disabilities struggle to maintain.

To give disabled individuals concrete examples of the ways their peers have carved out a space for themselves in the kitchen, I recently asked a handful of professional and amateur chefs to share their experiences navigating cooking—figuring out tricks and adaptations—with disabilities. The insights they present below are hardly comprehensive. Every individual’s disability will be at least somewhat unique, and as such demand equally unique adaptations. But they are a good starting point for visualizing how disabilities of all stripes can fit into the average kitchen.

A few common general considerations 

Almost everyone I spoke to for this piece, no matter their disability, agreed that when coming into the kitchen, people with disabilities “have to really look at what is happening,” as Ellen Kyhl, who spoke to me alongside her son John, who has Down syndrome, put it. You need to figure out “what your abilities are and how you can accommodate that ability.” Make a list of things that you might have trouble with, and things that you excel at, then start coming up with broad adjustments or porting over solutions that you have applied in other parts of your life—the tricks you use to reach things from a wheelchair or to grip things with limited dexterity or hand strength.

Some people might have to abandon spontaneity in the kitchen in favor of planning and preparation so they do not find themselves unexpectedly blocked or running out of steam midway through a recipe. That might include budgeting time for physical and mental fatigue into a cooking schedule. Pre-planning is also useful for people who might need to find workarounds for certain ingredients when shopping on a fixed income or when they have trouble getting out to or navigating stores.

“It is important to find community and support in organizations that advocate for civil rights and awareness,” adds Christine Ha. Not only will they be able to connect you with a broad range of support and resources, but they will be good spots to meet with people who have a similar disability and compare notes—to figure out what dishes or techniques have worked for others and how to make them your own. This is especially helpful when it comes to developing DIY solutions to kitchen accessibility issues. (Everyone I spoke to for this piece recommended trying to find such a DIY solution before splurging on adaptive appliances or remodels, as there is usually some inventive way of jury-rigging what you already own to make it work for you.)

For beginners especially (but not exclusively), says J.J. Goode, a chef who was born with one arm and has written extensively about single-armed cooking, it is useful to just throw away any dreams of making the ultra-complex recipes you might have seen on TV or in a magazine. “Say, ‘I am going to do this easy thing,’” he argues, “‘and it is delicious.’” That way you can slowly build up your own approach to core cooking skills, getting fancier and more complex as you go along—but only if you want to. There will be a learning curve as you figure out how to adapt and account for your unique context. But, says Ava Marie Romero, an autistic chef and food blogger, “my message for everybody is: Do not give up.” It may sound trite, but really, “you have to believe in yourself.”

Honestly, most of this advice could be useful for anyone, not just people with disabilities—as is the case with most of the insights that come out of the world of disability. But it is the vital core that most people with disability especially need to adapt and experiment their way into cookery.

“I can’t tell you how frustrated I was—how many things I spilled on my lap, all over the kitchen… how many ugly words I said to myself,” says Hong of her first year or so getting back into cooking after becoming a wheelchair user. “As with anything new and different, it takes time. But it’s worth doing, especially if you identify with it—as somebody who enjoys being a cook or cooking.”

How people who can only use one hand or arm adapt in the kitchen 

Goode argues that most of the things people do in the kitchen, like stirring a pot, are already one-arm activities. But moving boiling water pots, taking hot, heavy trays out of the oven, or chopping things up are much harder for him than they are for most two-armed people.

Most of the time, Goode believes, you can bridge this gap through automatic compensation: You try to do things the way that a two-armed person does, then adjust your body however feels right in order to find balance and leverage in line with your own anatomy. This may involve leaning down so close to a cutting board that you’re almost eye-to-eye with an onion. It may mean using your foot for a quick assist stabilizing a tray or centering your gravity. At times, he admits, “it looks ridiculous—I’m hunched over and balanced in this precarious way.” But no matter how it looks from the outside, it will feel natural and quickly develop into automatic muscle memory.

Goode notes that many people who can only use one arm or hand use simple DIY fixes to reduce the need to find new positions in which to cook. A spike in a cutting board, for instance, can hold items in place, reducing your need to find leverage. And a wooden dowel affixed to a paint roller is a lot easier to use one-handed than finding the right angle to hold a two-handed rolling pin. That’s just not Goode’s style, personally. Although “maybe when I get older and I’ve developed intense back pain from all this hunching over I’ll be like, ‘all right, gadget time.’”

How people who fatigue easily or have limited strength adapt in the kitchen

Meal prep and planning can be especially powerful tools for anyone prone to fatigue, says Coke. “I tend to do my cooking in the morning, as I have more energy, and cook double portions that I can freeze for later use.” Simple recipes and pre-prepared ingredients are also a boon. The rise of the popularity of one-pot recipes certainly helps to accommodate these sorts of needs today.

It is trickier, Coke argues, to figure out how to deal with low grip strength when you have to use utensils with small, hard handles. Coke’s solution is to “just zap everything in a food processor” then throw it all together, reserving his strength for things like mixing and side-stepping the finest motor function and ongoing strength drains of cooking. But others with limited grip strength, dexterity, and stamina address this limitation by putting foam onto handles to make them easier to hold for longer periods of time. Others design their cooking schedules to alternate between tasks that use different muscle groups and build in breaks to minimize the continuous strain of gripping, chopping, stirring, or any other kitchen activity.

How people who use wheelchairs adapt in the kitchen 

For Hong, one of the most frustrating aspects of learning to navigate life in a chair was figuring out how to do—and reach—everything from a low seated position. “It takes a while,” she says, “to figure out things like, oh, if I have my coffee at the edge of the counter instead of at the back, like everybody else, it’ll make things so much easier.” Granted, people born with a disability that leads them to use a wheelchair may, with their spongy young brains, figure these things out a bit quicker and so feel less frustration. But everyone in a chair needs to contend with a largely standing world.

Hong has solved this kitchen conundrum by bringing as much of cooking down to her level as she can. Her family has built a customized table low enough for her to get leverage while in her chair. She’s learned how to balance a cutting board on her lap with a towel under it to prevent slippage. And when she does need to use higher surfaces, there are always hooks and poles for reach, mirrors to see what is going on, and clever workarounds like scooping pasta out of boiling water into a colander suspended over another bowl rather than hoisting said pot of boiling water up from the stove while seated and perilously getting it over to an elevated sink to dump it out.

One-pot meals are a favorite for Hong as well, as they minimize the amount of back-and-forth she has to do in the kitchen. The more efficient her recipes, the less she has to figure out adaptations.

She is also a big believer in recognizing when a modification may be possible, but would also be time-consuming, exhausting, or flat-out absurd. In these situations, she suggests just asking for help from someone proficient in an ability you might struggle with. “Independence does not mean you have to do everything yourself,” she argues. “True independence is controlling your environment.” Sometimes that control takes the form of empowered delegation or cooperation.

How people with developmental disabilities adapt in the kitchen

Although the needs of people with developmental disabilities vary wildly from one individual to the next, Sue Hoss (of Look, Cook, and Eat) and Anna Moyer (Accessible Chef) note that many have trouble with standard recipes. John Kyhl, for instance, who has Down syndrome, is an excellent reader but often has trouble holding his place in a paragraph if he has to turn away from it. Complex recipes with compound steps also pose a challenge.

“For me to find a simple recipe was half the battle,” says Ellen Kyhl, who ultimately turned to Hoss’s resources for help. It helps as well if that simple recipe is written (or can be copied out) in large font and clear bullet points. Illustrated steps might help, too. Ellen Kyhl says that, when cooking with John, she often thinks: “How can I make this task as small and simple as possible—then split it in half again and again and again,” so there’s something easy to follow that will slowly build up skills.

“Differentiation of like things is also a challenge for John,” Ellen adds. “For example, a tablespoon versus a teaspoon—finding it in a drawer,” because of the similarity of the label. You might have to develop clearer labels and strict organization systems in a kitchen to help mitigate that issue.

It is useful, at least early on, for many people with developmental disabilities to cook with at least one partner the way John cooks with Ellen. That partner can help them to build a repertoire of recipes customized in the way that works best for them, to fill in on recipe work if fatigue starts to set in, and overall to help them develop the core skills and confidence necessary to cook a stable of loved dishes on their own. “The duration of learning a skill for someone with a disability may be years instead of months or weeks,” Ellen notes. But the autonomy is worth the time.

How people with visual impairments adapt in the kitchen

A shocking number of recipes and bits of conventional cooking advice center on sight: checking the color of meat, reading thermometers, or noting the hue of variant peppers. So one might think that cooking with a visual impairment is especially daunting. But in truth, more often than not, people with vision impairments can learn alternative cues for readiness at each stage of cooking with their other senses. Powders all have their unique feel. Frying oil or boiling water has a sound. About-to-burn bread has a smell.

When cooking in a new environment, a visually impaired chef might need some help getting acquainted to a new space and where all its ingredients and appliances are. But most visually impaired cooks memorize the layout of their own kitchens and customize them with simple cues like “bump dot stickers on the stove and touchscreen appliances,” as Ha points out, which assist in differentiating between devices, setting temperature dials, and so on.

Cooking with a visual impairment may require a few special precautions, like avoiding sleeves in case they get caught on something. Adding cook time to recipes instead of preheating the oven minimizes the risk of scorching oneself on a hot rack.

But beyond that, it is—like cooking with most disabilities—not too different from the way most people cook in practice: Use the skills and senses that you have, and lean into the strongest ones. Experiment your way to individualized tactics that work well and feel natural for you. Plan and organize until you develop a sense of confidence. This might take time, and your process could look different from anyone else’s. But as Hong points out, “There is no right or wrong way, no specific time” in which to master things. “If cooking is something you really want to do, you owe it to yourself to try. Because it’s absolutely doable.”