Minced Words Unlearning the Ableism of Cookbooks and Kitchen Wisdom
When I developed nerve problems in my hands, so much of what we do in the kitchen was suddenly inaccessible to me.
This is Minced Words , a column by Gabrielle Drolet on bringing the conversation about accessibility into the kitchen.
In the corner of my kitchen, sitting unceremoniously on the tile floor, is a tiny white dishwasher.
When I say tiny , I want you to imagine a dishwasher smaller than whatever you’re already picturing. Smaller, still. Keep shrinking it down until it doesn’t even reach your knees, and you’re envisioning the correct size.
My dishwasher, described as portable in its product descriptions, weighs in at twenty-six pounds and can handle approximately four place settings at a time. It’s too big and bulky for a countertop, too small to look normal on the floor. Next to my regular-sized appliances—counters at a standard height, an average fridge-and-freezer combo—the dishwasher looks like a mistake, as though someone ordered it online without checking its dimensions and hasn’t had the chance to return it yet.
A dishwasher might seem like a helpful but unnecessary luxury—something you’re lucky to find in an apartment but can get by if it’s not. For me, day-to-day life wouldn’t be manageable without it.
My tiny dishwasher is probably among the silliest things I own. It’s also among the most important.
Roughly a year before I bought the little dishwasher, I developed a nerve condition that would eventually become chronic and disabling. The condition, called thoracic outlet syndrome, made pain swell across my upper body, searing through my hands, wrists, chest, and neck. The pain was accompanied by numbness too: I often couldn’t (and still can’t) feel my fingers at all, making it hard to do anything that requires mobility or fine motor skills.
In those early months, whenever I told people about what I was going through, they immediately asked about all the big ways it would impact my life. This makes sense: I was a writer who suddenly couldn’t type much, an illustrator who struggled to hold a pencil for more than a few minutes at a time, a student who couldn’t keep up with the workload I was expected to maintain. But it was the smaller, day-to-day tasks I struggled with the most. I suddenly had to think about and put real effort into almost everything I did to take care of myself, from working out to brushing my teeth. This weighed on me more than anything else.
Before disability became a big part of my life, I never noticed how few conversations about it happen in popular culture. In the past year, it’s an absence I’ve felt deeply.
When you read a recipe book, the reader is usually assumed to be able-bodied and to have the same capacity as the writer.
When disability is the subject of mainstream conversation, people have a tendency to prioritize the big picture—how health impacts work, school, and maybe hobbies. Outlets publish articles about accessible housing and health equity. People talk about how difficult it is for disabled people to get the care they need, or the structural barriers that make life harder. These conversations are important, but they also fail to consider disability on a smaller, more intimate scale.
What gets less attention are the little things that add up to make a life. Things like tying your shoelaces or braiding your hair or lighting a candle. Like turning on the faucets to wash your hands. Texting your friends. Cooking with ease. Though I often have conversations about small-scale accessibility with disabled friends or colleagues, I rarely see them crop up in mainstream culture. This absence means there’s less support or understanding on that level than there should be.
As I struggled to find ways to get by as well as I had before my nerve condition, I noticed how few resources were designed with disability in mind. When you read a recipe book (or anything else, really), the reader is usually assumed to be able-bodied and to have the same capacity as the writer. A recipe might give instructions like “always grind the pepper yourself”; “squeeze fresh lemon juice by hand”; “preserve your pans by not putting them in the dishwasher.” It won’t offer or even consider an alternative.
Learning to navigate life with pain and limited function, I was lucky to live with a partner who cared about me and did everything she could to help me manage. But even with that support, the inability to do things I’d taken for granted wore me down, especially in the kitchen.
I’ve loved cooking since I was a teenager. For years—since early undergrad, when I first became excited about learning new recipes and collecting new ingredients—I’ve even prided myself on my cooking and come to view making food for others as an act of care. But as pain and numbness took hold of my life, cooking turned into a burden.
Everything I did in and around the kitchen became arduous, if it was even possible. There’s the obvious stuff: chopping, shredding, peeling, whisking. But take a moment to think about all the little things adjacent to the actual cooking too—all the tasks that require your hands that seem like second nature: opening a can, unscrewing the lid on a carton, closing a bag with a built-in zip tie. I struggled to shop for groceries alone, unable to carry the bags myself. And after eating, I struggled to tidy up, a task my partner and I used to split.
The apartment we lived in didn’t have a dishwasher, meaning everything needed to be washed by hand. I struggled with all of it, pain coursing down my forearms whenever I held a sponge. My partner took on as much of the cleaning as she could, but it was too much for one person to keep up and we eventually switched to paper plates. Though this was a necessary move, it’s one I resisted.
Ableism often crops up under the guise of other concerns. When people use the tools they need to get by, they may be accused of being lazy or not caring about the environment. Things like plastic straws or pre-peeled fruit—which can be an essential for some people—are constantly framed as irresponsible and unnecessary. I was guilty of some of the same thinking, having internalized these beliefs after hearing them for years.
Using paper plates felt like a personal failing. Despite how clearly I needed the help, I still resented myself for it. Part of me believed if I just pushed myself I could use real dishes. Another part of me thought back to being a kid and learning from my mother that cleaning up after yourself is a virtue—one I was now abandoning.
It wasn’t easy to allow myself to use the accessibility tools I need without shame or guilt. Despite how much easier they made my life, I longed for the ability to stand at the sink, scrubbing a pan without feeling it throughout my body. I didn’t long to do my own dishes because it was a task I loved or missed. It’s always been my least favorite part of cooking. I just longed for the autonomy and grieved that it was being taken away from me.
When my girlfriend and I broke up, I moved in with a friend. In our talks about what we wanted in a shared place, dishwasher was at the top of my list—my hands hadn’t gotten better, and I knew I couldn’t get by without one. So we found a unit with a dishwasher, and in the months I lived there, its presence genuinely increased my quality of life.
I moved into my own place not long afterward, taking a lease over from a friend. One one hand, I was excited: I had always wanted to live on my own, and I was in love with the charming old apartment I was moving into. But I was also scared for those same reasons. Living alone meant I wouldn’t have immediate support or help if ever I needed it, and living in an old apartment long neglected by its landlord meant an appliance like a dishwasher was a pipe dream.
I imagined being so physically pained by dishes that I stopped cooking altogether.
At that point, in early 2022, my hands had gotten relatively better—I could do slightly more for slightly longer, though there were still days where everything felt impossible. More importantly, I’d gotten better at finding accessible alternatives for most tasks. I’d found kitchen hacks that allowed me to cook and figured out ways to shop for groceries. But the idea of being alone without a dishwasher made me feel physically nauseous.
I imagined mounting plates and pans in the sink. I imagined being so physically pained by dishes that I stopped cooking altogether. Or worse: I imagined pushing myself to clean despite the pain and injuring myself further. The thought made me dread cooking at all.
A few weeks before I moved, I was scrolling through Facebook Marketplace for furniture when I spotted the tiny dishwasher. The post didn’t even include a picture of the machine itself: only of the cardboard box that apparently contained it, unopened and brand-new.
I had heard of portable dishwashers, but they were so expensive that they didn’t feel like a real option. I’d lusted after this particular model online but never considered buying it at full price. It didn’t even need to be connected to the sink, meaning it was accessible to me—it had a reservoir, so you could just fill it with water and drain it wherever.
I cautiously messaged the poster, assuming this was a scam. It wasn’t, he insisted: He’d purchased it for his daughter by mistake and wasn’t able to return it.
“Why is it so cheap, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’ve had it posted for weeks with no bites, so I just keep lowering the price,” he told me. “No one wants a tiny dishwasher.” I was certain I was being scammed.“I’ll bring it to you right now and you can see. You don’t even have to pay me first,” he insisted. “What’s your address?”
Half an hour later, he showed up at the door with an awkward box in his arms. When I first set up my little dishwasher, I felt the need to justify it to anyone who visited. I have a hard time doing dishes because of my hands , I might say. Now, I do so less.
Though I’ve largely come to terms with being disabled, some internalized ableism still lingers, pushing me to feel embarrassed or lazy for relying on any tool I need to get by. These feelings have been especially present recently, as my symptoms have gotten better. Though I know that doing the dishes by hand would bring back and exacerbate my pain, part of me still feels I should.
All of this might have been easier if we talked more openly about accessibility in our conversations about cooking or cleaning. Considering accessible alternatives should always include the little ways we take care of ourselves. A greater cultural understanding of accessibility tools starts with how we talk about getting by every day.
As someone who loves to cook, I don’t need to love cleaning up afterward, but I need to be able to do it. Even if my little dishwasher looks odd in the kitchen corner where I’ve plopped it down.