Disabled people are frequently excluded from environmentalism, both as people who can affect change and who are disproportionately affected by it. Sophie Buck breaks down the profound ableism of omitting disabled people from conversations surrounding climate change.

By Sophie Buck

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) recently convened and revealed that, with continued fossil fuel burning, the planet is on track for a 2.4°C rise in global temperature, instead of the less damaging goal of 1.5°C. Disabled people are disproportionally affected by climate change, from rising temperatures to the increased scale and frequency of severe weather events that it causes. Disabled people are also frequently overlooked when developing climate solutions, especially those who are also poor (a common co-occurrence under capitalism with added disability cost, medical care barriers and a productivity-based economy) and otherwise marginalized. The climate crisis also causes disabilities through pollution, injury and food shortages, yet, as exemplified by the inaccessibility of COP26, disabled people are disproportionately excluded from climate discussions. It’s time to re-write disabled people into discussions surrounding climate change, and explore what an accessible environmental future could look like.

There are many ways in which disabled people are affected by climate change: from global temperatures rising (the UK reached a blistering 38.7°C in the summer of 2019), to extreme weather events like floods, wildfires, and tornadoes. Numerous disabilities involve a greater susceptibility to heat stress and dehydration – due to heat intolerance symptoms and cardiovascular issues, difficulty hydrating oneself, and regulation-impacting medication side effects. According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seven in ten people who die from hyperthermia-related causes (when the body is exposed to extreme heat and unable to cool itself) have an underlying cardiovascular condition. Compounding this, disabled people’s average lower disposable income means they are more likely to live in poorer quality housing that is ineffective at regulating heat and are less able to afford air conditioning and fans. Moreover, disabled people’s mobility and mobility aid’s function can be impacted by extreme weather, which can, for example, cause electric wheelchairs to overheat, limiting the ability to get to (potentially inaccessible) air-conditioned public spaces.

As evidenced in United Nations Human Rights Council reports that: “persons with disabilities [are] at a high risk of being left behind in emergencies, natural disasters, internal displacement and migration due to structural barriers such as lack of accessibility and poverty.” Disabled people are at greater risk during climate disasters, having a reduced ability to escape harm and experiencing financial barriers that make having somewhere safe to go to and an accessible means to get there more difficult. Yet disabled people are all too often left out of disaster plans, with a lack of accessible escape routes or plans and information not conveyed in accessible formats. Disabled people must be not just included but at the forefront in extreme weather plans: it’s a matter of life and death.

Not only are disabled people – especially those multiply marginalised – most affected by climate change, but they’re also overlooked in plans to mitigate climate change, often being shamed and harassed for their exclusion to access sustainable rules for living. Access needs, like plastic straws, are too often treated as luxuries by non-disabled people rather than essential for everyday living, and disabled people are excluded from opportunities to refute this and propose accessible eco-friendly strategies. COP26 itself was inaccessible to wheelchair-using ministers and didn’t offer BSL broadcasting. Simultaneously, ableist environmental surveys, like the ones circulated by Imperial College and YouGov, proclaimed the negative effect of inhalers on the environment. This was particularly ironic given the role of air pollution in increasing asthma rates and encouraged people to make “sustainable” lifestyle changes like cutting out meat and avoiding cars, which overlooked access barriers. A BBC headline in 2019 also argued that “asthma [has a] carbon footprint ‘as big as eating meat’”. It’s important to break down how some of these blanket climate solutions impact already struggling disabled people, and explore more holistic solutions.

While vegan and vegetarian diets can help to reduce carbon emissions, it must be recognised that disabled people are less able to afford the added energy or financial costs these diets require. Their food choices may be restricted due to reliance on carers preparing meals, unable to restrict diets further due to eating disorder recovery or have dietary requirements. This means that meat taxes and imposed veganism disproportionally affect disabled people.

Similarly, while proposals to cycle, walk and use public transport instead of using gas-guzzling cars to get around are environmentally beneficial, they overlook mobility issues, fatigue and largely inaccessible public transport. The majority of tube and rail stations are inaccessible: the ones that are accessible are unreliable, with assistance frequently not showing up and lifts broken. Transport is busy, with no guaranteed seating and wheelchair spaces, fluorescent lighting, and the risk of catching coronavirus. This is exhausting and anxiety-inducing, extending journey times at best and stranding disabled people at worst. For many disabled people, driving or being driven is the only way to travel safely and reliably. Nuance-lacking rules like taxing cars or creating car-free zones (as is being proposed in London and Brighton) without accessible transport alternatives disproportionately affects the already restricted freedom of movement of disabled people.

Equally, while plastic production must be reduced to lower the undeniably harmful effect that it has on the environment, plastic-free living is not possible for many disabled people without a suitable alternative. For example, plastic straws are bendier and safer than existing plastic-free alternatives, and plastic is used for sterility and safety in medical settings, from syringes and pacemakers to masks and gloves. Many disabled people also rely on pre-prepared food or delivered items, which, albeit often undesirably, largely come packaged in plastic. While plastic is causing destruction, it’s also saving lives.

While the secondhand market is important as it allows us to reuse existing resources and offers the bonus of lowering costs, buying secondhand clothing can be especially tricky for disabled people due to clothing access needs limiting choice, such as sensory sensitivities; it’s hard enough finding disability-friendly clothing in mainstream shops, let alone secondhand shops, and searching through racks is an energy-demanding task. Secondhand shops, which vary regionally in quality, are often cramped and hard to navigate for wheelchair users, and can be a challenge to travel to. Conversely, the online secondhand market is overwhelming in scale and comes with price mark-ups by resellers and the inability to return unsuitable items.

This isn’t to say that disabled people don’t collectively care about nor have a responsibility to the environment – disabled people, after all, are especially impacted by climate change. Rather, it’s that disabled people are largely excluded from environmental movements, as if it is not sustainable, as currently defined, to be disabled. Rather than enforce reductive and inaccessible climate solutions that focus on individuals’ actions, environmental movements need to holistically unpick the forces driving climate change: capitalism, fossil fuel burning and resource extraction that it’s built on, and the overconsumption it encourages. This perspective not only reveals how industries can reduce climate change, but also turns the tables to look not just at the sustainability of what is consumed, but also how much is consumed.

Revisiting the previously proposed climate solutions with this perspective can reveal effective and accessible ways to tackle climate change. Beyond the simple vegetables good, meat bad dichotomy, there’s a need for a more prominent discussion around sustainable farming practices and the fact a third to half of the food is never consumed. Efforts to reduce food waste by lowering aesthetic standards, encouraging nose-to-tail eating, and discouraging overbuying could have a huge impact. Likewise, ensuring the full accessibility of public transport, limiting non-essential air travel, and investing in innovation to make all fuel clean and renewable gets closer to the roots of the pollution problem. With plastic, manufacturers need to invest in developing accessible alternatives to plastic that still enable sterility and lightness, working with disabled people to test this, and plans to reduce plastic usage should be nuanced to incorporate needs. Secondhand selling must be made more accessible, but new clothing must be produced sustainably as standard, with affordable styles that will endure different trends and seasons, and quality that will last, while being consumed in moderation.

The future of environmentalism must be accessible because we need a habitable planet for everyone, not just non-disabled people. Disabled people must be included in environmentalism so that strategies and disaster plans can incorporate their needs. Individuals like climate and disability activist Alex Ghenis, founder of Accessible Climate Strategies consultancy, are already leading the way. Disabled people have a wealth of experience with adapting and out-of-the-box thinking, which is exactly what the fast-changing world needs right now.

This article appeared in the December/January issue of PosAbility Magazine.

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