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Climate Activists and Disability: Past, Present and Future

To say that a lot has changed in the discussion about climate change over the last 50 years would be an understatement.

It was first ignored by global governments and policymakers, however climate activists in 2023 are often on television and social media discussing the effects of climate change and what we can do to delay it. A welcome change to be sure, however the changes discussed tend to exclude one of the largest minorities in the world: disabled people. I will be discussing this from my perspective as one, to show how the rest of world is leaving us behind.

Global warming

Initially known as global warming, climate change is the name given to all the various changes in the environment that are man-made and that cause dangerous living situations for humanity in the long run. When first discovered by scientists, governments tried to avoid discussing it publically, as many of their lobbyists had interests in the oil industry.

As it became more of a priority, climate change activists globally have lead to amazing advancements, such as countries like Italy announcing that it will be a mandatory subject in schools. Activists like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have brought a lot of attention to the movement, for better or worse. Even here in the UK we have the Climate Change Act from 2008, the basis for all discussions about the topic in this country.

Policies in its wake, and their issues

Some of the most popular practices that have emerged as a result of climate change awareness include charging extra for plastic bags and many restaurants have started not serving plastic cutlery and straws by default. A great set of policies for a vast majority of the population, but for a significant part of humanity this may be contributing to our struggles. Disabled people are often not included in policy making and decisions, and at times it can come across as not thinking about or just flat out ignoring our needs as a population.

There are many definitions of being disabled and many thought models attempt to analyse our experience. It is a spectrum, where the struggles vary depending on the form, they can be visible or invisible and they can have more or less of an impact on our day to day life. We do, however, have a couple of things in common in our experience: we need assistance in different ways, and we are often left behind while activists fight for other causes.

Disabled people and sustainability

Let’s look at the first example of environmentally conscious policies I mentioned, avoiding plastic straws and other single use plastic. For most people, there is nothing wrong with this. However, when these items are not available for the general public it puts a burden on people who cannot drink out of the cup or use metal straws.

When asking for these items they may have to explain their condition and why they need the more flexible, easy to use option. This subjects us to the judgement and opinion of others, which is a humiliating task to perform when all we want is to eat at our favourite restaurants. This informative article from the blog Creaky Joints goes into further details about this issue.

When it comes to recycling at home, this is further complicated. It is often easier to buy the single-use plastic cutlery and bags, and that’s not even counting the medical equipment a lot of us have to use, a lot of which is plastic or requires electricity to work. Even the walk to the recycling bin can be a struggle for a lot of us. This can lead to a sense of guilt for disabled people who would love to help, but may physically struggle with making it happen at all or as often as they would like.

Disabled people and extreme weather

One of the most worrying aspects of climate change for everyone is the extreme weather conditions that will escalate in the coming years. This is extra worrying for disabled people: power-outs will impact our assistive technology, and the weather being extremely hot or cold, as well as sudden shifts in temperature can mean a decrease in quality of life for a lot of us. They can be extremely challenging for those of us with chronic pain and/or sensory issues with temperature.

In case of extreme weather such as intense snow and heavy rain our range of mobility is even more limited than usual. Going to the shop down the road becomes inaccessible, with slippery or snowy roads being some of the most dangerous locations for people who may struggle with balance with a walking stick, or getting stuck in the snow with a power chair. Going to work in those conditions is intense and stressful, and calling into work sick too much often leads to not being paid enough and possibly poverty.

And finally one of the most heartbreaking consenquences of not being included in climate policy making and not being able to leave the house as much is not being able to interact with our community in person. Being with other disabled people means we understand each other and can celebrate each other’s victories. If you belong to any minority gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation you can feel like you are being left behind by them if you can’t see them as often. Asking for help is a struggle, especially if you can’t be around other people regularly.

Overall the experience of being disabled in discussions about the environment can make us feel like we need to advocate for ourselves, as no one else will do it for us. We may feel isolated and guilted for not being able to choose the environmentally friendly options, so I am inviting anyone who reads this to remember us when discussing ways of saving the environment. We want to help, but we deserve accessibility first and foremost, to boldly go where everyone else has gone before.


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