Ableism in the Climate Movement

Ableism, which is the discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, is a serious problem in the climate and environmental movement, so much so that there is actually a specific term coined to describe how ableism manifests in climate and environmental policies and rhetoric: Ecoableism.

I personally had never thought of this connection until I came across disability advocate, Sarah Todd Hammer on Instagram. I watched her video and read her post of how outright plastic straw bans are serious ableist policies. She explains how many people with disabilities (PWDs) cannot pick up heavy glasses and cups (she is also included in this group) and have to rely on straws to stay hydrated, and above all, alive. She also explains how plastic straw alternatives are not adequate or safe alternatives for a variety of reasons (many of which I would have never thought of myself): PWDs may not have the dexterity to clean them, they are not positionable which is important for people with limited neck movement, they can disintegrate causing some PWDs to accidentally aspirate fluids, and they may pose an allergy or temperature risk. Sarah also goes on to explain how plastic straws are being blamed for a larger environmental problem, that cannot be fixed by simply banning plastic straws. I agree that we should definitely reduce the number of plastic straws we use, but we cannot do this while also placing additional burdens of PWDs. As they are necessities for some PWDs, plastic straws should always remain available for when someone asks for one, but in no ways should PWDs be expected to defend themselves or have to validate their disability or need for a plastic straw to a stranger, just to be able to drink.

Thank you so much Sarah for helping us understand why plastic straw bans that don’t include protections for disabled people are inherently ecoableist, as is indiscriminate removal of precut, prewashed, or pre-peeled produce from grocery stores, which makes it difficult for people with limited limb dexterity to eat fruits and vegetables. For able-bodied people, these are all “convenience items” but can be necessities for PWDs.

Systemic ableism also manifests itself inside ecoableism in the form of “Climate Darwinism” which is the implicit or explicit assumption that PWDs are simply not cut out to survive the impacts of the climate crisis. Sadly, this concept underlies many of our climate policies, attitudes and initiatives, treating PWDs as expendable and reduces the climate issue to on of physical survivability, and ignoring the systemic ableism in our policies, attitudes, programs and institutions.

For example, on October 12th 2019, 12 minutes into the PG&E wildfire preventative power shut-off, a man with severe coronary artery atherosclerosis, depending on an oxygen tank for survival, died. Murky details from the company left him no time to prepare for the planned shut-off. Many people blamed the man for his own death, stating that he should have anticipated something like this happening eventually and bought a generator for his oxygen tank. Comments like these really lay out our systemic ableism on the table, as PWDs, a group that makes 66 cents to the non-disabled dollar, and who are allowed to be paid well beneath the minimum wage, to spend $5,000-10,000 to avoid death.

Another example comes from a recent study stating that inhalers have as large a carbon footprint as consuming meat (which we already know is a huge contributor to climate change). The study also states that the onus is on the individual user to switch the type of inhaler they use if they want to reduce their individual carbon footprint, showing a severe lack of understanding about how difficult it is for disabled people to simply change their medication, just to be able to show that they care about the environment. It is this systemic (eco)ableism, not disability itself that makes PWDs especially vulnerable to the climate crisis.

We see even more instances of ecoableism when it comes to disaster preparedness and response measures. PWDs are more likely to be left behind or abandoned during disaster evacuation because of lack of preparation and planning, in addition to inaccessible facilities, services and transportation systems. Shelters and refugee camps are often not accessible and PWDs are frequently turned away due to the perception that they need “complex medical services.” PWDs can also face discrimination when there is a shortage of resources. The needs of PWDs continue to be excluded over long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts, thus missing another opportunity to rethink accessibility, inclusivity, and resiliency in the face of future disasters.

Always taking an intersectional lens when combatting the climate crisis and examining ecoableism, we have to examine the unique challenges borne onto PWDs with other, compounding oppressions such as poverty, race, and colonialism. Planned power outages, such as the one in the example above, occur without sufficient notice or accommodations for people who depend on the functioning of life-sustaining equipment, who are also disproportionately low income and less likely to be able to afford a back-up generator or hotel stay. In the US, colonialism and ableism laid the groundwork for the devastation that the disability community in Puerto Rico faced following Hurricane Maria in 2018. Economic austerity policies subjected the island to poor infrastructure, an unstable electrical grid, and inadequate medical systems and public services. After the hurricane hit, the disabled community was left especially vulnerable, as eligible Puerto Ricans receive a measly $74 per month in disability assistance, a small fraction of the amount provided on the US mainland. These are just a few examples, of effects of compounding and intersecting oppressions on PWDs and are certainly not exceptions.

In order to keep your environmental activism intersectional, it is important to always continue to educate yourself on ableism, amplify voices of PWDs, ensure they have voices at all stages of disaster management processes, especially planning and preparedness.

Always check yourself if you begin judging anyone, whether visibly disabled or not, for what you perceive to be a lack of commitment to sustainability practices. PWDs may, for example, have less flexibility to ride public transit or purchase sustainable alternatives to necessities that able-bodied people see as “conveniences” that can/should be sacrificed.

Always practice inclusivity and consider the needs of PWDs in all aspects of your activism. For example, if you are planning a protest, make sure it is at an accessible location. Check if green policies in your community or place of work take into account the experiences of PWDs, and if not, fight to change it!

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