Why Disabled People Matter in the Climate Emergency
A grim picture of exclusion
On the first day of the COP26 Climate Summit in November 2021, Karine Elharrar, a member of the Israeli Cabinet – and a wheelchair user – was unable to attend. Forced to wait outside the venue for two hours, she eventually returned to her accommodation after being offered an inaccessible mode of transport to the summit area.
This incident is one of the many examples of the systematic exclusion faced by Disabled people from negotiation, discussion, and policy spaces in environmental politics. Significantly, it took place on one of the world’s biggest and most important platforms for negotiation on the climate crisis. A large portion of such exclusion stems from a poor understanding of why Disabled people should, or how we could, be heard at such platforms. It comes from a society which is still shaped by and around those without Disabilities.
That exclusion, and biased, narrow perspective, is ableism: discrimination based on ability that favours those without Disabilities. It is systemic ableism, too, which oversimplifies the issues that Disabled people face, and the diversity of our views. This often partners with disablism, which refers to the discrimination we often face as Disabled people (for example, the use of slurs). Both in turn feed on each other, worsening the lives of Disabled people at the political and personal level.
Therefore, to better understand how Disabled people think about topics of environmental justice, and if exclusion is indeed felt among them, I began interviewing members of my local enabling community in the South West of England about access, disproportionate impacts and discrimination.
In my research, I follow the definition of Disability provided by Professor Mike Oliver, the world’s first Professor of Disability Studies. While impairment refers to the ‘physical or cognitive difference’ that an individual has, the Disability is the amount of disadvantage faced by that individual according to society’s efforts to meet our needs. Disability is always a shifting interplay of biological, social, economic and political factors rather than a static ‘problem’. I use the capitalised, identity-first terms ‘Disabled people’ and ‘Disability’ to emphasise that society continues to disable those of us with impairments, and that Disabled people share a collective identity.
A common perspective of Disabled people and members of the enabling community that I interviewed was that profound Disability was all-encompassing, and there was little time or energy to focus on much else. ‘I am a little bit worried about climate change but it’s at the back of my mind as I have other issues [...] I would guess that disabled [sic] people on the whole are slightly less worried about climate change [...] their time is taken up tackling their own situation,’ said a participant on Scope’s online forum. In other words, as summed up neatly by an interviewee of a 2003 study on Disability and environmental citizenship, ‘You can’t think about world capitalism if you can’t get out of the house.’
This should be respected. It can be a privilege to have the capacity to worry about the climate, let alone take action.
Where are the consultations with Disabled people on sustainability initiatives?
However, the trend is not universal, nor inevitable. Deborah Fenney, one of the UK’s prominent scholars on Disability and sustainability, finds in her 2015 thesis, ‘some disabled [sic] people [...] do hold complex environmental understandings and concerns.’ Given that Disabled people make up at least 20% of the UK population, this finding may seem obvious. Of course there would be a diversity of viewpoints on these issues in the Disabled community, despite the barriers we often face to engaging with them – and yet these views are rarely heard on decision-making platforms, from the local to global scale.
Following COP26, Fran Haddock, a young climate activist with chronic fatigue syndrome, stated firmly that not only do Disabled people care about the climate crisis, but are ‘one of the groups [....it] affects the most.’ Prejudiced, ill-informed assumptions of the homogeneity of the Disabled community’s perspectives, or perhaps a simple lack of regard for those perspectives and for the care of Disabled people, blocks this fact from featuring strongly in climate justice discourse. And yet Disabled people are likely to face difficulties in migrating or accessing emergency provisions in the case of environmental disasters; to have existing health problems amplified by extreme environmental conditions; to have our needs neglected in times of crisis.
Where, then, are the consultations with Disabled people on sustainability initiatives, predicated on the realisation that some of us really ‘get’ environmental catastrophe?
In its 2018 Disability and Development Report, the United Nations admits that it needs to do more to facilitate inclusion in policy spaces. It points to the disproportionate negative impacts that will be suffered by Disabled people in a changing climate which are, ‘not adequately addressed’: a higher likelihood of living in fuel poverty; a lack of evacuation planning and provision; barriers to services following environmental disasters and; higher vulnerability to exploitation in the wake of disaster being key examples.
In my study, too, Disabled interviewees and enablers discussed a range of ways in which climate change is likely to limit the lives of Disabled people in the South West of England. They cited difficulties with relocating in the case of increased flooding; visiting typically more accessible places such as the seaside or rivers; and providing for an individual’s needs, should their caring network be coping with higher stress levels. Repeatedly came the idea that Disabled people were the group most likely to be the first to have funding cut as we move into a challenging time with the climate, and the last to be considered or provided for. There is a formidably strong precedent for this in the UK. The sector of the British population claiming Disability benefits became £9 billion worse off from 2010-15, as the Coalition Government implemented harsh austerity policies.
However, it is easy to slip into a defeatist narrative of absolute victimhood. Fenney rightly observes how, ‘disability [sic] is only mentioned [in sustainability policies] in relation to “vulnerability” [...] the potential for agency is often unaddressed.’ Disabled people tirelessly demonstrate that the disablist victimhood paradigm is invalid and acts as an instrument of oppression. Some of the fiercest and best-informed voices in the climate justice movement are actually those of Disabled people. There is of course Greta Thunberg, who suffered from climate anxiety and depression. And the American social activist Daphne Frias – who has spearheaded movements against gun violence, and in favour of climate justice and youth political participation in the US – is a wheelchair user with Cerebral Palsy.
Strength in our interconnections
The meaningful inclusion of Disabled people in the climate movement is most importantly an indispensable component of true justice. Nothing about us without us: the well-loved mantra for representation in justice movements. But it is not only that. In 2013, Abbott and Porter refreshingly asked whether ‘[Disabled people’s] lived experience of interdependency, as opposed to individual independence, [could] contribute to the radical rethinking of our relationships with the environment […] and each other?’ Their central argument is indubitable: that Disabled people negotiate frequently and heavily with risk and barriers, and this has something to offer. Herein lies the central contention of my research: Disabled people have a lot to teach the world about many things, but especially about how to live collectively in times of difficulty. Such as a climate crisis.
This was affirmed by the interviewees of my study, one of whom said, ‘Lots of families [of Disabled people] are incredibly resourceful […] They expect the worst-case scenario.’ As we plough forward in a heating world, there will be further restrictions on our lives, whether this is because places we know and love disappear, because we have to drastically change the way in which we travel, or because the outside world is more dangerous, for example due to extreme heat or further pandemics. But this, ‘is almost what they [Disabled people] are used to,’ one enabler stated that since the pandemic began, ‘Most of the people we work with have been able to cope with radical changes to their circumstances remarkably well.’
Disabled people have a lot to teach about how to live collectively in times of difficulty.
There is an exciting academic opportunity here. Abbott and Porter’s secondary idea – that the experiences of the Disabled community makes us exceptionally well-placed to inform climate resilience policy – is fertile for consolidation, challenge, or development, in a range of research and practice settings.
A neoliberal vision would have us believe that we are all high-speed trains racing along separate tracks. To pretend that this is true is to shoot off towards environmental and social collapse. It is also to deny our very human-ness. Disabled voices and those of their carers in the climate justice movement show us that the centering of our own vulnerability, diversity and connection is a powerful way to true resilience on our breaking planet. For everybody.
Kiri Ley is a 21-year-old environmental justice activist based in Brighton with a languages and literature background, and who has studied at Oxford from 2019-20. She has struggled with significant periods of Disability herself and has worked as a paid enabler for young people with Disabilities. She was recovering from a summer sabotaged by ill-health when the Karine Elharrar headline swept into her newsfeed, providing a boost to a research project she’d been working on for some time. The new year finds her well, working for an NGO, studying part-time, writing, and participating in activism.
Artwork by Maisie Farnham (she/they), a 20-year-old creative, activist and academic. She also happens to have chronic pain. Follow her on Instagram @maisieownsthevoid.