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Calling for climate justice for disabled people

Responses to the climate crisis must stop excluding disabled people and ensure their knowledge and needs are centred, according to writer El Gibbs.

“Listen to us, include us and hear our expertise,” she says.

This article is published as part of Croakey’s contribution to the global #CoveringClimateNow project.


El Gibbs writes:

Climate change is having an impact on everyone, including disabled people. But we are often excluded from discussions about mitigation or adaptation measures, let alone included for our expertise.

Are we including disabled people in our disaster plans, or thinking about what disabled people will need to cope with increasing unpredictable and extreme weather, air pollution or heatwaves? At the same time, are we including disabled people when we think about how to adapt to a changing world and how can disabled people be included in efforts to slow climate change?

Alex Ghenis

Alex Ghenis, the project manager for the New Earth Disability project at the World Institute on Disability, is stark how climate change will impact on disabled people.

He says that “heatwaves especially affect people with fragile health, climate migration is phenomenally difficult for this group, and people with disabilities are often the first to be abandoned under the age-old triage mentality.”

Disabled people are often most affected by disasters, and are “less likely to receive aid and ongoing support to recover over the longer term.”

We can be left out of disaster planning, as well as just left behind. Warning messages may not be accessible, nor may there be accessible evacuation centres. In the USA, “with every hurricane comes a load of stories about nursing home residents, both elderly and disabled, as well as disabled people in their communities suffering extreme hardship, and sometimes death, due to inadequate preparedness.”

Bushfire planning

During the 2013 fires in my home in the Blue Mountains, deaf and disabled community volunteers made sure there were Auslan translations of fire information available on social media, and crowd sourced lists of places to evacuate that were accessible and could take animals.

In the lead up to disasters, “residents take time to prepare in the lead-up to cyclones and extreme weather events, [while] people with a disability have even more to consider and plan.”

We often need to plan for things that non-disabled people don’t need, like access to power for wheelchairs or scooters, housing for assistance animals, extra medication and other equipment.

My bushfire plans include extra time to get places, increased pain medication, spare creams, bandages and medicated skin wash, all before I think about photos or even underwear. None of that even makes it to the RFS bushfire plan guide.

Some of this is changing, with newer strategies starting to including disabled people, including the importance of involving us in the creation of disaster plans. The United Nations has called on governments to “adopt a disability-inclusive approach when taking action to address climate change.”

But most discussions of climate change and sustainability actively exclude disabled people, and even advocate for measures that will hurt us.

Regressive actions

One totemic example has been the debates about plastic straw bans.

On one hand there are many campaigns about banning plastic straws in Australia, after sweeping across many other countries. Large companies, such as McDonald’s, are jumping at the chance to show how environmentally aware they are by banning plastic straws. Local governments and entire states are also joining in.

Social media is full of people proclaiming their hatred of the terrible plastic straw and its scourge of the environment despite evidence that other plastics are far more harmful.

But the big problem with all this is that a plastic straw ban will take away a safe, hygienic and cheap way to have a drink for disabled people, that has no real alternatives.

As health journalist Andre Picard says “the straw, and the bendable plastic straw more specifically, is a remarkably successful example of an accessible technology, and it should not be banned mindlessly any more than it is discarded thoughtlessly.”

Alice Wong, a US disability activist, relies on plastic straws. She explains that these calls for a ban will have real consequences for her. “I live in a world that was never built for me, and every little bit of access is treasured and hard-won. Bans on plastic straws are regressive, not progressive.”

And before you say ‘but what about…?’ believe that disabled people have already thought of whatever you are suggesting. Paper, silicon and metal are just some of the alternatives suggested to replace plastic straws, as though people with disability had never considered them in the first place. This chart, created by Sarah Packwood, clearly outlines why a lot of these alternatives are simply not suitable as substitutes for the plastic straw.

Many disabled people have expressed utter exasperation on social media, as time after time we aren’t listened to or our expertise isn’t being acknowledged, often using the hashtag #SuckItAbleism.

Writer s.e.smith is blunter:

What we hear when people don’t want to listen to us is that we don’t matter.

This kind of rhetoric is familiar.

After all, we’ve been hearing we’re drains on the system and wastes of resources for our entire lives.”

The world is often hostile to people with disability. Finding ways to make it accessible can be hard, but also require us to be innovative and adaptable. Many disabled people are consummate hackers of a non-accessible world, turning everyday items into essential tools to make ordinary activities possible.

Revealing a pattern

This isn’t the first time that environmental campaigns have ignored the needs of disabled people.

Similar exhortations to ban pre-packaged fresh produce overlook how important these products are to people with disability. Again, this is often met with such strong hostility and whataboutery that any conversations become exhausting. It sometimes feels as though these tiny accessibility improvements are an affront to non-disabled people.

Public transport isn’t accessible to many disabled people, nor cycling, making those environmental choices out of reach. Many people with disability rely on air-conditioning or don’t have the financial resources to access renewable energy on their homes.

None of this means that people with disability don’t care about environmental issues, or don’t want to be a part of efforts to address climate change. In fact, there is much expertise and knowledge that disabled people can bring to these campaigns.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha talks about how sick and disabled people were able to use their hard-won knowledge of how to manage air pollution in the Californian wildfires:

In this moment, it was sick and disabled folks who already knew about masks, detox herbs and air purifiers.

Over and over, it was sick and disabled folks — particularly folks with environmental illness, asthma and other autoimmune conditions, who’d been navigating unsafe air for years — who shared our crip survival knowledge and skills for coping with anxiety.”

Listen to us, include us and hear our expertise.

Disabled people are here for environmental and climate justice campaigns, so stop advocating for changes that will harm us or leaving us out altogether. Work with us instead to build fair and equitable movements that don’t leave people behind.

• El Gibbs is a writer about disability and social issues, and winner of the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition in 2014. Follow on Twitter at @bluntshovels.

Together with Summer May Finlay, Gibbs will moderate a #CoveringClimateNow Twitter Festival on 24 September. Please make a note in your diaries!


• This article is published as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration involving more than 300 media outlets around the world that is putting the spotlight on the climate crisis in the leadup to a Climate Action Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 September. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian. Croakey invites our readers, contributors and social media followers to engage with these critical discussions, using the hashtag #CoveringClimateNow. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.

If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of climate change, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.

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