Why I’m here: four disabled female voices on their place within the environmental movement

“People in power will justify exclusion by saying ‘you can't please everyone.’ Never accept that.”


This is a guest post from writer and campaigner Melissa Parker

Disabled people are among the worst affected by climate change and environmental breakdown. Climate change impacts marginalised groups first, and the disabled community is the largest marginalised group. So many disabled people are doing vital work for the planet. But our efforts are hindered by a society that often seems indifferent to our needs.

I spoke to four leading disabled women with radically different experiences who continue to fight for climate justice and to be a voice for disabled people in different ways.

“We have to fight to live – but we can’t ‘moan’ about it”

Dr Harriet Larrington-Spencer is a Research Fellow at the Active Travel Academy and is passionate about active travel, including how to help disabled people become more active.

When Harriet became disabled and then chronically ill, she started to think much more about the assumptions and biases ingrained within environmentalism. She loved cycling and realised after becoming disabled that there were many challenges to ensuring that she could freely use her trike.

Unless you’re disabled, it is difficult to understand the struggle and the frustration, “It can often be exhausting as a disabled person to get involved in environmentalism.”

Because we’re shamed for our access needs but still have to be disability rights activists daily. Consider the barriers often placed on cycle routes. These are the “physical embodiment.” of how disabled people are told to be environmentalists but then hindered when they try.

Harriet’s work has given her a considerable platform on Twitter – It’s a privilege, she acknowledges, to have such a platform where she can publicly point out an error and shame organisations into action – it’s an effective tool.

She gives the following example: a council put parking spaces in front of a dropped curb, which is supposed to help disabled people get up a curb safely.

The parking spots were burned off when she highlighted the issue of accessibility. She remarks that alongside this power, there is the daily grind of being labelled a “disabled killjoy – it’s our responsibility to fight to achieve the most basic tasks – but we can’t ‘moan.'”

It feels like disabled people spend their lives pointing out the obvious. Perhaps we agree – this is one of the most important examples of non-disabled privilege – the ability not to consider the small barriers and the consequences. As Harriet concludes passionately, “we have to fight to live.”

“People in power will justify exclusion by saying ‘you can’t please everyone.’ Never accept that.”

Pauline Castres is a disabled climate activist and artist. She has spent a decade working on global health, climate, and disability rights policy. She holds various roles, including working for the British Medical Journal and The Lancet on the effects of air pollution on the public’s health and leading a health portfolio for UNICEF UK.

Seeing her work “in action” gives her hope for the future. She uses the example of a training session she ran for a significant environmental NGO last year, “everyone was so engaged, and the feedback I received was so positive. Experiences like this really give me hope that my work and so many other disabled activists do is challenging perceptions and building new partnership pathways.”

There have also been moments which have given her pause, “There have been many. Some made me see the unfathomable hypocrisy of systems, including those supposed to support us. Then there have been those that have been unsurprisingly hurtful, for instance, when I tuned in to a COP26 event entitled ‘The Voiceless Revolution’, where disabled people, even those whose disabilities have left them literally without a voice, weren’t mentioned.

Further, “my moments of epiphany have led me to think that we need to build communities of support because we can’t rely on businesses or policy-makers to do what’s needed and protect us.”

Asked to define what success looks like for her, she ponders the system we find ourselves in, “success is when a policy delivers concrete and sustainable changes to help those who are most left behind. There are huge inequalities even within activism spaces, and we can only call ourselves successful when the poorest and most marginalised experience a real difference in their lives.”

She advises: being cautious of “low hanging fruit” policies and overly simplistic “silver bullet” solutions.

As to what she has learned along the way, she mentions a conversation she had with a policy-maker about including disabled people in the movement: The answer was “you can’t please everyone.” Pauline’s advice? “Never to accept that. Instead, allow yourself to take space and hold onto your humanity in the darkest moments. Your voice deserves to be heard.”

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Disabled people often suffer most from plastic pollution, but many also rely on plastic for health, independence and dignity. Ananya Rao-Middleton explores this complicated relationship.

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By improving public transport, we can help both the environment and disabled people

“Don’t get caught up in one perspective. We have fractured our power because of our narrow focus.”

Valerie Novack is a disability policy researcher based in the US. She works on many different issues that affect people with disabilities that are multiply marginalised with a primary focus on areas of urban planning regarding housing, transportation and climate change.

Her experiences meant that from a young age, she knew that the people around her weren’t having their most basic needs met. “These systems and ideas: medical disbelief, stigma, the carceral system, and lack of mental health care all influenced the types of change I strive to achieve.” This first-hand knowledge also “grounded me in the reality that many people live in: many people who do this work have never experienced what they’re fighting to change. So, that provides a different mindset and point of view.”

She points to her realisation that few states had plans for evacuating or protecting disabled citizens in a disaster event, which will only increase with climate change. Spring of 2021 brought a significant epiphany about “community support, mutual aid, and building our support after watching the U.S. government remove housing and healthcare funding during a housing and pandemic crisis.” She became highly disillusioned with the thought that working within these systems could cause change or will save lives. She ponders, “If a global pandemic or an unlivable increase in rent costs don’t push our government to make changes, what can I accomplish?”

Now her focus has shifted: “as I find myself trying to get back into action with my community, those focuses look slightly different. It’s providing food locally or researching programs run by people with disabilities rather than spending most of my time trying to convince politicians or CEOs that disabled people deserve more than their lip service.”

The advice she would give to the next generation? “Don’t get caught up in one perspective. One of my biggest frustrations has been how we have fractured our power and size because of our narrow focus. Disability is not and cannot equal just white disability, wheelchair users, disabilities you can see, or only diagnosed disabilities.”

This focus prevents us from seeing the full spectrum of discrimination and harm experienced by people, whether due to disability, race, sexuality, poverty, or all of those factors. This simplistic focus “forces people to pick a singular identity or fight, when these harms are experienced because of the many identities people have.”

She offers the example of stairs. They aren’t the sole reason disabled people can’t access a building, so ramps cannot be the only answer. Still, disability issues often get boiled down in a way that continues to harm the most marginalised of us and the ones most likely to feel the weight of our rapidly changing climate reality.”

“I have been put down, ignored and actively fought against”

Izzy Laderman describes herself as a community activist and educator. She is currently leading Disability Awareness Around the Climate Crisis (DAACC), which serves as an educational and resource hub for disabled and non-disabled climate activists.

Of her experience, she notes, “I have been put down, ignored and actively fought against my entire activist career and before.” It’s a reality she has faced just because of her disability but because she’s proud to be “a disabled queer, mixed woman.”

Nevertheless, living within an ableist system has forced her to recognize intersectionality in “my own life and the lives of others.” This knowledge has influenced her activism and allowed her “to ensure my work remains as intersectional as possible.”

Her epiphany came when she first experienced the negatives of being disabled during the climate crisis. There had been a snow storm the night before that led to several feet of snow. She recalls: it went up to the top of my cane.

She had to go to the hospital for treatment, and the conditions were treacherous. She recalls the terror and fear she felt and the hope that grew when she returned home to find her neighbour helping dig out her other neighbour’s car so he could get to the hospital for liver dialysis. It was a day which prompted her utmost faith in community action and care.

What would she tell the next generation? First, “I would tell the next generation of disabled people they are not alone. I was coming into my identity during the pandemic and felt incredibly isolated.

However, “connecting with other disabled people and activists through social media and other platforms was the best thing that came out of the pandemic for me.” As her earlier story also illustrates, “finding a community that cares and supports you will help your mental and physical health.”

So, to conclude, “to the future generation of disabled people, our community has always been here and always will be. And we accept you.”

You can follow Melissa on Twitter here. Guest authors work with us to share their personal experiences and perspectives, but views in guest articles aren’t necessarily those of Greenpeace.

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