Eco-ableism: the curse of climate change

Over the last week the news has been full of COP26 and how we all need to be doing our bit to fight climate change. Even the soap operas have got in on the act, joining forces for the first time ever with crossover storylines to highlight different environmental issues.   

But one image in particular stood out and it wasn’t of wildfires or sad-looking polar bears on shrinking ice caps – it was of Israeli minister Karine Elharrar unable to attend COP26 because it wasn’t wheelchair-accessible.

How shocking that in this day and age the UN does not automatically make its events fully accessible but rather expects to be informed of any requirements beforehand. 

Shocking, but sadly not surprising, and it also serves to highlight another important issue – that disabled people are more often than not left out of conversations around climate change even though decisions have a direct impact on their lives. It’s called eco-ableism and it’s the curse of climate change.

What is eco-ableism?

Eco-ableism is:

‘a failure by non-disabled environmental activists to recognise that many of the climate actions they’re promoting make life difficult for disabled people’. 

Like any ableism, eco-ableism is a form of discrimination which favours non-disabled people.

Examples include the ban on using plastic straws. Great for the environment, but not for many disabled people who rely on them to drink independently. Then there’s failing to factor in the needs of disabled people during emergency planning. It’s why approximately half the deaths from Hurricane Katrina were over the age 75 and most of whom had medical conditions and impairments that made them more at risk than other parts of the population.

These decisions were made without any reference to how it might impact negatively on disabled people’s lives.   

plastic straws

Why is including disabled people in climate change talks so important?

“When disabled people are not visible and included, decisions are taken without consideration of our needs.” 

This quote from Marianne Scobie, deputy director of Glasgow Disability Alliance sums up perfectly why disabled people should be included in all climate change discussions and not just those on emergency planning.

Look at the initiatives planned around carbon reduction. While asking people to walk or cycle more is great for reducing our carbon footprint, it excludes many disabled people. In the Netherlands people even get paid to cycle to work  – a commendable initiative which gives no thought to the fact it discriminates against disabled people who end up missing out on cash incentives! And let’s not even talk about relocating blue badge parking bays to make way for cycle lanes, or plans to ban cars from travelling through Birmingham, both of which risk failing to consider the needs of disabled drivers and passengers.   

But it’s not just about involving disabled people in decision-making around policies that fight climate change. It’s also about ensuring they can access information in a format that suits them. Learning Disability Walesfound an alarming lack of easy read information on climate change – another form of discrimination against disabled people.

The point is while it’s important for us all to do our best for the planet, it shouldn’t be at the detriment of anyone else and how they live their lives. But that risk is very real if decisions are made without involving disabled people in the process.

So, is COP26 in danger of failing disabled people?  

Yes and no. There are some events being held which specifically explore disability issues, such as inclusive designs for climate resilient cities and Inclusion Scotland will present their new report on climate change and disabled people; however the fact that there was no sign language interpreter on the main stage or that the ‘ring of steel’ around the conference saw disabled people’s personal assistants  being turned away, suggests that the disability angle is very much an afterthought.

The bottom line is if we really want to save the planet, then we have to be inclusive and stop falling foul of eco-ableism in our eagerness to make a difference. Given one billion of the world’s population are disabled people, they should be involved from the outset.