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Environmental Activism is Ableist. Here’s What we Need to do About That

Intersectionality has been one of the buzzwords we have seen a lot of lately, especially when it comes to activism. Sometimes criticised as a product of the ‘woke brigade’, the idea is to be as inclusive of different demographics when it comes to taking up a cause. What is not always discussed, however, is how environmental activism lacks inclusion for disabled people – to the point of ableism. 

Cultural conversations have centred around the subject of banning disposable items, including plastic bags, straws and cotton buds. According to the BBC, the delay in the UK for banning single-use plastic straws and cotton buds was due to the pandemic – but points out that they are still available if disabled or for other medical needs.

Alternative replacements are not inclusive or even accessible. To ‘just ask’ for a plastic straw in an outside setting is beside the point – because you should not have to justify yourself, and to verbally ask is not necessarily something you can ‘just do’. Metal straws have the potential to cause injury, such as in the case of Elena Struthers-Gardner. Rubber straws, some Autistic people have reported, also leave an odd taste in your mouth, which is incongruous to sensory issues. Yet plastic straws enable drinking independently.  However, paper and metal replacements can pose safety issues when consuming hot drinks. (Source.) 

Karl Knights is an Autistic writer who also has Cerebral Palsy. He said:  “Too often, activists will effectively shame disabled people for just existing – for example, the amount of disabled people who have been berated for using a straw that’s most accessible to them. Disabled people know what our carbon footprints are.” 

As an Autistic person, it took me a long time to find what worked with me. The pandemic left me not wanting to touch any cutlery and glasses outside my own home – with the taste of rubber becoming a begrudged cost of staying safe in the pandemic. But this is not something everyone can just ‘deal with’, and can be distressing. 

Sarah King recently wrote for Refinery 29 about a divide within the Veganism movement – and how language had been utilised to support shock tactics. This is arguably a niche with environmentalism activism at its core, enough so that people such as Greta Thunberg have endorsed such practices. The piece also pointed to trauma appropriation, as well as triggering language being deliberately used.

Dietary advice does not necessarily take into account disability needs. As an Autistic person, the food that I eat is very limited owing to sensory issues. Pre-preparation is also a much-needed part of my life; this can give way to excessive packaging. Other individuals use disposable cutlery, just as a way to manage as well. Yet I have been shamed with inaccurate diet advice which advocated consuming food/drink I cannot/will not even go near, complete with language suggesting my needs were something that could just be ‘switched off’. 

No one has the right to impose beliefs on you – such as dietary advice – unless it is medically advisable, such as via your Doctor or GP. Period. But that is not to say you cannot raise awareness. 

Elizabeth Wright is the editor of Conscious Being magazine – and has previously written about this exact subject.  She said that “It is imperative that we have a seat at the table, if we don’t  climate solutions will continue to be inaccessible and lead to further exclusion of disabled people at all levels of society.”

Chloe Tear is an award-winning disability blogger, and is a content designer at Scope. She agreed and said “Supporting the environment isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ problem, yet people are shamed for not doing enough. We need to open up the conversation and discuss things like access needs and financial constraints. Doing something is better than nothing. We shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for working within our own constraints.”

Activism needs to be intersectional, with the onus on the collective and not the individual. In all of the people interviewed for this piece, all remarked on feeling shamed or having been shamed because of their needs. Why would anyone seek to be environmentally friendly while disabled, if they are made to feel that way?

A symptom of privilege is that the onus is on an individual who may not necessarily be able to comply with such high expectations and to be shamed for something outside of your control will not be effective, and is indirectly ableist. 

Consultation and accessible alternatives are the way to go. Essentially, remember that disabled people aren’t the enemy here.

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