It’s nearly Earth Day, our yearly reminder of how beautiful nature is and how important it is for us to take care of it. But sometimes it seems as though environmental sustainability initiatives and disability rights are at odds with each other. So how do we build a sustainable and inclusive world?
During the Industrial Revolution, our entire world changed and progressed in a way never seen before. But with our new advances came serious consequences; our industrialization increased greenhouse gas emissions, which led to global warming. Since the realization that this climate change is causing and will continue to cause serious, irreversible damage to our planet, the environmental movement has grown and people have started to promote living sustainably (in a way that avoids damaging the environment so we can maintain an ecological balance).
While the sustainability movement is crucial to us reversing global warming and saving the Earth, it—like many other social movements—has left behind a large portion of our population: people with disabilities. Even though the disability community makes up 15% of the world’s population, the largest minority group in the world, they’re often forgotten about in greater conversations. While people advocate for decreasing our carbon footprint, they are forgetting how much the lives of disabled people rely on these non-eco-friendly resources.
You may remember a few years ago when everyone was in an uproar about plastic straws. When people became aware of the way plastic straws are polluting our oceans (an image of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose might come to mind), plastic straws became considered a “luxury non-essential” single-use item that is hurting our ecosystem. People started demanding that plastic straws be banned. These demands led to real change: many restaurants now use paper straws, and if you go into a Starbucks today, they’ll give you a “sippy cup” lid that doesn’t need a straw.
However, as the world declared war against plastic straws, the disability community began speaking out against these bans because many disabled people need plastic straws to drink anything at all. While no one, disabled people included, is denying that plastic is a huge part of the problem, some of the single-use plastic items that the sustainability movement advocates against because they consider it a non-necessity—such as the packages that pre-cut fruits and vegetables come in—are a necessity for some people in the disability community to freely live their daily lives.
But single-use plastics being banned is just the tip of the iceberg. People who need breathing tubes, wheelchairs powered by diesel, and meat consumption due to B12 deficiencies are considered “unsustainable” even though these are necessities for them. Not to mention that people with disabilities, while often left out of the climate change conversation, are some of the most vulnerable to the issues being caused by global warming. This is nicely summarized in a 2021 article by Imogen Kars, who explains that “Disabled people encounter climate breakdown more intensely and personally than able-bodied folk do, simply because of their already exacerbated inequalities. The adaptation required to survive and flourish during a climate breakdown is hampered by our compromised health and our reliance on resources, support and aids.”
This begs the question: how do we make sustainability inclusive?
The first step is enacting our environmental movement with extreme consideration. Our current sustainability movement is rooted in ableism, often considering the needs of the planet above the lives of those with disabilities. In order to be both sustainable and inclusive, we need to include people with disabilities in the conversations we’re having about sustainability and climate change. We need to consider the effects of environmental policies on the lives of those with disabilities, finding new routes to attack global warming while making sure we are not denying disabled people the supports they need to live.
The second step is realizing that the enemy is not people who need to use plastic straws. People with disabilities want to support the sustainability movement too, they just want a sustainable movement that considers their needs. We should be advocating for an accessible, greener world that fights against the true cause of overproduction and waste, instead of putting all the responsibility on the individual, especially individuals who may not be able to live without single-use plastics nor be able to rely on a bicycle or public transportation to get them to work in the morning. And we need to find ways to make our eco-friendly products—like electric-powered cars—universally designed, universally available, and affordable.
Sustainability isn’t just about protecting the planet, it’s also about protecting the people in it, and we can’t say we’re dedicated to sustainability if we’re leaving 15% of the population behind.
Inspired to think inclusive? Here are three ways you can help us spread the message:
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.