Eco-Ableism: Making Environmental Action Accessible For All

Show Notes

Eco-Ableism: Making Environmental Action Accessible For All

Did you know that 34 Million American Adults that Live With a Disability or Chronic Disease? That is a huge population of people that are left unheard when it comes to taking environmental action! In this episode, we discuss the definition of eco-ableism, straw bans (along with other examples), and solutions for making environmental action accessible for all.

Setting the tone

I am excited that I get to share it with you so we can continue to build on our work of acknowledging and honoring all unique identities and characteristics of everyone in our global neighborhood, Hometown: Earth.

At the time of this recording, it is Plastic Free July, which actually coincides with Disability Pride Month, a time to “focus attention on the disability community and celebrate the pride disabled people have as people with disabilities.” And I’ve seen some posts from our friend Isaias Hernandez of Queer Brown Vegan and other intersectionality and sustainability groups on the term Eco-Ableism during this time so I wanted to do a little dive into that because it’s a term I feel like most people have never heard until now, myself included.

I did want to quickly mention that this isn’t my unique knowledge. I am an able-bodied white woman speaking on the experiences of others. As always, these are topics that I research so that I can learn about and share with you so we can grow and become better neighbors, friends, and allies. I want to use this episode to hopefully broaden your perspective like it did mine, and encourage you to dig deeper.

Below is a list of activists and articles to help you learn more about the subject first hand from those impacted the most:

  1. I’m disabled & I rely on single-use plastics – Please don’t judge me
  2. Climate Change, Disability, and Eco-Ableism: why we need to be inclusive to save the planet
  3. Toward Disability Justice: Don’t forget the plastic that gives me freedom.
  4. The poverty of plastics bans: Environmentalism’s win is a loss for disabled people
  5. Banning Straws Hurts People // The Last Straw!
  6. The Last Straw: Why Disable People Need Plastic Straws

Plastic Free July

So let’s start with where this conversation is stemming from so we can frame our minds around the topic. Plastic Free July is an initiative that started in 2011 to help move the world towards plastic-free living. It’s an awesome initiative that challenges people to not use single-use plastics for the entire month of July in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste that is polluting our planet.

And according to Plastic Free July, the organization that spearheads the movement, it’s working. They report that in July of 2020 “326 million people across the globe took part in the challenge from 177 countries.” It reduced their household waste and recycling by almost 5% per person per year. Saved about 1 million tons of plastic waste. And 8.5 out of 10 people made changes that have become habits or a way of life.

I remember participating in last year’s Plastic Free July, it was my first one, and it was a huge wake-up call when I actively refused any single-use plastics. I realized how much plastics were in my daily life without even noticing them before! But, there are two key points to be made here – I had the privilege of not realizing how integral plastic was in my life, and I was able to refuse these plastics when many people don’t have either option.


Now here’s the part where Eco-ableism joins the chat… Eco-ableism can be defined as a form of discrimination toward individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses through an ecological and environmental lens. This mostly happens when environmental activists fail to take into account those that are less able or privileged than them.
Research at World Bank shows that “Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.” Now, there are 34 Million American Adults that Live With a Disability or Chronic Disease. That is a huge population of people that are left unheard when it comes to these topics. And with compromised health, physical limitations, and fewer resources – it makes this group much more susceptible to ecosystem loss, pollution, and infectious disease that come with climate change. And some people are double marginalized due to their race, class, or gender.

So when Plastic Free July and other movements to ban single-use plastics come up in conversation – disabled people are usually not usually heard or consulted – resulting in eco-ableism.

Examples of eco-ableism

Straw Bans

I’ll give you an example. You might have heard the term Eco Ableism more in the discussion of straw bans. When many people, myself included, hear about straw bans – they’re stoked. For someone who is able-bodied, you might think banning straws is a quick solution that makes sense and that people who truly need straws can just bring alternatives. But if you are someone that needs to request a straw, or have an alternative with you always as a matter of safety or danger- it’s not that simple. I’ve learned that the alternatives to single-use straws are not where they need to be for everyone to access and just generally are unsuitable options. Metal, bamboo, Silicone, paper, and more can cause injury, be costly, not positionable, and can even be a sanitation risk if the individual has to take the alternative around in a bag or in a pocket. It places an undue burden on the disabled and chronically ill not only to purchase an alternative, but to remember to carry it with them always, and creates the hardship and potential discrimination of disclosing their disability and proving that they need an alternative straw or plastic straw when they are out in public and may not have one.

Other Single Use Plastics

But it doesn’t just apply to plastic straws. It also applies to other single-use plastics – like for plastic-wrapped individual or pre-prepared meals, and service-ware, such as bottles, cups, plastic cutlery, and bags. Plastics allow people with disabilities to be more independent, to provide them with a bit more freedom. It allows someone who cannot cook for themselves to be able to eat. It allows someone who can’t shower on their own to clean themselves with a wet wipe (which is a single-use plastic). Even many medical supplies that the disabled and chronically ill depend on are single-use plastics, like catheters, diabetic supplies, or inhalers. So when we broadly talk about banning single-use plastics or reusing plastics – we need to include terms like nonessential single-use plastics and making sure we are discussing solutions that don’t further ostracize the disabled community. Even in other environmental discussions, like reducing carbon emissions through increased walking, biking, and public transportation needs to include the perspective of the disabled community, many of whom cannot walk, bike, or easily ride public transportation.

PG&E Power Outages

Another specific example that doesn’t have to do with plastic in the environmental space but that is still a valuable example for understanding eco-ableism is the PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs in California. PG&E called for these scheduled shutoffs of power “due to a high-wind event combined with low humidity and severely dry vegetation, that together created a high risk of catastrophic wildfires.” So in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires and the damage they’d do to the land and animals, they alternated shutting off power to high-impact areas. The problem with this is that they didn’t take people with disabilities into account, many of whom rely on powered medical devices. The frontline communities – those who are at the first and worst of climate change – were in a situation with no good solution.

Making Environmental Action Accessible for All

Amplify Disabled voices

First and foremost, we need to make sure that the voices of this group are heard. The disabled are one of the most affected groups of climate change, so we need to be consulting with disability groups to find solutions that are accessible and available to everyone, and raise awareness for the fact that some solutions aren’t one size fits all. In any impact assessment, these groups should be on the list when receiving recommendations or guidance.

Focus on Systemic Change

We should also be focusing on larger, more inclusive systematic change. Advocating for nondiscriminatory policies and putting pressure on companies to produce environmentally friendly products that are disability-friendly as well. Additionally, we should be putting pressure on those in power to find solutions that work for everyone and making sure that these groups are represented at the decision-making table.

Make Your Environmental Work Accessible

Environmental efforts not only associated with plastic but including protests, events, webinars, even social media posts should be disability-friendly. Ask yourself “is this accessible to everyone?” and move forward from there. For instance, I post the show notes that are verbatim for people who want to read but can’t listen, plus youtube posts with closed captions, but I neglected to add alternative text or image descriptions for my social media posts – making them inaccessible to some. It doesn’t take much longer to go that extra step to consider if it is accessible and make the change accordingly.

Make our rhetoric inclusive

We need to make sure that our environmental rhetoric and action is intersectional for all groups. For example, discussions centered around zero waste have typically been eco-ableist, but the rhetoric could be revised to discuss zero non-essential waste, which completely changes the perspective.

Environmental justice efforts should include efforts to involve all groups in a meaningful way regardless of race, color, national origin, income, as well as disability. We should go beyond asking for alternatives as solutions, but asking how the direct impact of our decisions fall directly to these frontline communities in order to build a more holistic look at the issue for more holistic solutions.

Do Not Judge or Shame

And most importantly, we need to make sure that our environmental efforts don’t include judgment or shaming, as not everyone can participate equally as it stands today. Sustainable efforts in the environmental space are good, don’t get me wrong – that’s why we are here. But they can be better. They can be more understanding, serve more, and be inclusive for all. We need to keep the discussion going and continue to grow, recognizing that each person’s history and lived experience is valid, and that no person is disposable.

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