Eco-ableism: Environmentalism and its impact on the Disabled Community


 |  The Starfish

Many environmental activists agree that, though real change will only happen once governments and large corporations commit to radical reform, individuals should still make conscious decisions that will have a positive impact on the environment. This seems like a good idea in theory; however, it presents people with disabilities a challenge when the tools they require are deemed inappropriate for the environmental movement. From bans on plastic straws to the high cost of environmentally ethical products, the latter of which is near impossible to purchase while living on disability income, disabled people are often a nonpriority for abled activists. This is eco-ableism.

Eco-ableism is defined as the tendency to exclude and erase people with disabilities and their needs from environmentalism. Single-use plastic straws, for example, are thought by many to be an unnecessary convenience, but, in reality, they remain a lifesaver for disabled individuals. For instance, those with disabling weakness in their arms may be unable to lift a glass and tip it into their mouth, so they rely on straws for hydration and nourishment. You may be thinking, “I get that some people rely on straws, but why do they need plastic straws? We have so many alternatives!” Well, you’d be right; there are alternatives available, but the issue is much deeper than this. These straws need to survive in hot liquids, be adequately flexible, not too firm yet not too soft, and small, which leaves silicone, metal, bamboo, and glass straws as a non-option for many.

I spoke with a disabled Canadian, whom we will call “Ava,” about this, and, unfortunately, she is no stranger to being judged for her reliance on plastic straws. She mentions that the flexibility of these straws provide her an accessible way to hydrate herself when she experiences episodes of limited mobility in her neck. Additionally, Ava’s risk of having drop attacks or seizures while drinking renders alternatives such as metal straws unsafe to use. Though she continues to search for environmentally safe alternatives, single-use plastic straws remain the safest option for her. Ava also emphasizes affordability and maintainability. She has to consider whether she can pay more upfront for reusable straws with her limited funds from ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program), and, even if she were able to do this, she says, “straws are notoriously difficult to clean properly, and I [would] rely on someone to do this for me.” In other words, single-use plastic straws give Ava the independence that many abled individuals take for granted.

Unfortunately, the need for plastic straws has not stopped bans or restrictions on them. Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister of Health stated that the import and manufacture of plastic straws, among other single-use items, will be prohibited as of December 2022. Though plastic straws will be sold on demand for individuals with disabilities, members of the Disabled community worry about accessibility in public places, such as restaurants, if they are not made available, as well as their own ability to purchase and receive them in a timely manner. Other items required by disabled folk, such as wet wipes, plastic bags, and pre-sliced fruits and vegetables, also fall victim to ridicule and judgement from those passionate about environmentalism, and this puts the Disabled community’s independence, safety, and dignity at risk. Ava warns the environmental community that “most likely, if you see something ‘unnecessary’ or ‘kinda ridiculous’ like that, it’s made for someone disabled.”

Despite the harm eco-ableism presents for the Disabled community, those with disabilities still want to be involved in the environmental movement. For instance, Ava ensures that she recycles and is conscious not to throw out items in her home that can be donated or upcycled. An avid crocheter, she also thrifts her supplies and does ample research to ensure that anything needing to be discarded is done so safely. The intersection between environmentalism and disability, however, is not limited to the personal decisions each individual makes for themselves; it also includes organizations actively working to resolve the environmental crisis, and you can help! For example, Legs4Africa is a charity that provides prosthetic legs, which would have otherwise been discarded, to amputees in Africa, and they are always looking for monetary and prosthetic leg donations.

Donations aside, a huge way you can help the Disabled community is to, as Ava told me, “judge less and listen more.” If you see someone buying pre-sliced oranges, or a person using a plastic straw at a restaurant, consider that they might need those tools. So, I will leave you with this question: Is eco-ableism ingrained in your passion to save the environment, and if so, how can you work to make the movement more inclusive?

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