When I was in my early 20s, my partner and I shared a canary yellow Queenslander with a group of his tie-dyed, New-Age friends from high school. We were all a conscious bunch, but eventually battles of sustainability began to play out across the kitchen: my partner was scolded for cooking any sort of meat, and I’d have panic attacks overeating cheese (I was vegetarian, they were passionately vegan). Worse was when I’d arrive home with plastic shopping bags dangling from my limbs. If I realised mid-shop that I’d forgotten the green bags, I dreaded going home.
While I was living in that house, I hadn’t realised I was disabled yet. Although I hadn’t had sight in my right eye since age 13, and my body tingled, ached, swelled, locked, and lagged on the daily, the cookie-cutter disability narrative portrayed by mainstream media held me in the dark. The revelation took the wind out of me — I had been so wrapped up in healing the planet that I’d let my own wellbeing fall to the wayside. The world has cocooned me inside a bubble of eco-ableism, and I’d internalised these shortcomings.
Here’s a fact you should keep on hand: despite being classed as the world’s largest ‘minority’ group, around 18% of Australians live with some sort of disability. Defined as any physical or mental condition that creates barriers for the individual to effectively interact with the world around them, disability can completely redefine every aspect of one’s life, including 'going green’, being sustainable, and ‘doing your part’.
Our first ‘collective’ encounter with the intersection of sustainability and disability was in the late 2010s, when social media activism was brand new. Frantic calls to remove plastic straws from the face of the earth were plastered across the Internet before seeping into the structures and policies of our real-life world. As plastic straw bans spread and friends turned against their plastic-using counterparts, the discussion was met with rage by the disabled community. Society had completely glossed over the fact that plastic straws were a necessary accessibility tool for many disabled people — including those who can’t use glass straws due to a facial tic, or those who can’t bring a cup to their mouths. A tale as old as time, society had kicked disabled needs to the curb.
Professor Simon Darcy, UTS Business School and Co-Lead of the UTS Disability Network, says chapters like this within the social narrative show that people living with disabilities are not at the forefront of thought — in fact, they’re in a position of severe social disadvantage.
“Inclusivity and sustainability are inextricably linked. When we talk about sustainability, if you're not being inclusive, or if you haven't thought about the different types of embodiment, then you're designing in a way that's going to exclude a large proportion of the population.
We’re either overlooked, omitted, othered, and forgotten about in a great deal of areas of social participation,” Prof. Darcy said.
So many of the hallmarks of ‘green living' directly condemn or exclude disabled people. Similarly to plastic straws, pre-chopped vegetables have had their time in the spotlight as a ‘wasteful’ sin too. Yet, pre-packaged produce can be an important accessibility tool for people with limited hand function like myself. On a bad day in my body, I can’t even dream of holding a pencil, let alone using a sharp knife to prepare my meals. Should I be going without dinner for half the week in a bid to reduce my plastic waste?
Another corner of the zero-waste movement saw influencers like Lauren Singer from Trash is for Tossers virtue signalling their dedication to sustainability with the aid of jam-packed mason jars — supposedly encasing one year’s worth of waste. While people like Singer encouraged followers to call out ‘tossers’ who created waste, many people living with disabilities copped ableist abuse masked as sustainability, myself included. For many, living with disability is synonymous with living harmoniously with unavoidable ‘waste’. From plastic breathing tubes to my custom-made disposable contact lenses, sustainability looks completely different for people living with disability.
Singer says that most of her success with living a zero-waste lifestyle is because of shopping in bulk, avoiding packaged goods and making her own products such as toothpaste, soap and shampoo. Mainstream environmentalism expects the individual to be self-sufficient and mobile, which excludes many people living with disability. It doesn’t consider the varying challenges of travelling across town to lug kilograms of bulk-packaged food back home via potentially inaccessible public transport. Disability must redefine sustainability — and those parameters cannot be determined by those with able-bodied privilege.
If we all experience the world in different ways, it’s true that we would all experience the end of the world in different ways too. 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.
The disabled community isn’t the only teller of this story — the data tells it, too. According to a 2014 study by the United Nations, disabled people are twice as likely to die or be injured during a crisis, and we’re less likely to recover from one too. A study by Vision Australia after the Black Summer bushfires showed a similar narrative, finding that one in three visually impaired respondents couldn’t independently access the information they required.
The ability to adapt to disasters has a lot to do with the accessibility of emergency information. Jody Barney, who is a Deaf Birri-Gubba/Urangan woman, says there have been many communication barriers for disabled people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Through the pandemic, using masks has been very dangerous for the Deaf community, as the communication often doesn’t get translated properly. This is not just an Australian issue — this is a global issue,” Barney said.
As the social narrative slowly changes, the 4.4 million Australians living with disabilities have been threaded into the public vernacular thanks to the pandemic. With able bodies experiencing lockdowns and lack of freedoms, disabled folk are suddenly becoming a little more visible — and semi-humanised — to the friends, family and colleagues around us.
Prof. Darcy says we can’t forget the lessons on disability, inclusion and sustainability that we’ve learned from this pandemic.
“We don't want a new normal — we want a better, more accessible and inclusive normal. We still have a fair journey to go so that everyone living with a disability gets the same opportunities as everyone else in society. And only that is truly sustainable.”