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Disabled environmental activism must be part of the fight against climate change
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Disabled environmental activism must be part of the fight against climate change

Daphne Frias and Valerie Novack


Daphne Frias and Valerie Novack

Daphne Frias and Valerie Novack (Illustration by Shannon May) 

According to the International Disability Report, over one billion people have a disability. That’s 15 percent of the world’s population. World Health Organization. People with disabilities are at greater risk from the environmental degradation and climate change, but they are often overlooked in activism efforts. Inclusion of people with disabilities is vital to ensure that we can work towards climate and environmental justice.

Centering Disability

If the philanthropic community is to advance social justice and equity, diversity, equity and inclusion, it must recognize that disability is essential to its work. This supplement contains critical perspectives and recommendations to dismantle ableism. Sponsored by the Disability & Philanthropy Forum

To achieve meaningful change, we must have a holistic view about our communities. Because sustainability, justice and equity are all interconnected, it is important to talk about disability. People with disabilities should be included in climate and environmental justice. Following their example will encourage us to think outside of our usual practices and assumptions. It will also help us to address the harms we have yet to reduce.

What role does philanthropy need to play in this vital work The Disability & Philanthropy Forum invited Daphne Frias, a disabled youth activist working at the intersection of disability justice and the climate crisis, and Valerie Novack, a disabled disability-policy researcher who focuses on urban planning and emergency management, to a much-needed conversation about climate change, disability, and how philanthropy can take action.

Climate Justice

Valerie Novack: Many of the systems that cause or exacerbate global warming have similar effects on disabled people. The same economic systems that exploit and undervalue the Earth’s resources also exploit and undervalue people with disabilities and the places they live. How do you view climate change in terms of disability rights and disability justice?

Daphne Frias:Without disability justice, justice is impossible. Disabled people live at intersections of all systems of oppression as well as social justice issues. There isn’t one issue or one intersection where you will not find disabled individuals experiencing the effects of social injustice or advocating for change. Because people with disabilities are often the most vulnerable and most impacted members of society, disability justice and the climate crisis are closely linked. The climate crisis can seem invisible to some people, and it can be difficult for disabled people to see the importance of this issue. We’re tackling two issues in trying to get people to notice and believe both the climate crisis and the need for disability justice.

Environmental Racism

Novack:It is vital to discuss environmental racism, both locally and globally, because of the huge disparities in resources and the increasing climate migration to certain areas. The type of climate change crisis and the policies that govern them will depend on where we live. This includes heat islands created by lack of pervious surfaces and segregated neighborhoods. These areas often have high levels of disability, often due to the presence of people with disabilities and low incomes. Other factors, such as pollution in the air, water, lack services and inadequate shelter, can also cause clustering. Environmental racism, poverty, as well as disability, are often cyclical. How do you see environmental racism affecting people with disabilities like yourself?

Frias:This is a personal topic to me. Born and raised in West Harlem, I didn’t realize that I was experiencing environmental racism until I went off to high school and college at predominantly white institutions. I was shocked to discover that the school I was going to was very different from the one I lived.

To set the context, I lived near a bus depot for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one of the largest bus depots in New York City’s Manhattan borough. The bus station was the hub for all buses that came into and out of our borough. The borough also had a water treatment facility that filters approximately 75 percent of its water. We had an on-ramp to the West Side Highway, one of the city’s major highway systems. My neighborhood was home to all this climate-degrading infrastructure. Looking at who lives there, it’s predominantly Black and brown individuals, immigrants, and people with low socioeconomic status. Why is this? Is there a reason?

Environmental racism is the reason. Officials have made urban planning decisions that prioritize the environment and have made it clear that certain communities and people are disposable. It is crucial that we talk about the climate crisis as a social factor in health. If we are to ask why Black and brown communities have higher asthma rates, we must also consider where they live. These patterns have clear root cause. We cannot ignore those who are suffering disproportionately if we want to end the crisis.

Natural Disasters

Frias: While we might have some warning, there’s still so much that is unpredictable about natural disasters. These natural disasters often require quick evacuations, which can be difficult for people with disabilities who live in less accessible areas. Can you explain why people with disabilities are more vulnerable to natural disasters?

Novack: There are many reasons why people with disabilities are more at risk during a disaster. These include their location and whether they live in poverty or have no access to financial support, medical care, or any other resources. It is possible to reduce the risk by making changes in crisis response and deciding which factors are prioritized when planning for preparedness.

Current emergency management practices are not inclusive. Despite the high death rate in this population due to natural and other disasters, I find it troubling that there are no detailed guidelines for planning or emergency management. Climate change can make certain areas, such as those affected by disability, less livable due to increased flooding, rising temperatures or a lack thereof. When we aren’t included before disaster strikes, how will we be effectively accommodated during a crisis? If disability is treated as an afterthought or a part of an existing response plan, there is risk that something could have been done to reduce it.

Ableism, and Environmental Policies

Frias:Conversations about climate and environmental justice are often lacking our participation. These conversations are usually led by nondisabled people who create inaccessible systems. They have no social or spatial awareness of what it’s like to live with a disability, which I think is very problematic. They end up creating something that complies with federal policy but they’re not creating it for a livable experience, and that doesn’t work. How does policymaking ensure that ableist systems are maintained, as a disability policy researcher?

Novack: Our systems and practices have been designed to eliminate ableism. Many solutions will not be able to stop exclusion and ableism without working with people with disabilities, and engaging with individuals who are actively involved in improving equity and inclusion.

Concerning climate change, prioritizing individual ownership of environmental impacts over corporate responsibility encourages ableism, and discrimination against people with disabilities (e.g. by focusing on reducing individual carbon footprints, and maligning those who require single-use equipment). Policies with racist or ableist bases allow for narrow and inaccurate measures to be embedded into policy. This was the case in some states allocation guidelines, where ICU beds were filled due to COVID-19 patients using quality-of-life measures. Policies that reward individualism—home ownership, car ownership, productivity, and other “norms”—are likely to contribute to the same devaluation and erasure that characterize current policy, without addressing gaps in that policy area for people with disabilities and others who do not have access to the resources assumed in the policy.

Philanthropy, Disability Inclusion

Novack:Justice work requires that we consider both the wholeness and the systemic issues of people. By bringing together climate justice and disability justice, we can move closer to sustainable movements that protect all. Climate justice movements that benefit from the insights of disability movements on access, flexible usage, and interdependence can benefit from their unique insights. Cross-identity disability means that justice work that focuses only on race, class, or place may allow funding in multiple categories with the same end goals. What information do you want philanthropy know about disability inclusion

Frias: My message to Philanthropy is to listen to the frontline communities. The climate crisis has been a topic of conversation for years before we were even aware of it. We will be the first to be affected by the climate crisis. 

  • Give a place at the table. It is really important when you enter boardrooms and executive conversations that you ask, “Does the room I’m stepping into reflect what the world looks like?” If it does not, I think that is a red flag. If the rooms in which these conversations are taking place do not reflect the communities most affected, you cannot fight for social justice and you cannot fight climate change. I don’t understand the concept of talking about communities without their presence. The people who live those lived experiences the best are the ones who know them the best.
  • Listen to those who have lived it. The way social justice has looked isn’t the way social justice will continue to look. Even over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen how organizing has changed from in-person conversations to virtual conversations, and many of us are going to move further into that virtual space. There’s no excuse not to have disabled people actively involved in these conversations. We have mostly accepted the power of the internet, even if there were once barriers to travel or health. The work must reflect the richness and diversity of lived experiences. 
  • To find solutions, you can work with disability leaders.Instead of coming to us with detailed proposals and project plans, let us tell what you need. We have solutions; we just don’t have the money. Let’s work together to make the end of the climate crisis a reality.

The anticipation of future challenges and difficulties is a constant for disabled people. This prescience can help them find the silver linings and joy in their work. It’s exciting to find innovative solutions to the climate crisis because it means we have agency, we’re taking the problem into our own hands, and doing something about it.

Continue reading Valerie Novack& Daphne Frias.



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