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The Climate Revolution Belongs To Disabled People Too

October 17, 2019

Last week, the Paralympian James Brown tried to glue himself to the top of a plane as part of Extinction Rebellion’s protest at London City airport. Watching the epic performance unfold, I realised I hadn’t seen a single person with a disability who was also a climate protester. Brown is visually impaired, so while he has no direct mobility impairment I don’t imagine straddling an Embraer 190 is an easy manoeuvre. But it was a testament to democracy – and made me think about the place that people with disabilities have within the growing climate movement. As someone with cerebral palsy, I want an accessible revolution. It is everyone’s future, and that needs to be represented in both climate protest and climate policy.

Protest presents so many systemic barriers for people with disabilities, no roadblocks necessary. This was evident when the Extinction Rebellion Disabled Rebels group organised a mobile toilet service for last week’s demonstration – and the hoists and changing tables were impounded by the police before the demonstration even started. Accessibility issues in protest don’t just come from police, but sometimes from groups like Extinction Rebellion too: when street protests are held outside a hospital, many people with physical disabilities aren’t able to go about their daily lives; and if they are held across London – where only about a third of tube stations are step-free – they are often unable to participate.

I was born of climate activists. Naturally, I should be one too. But, by birth, I also have one of the most common causes of physical disability in the UK. I’m finding any drive for direct action that wells up inside me is drained by the prospect of life-limiting climate policies. As part of the environmental movement, plastic straws, which enable around one in four people with my disability to drink, will soon be banned in all drinking establishments. Yet things we could all do without – plastic packaging, six-pack rings and polystyrene cups – remain unregulated and freely flow into our oceans.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has done work on gender equality, using “gender focal points”, people who assist in gender-related decisions about the climate. But there isn’t a list of representatives with disabilities, though the outcomes of climate change negotiations will disproportionately affect us. The Paris agreement makes clear its obligation to disability and human rights, but will people with disabilities actually be involved in the discussion? 2:19 Activist climbs plane as Extinction Rebellion takes protest to London airport – video

If we aren’t represented at the top, the impact could be catastrophic for people like me who need certain reasonable adjustments to live our lives. People often tell me, “I don’t know how you get out of bed in the morning with a disability like yours,” but that doesn’t even begin to account for the science and writing and speaking I do, the students I support, the Paralympic training I participate in, the dates I go on. I’m not able to do these things because I’m superhuman – in actuality, it has a lot to do with my motability vehicle, with its regrettable diesel engine, and my blue badge. Limited mobility does not have to mean a limited life, but new climate change policies must recognise the distinction if we are to maintain any level of disabled liberation. Let the plastic straw ban be the first and last anti-disabled, pro-climate legislation.

I was obsessed with a book when I was a kid – Ben Elton’s Gridlock – where oil barons and government agents who want to build more motorways try to murder a climate activist and scientist who invents the perfect electric vehicle. It was published in 1991, before I was born, and when electric vehicles weren’t commonplace like they are now. It just so happened that the hero and climate activist had tetraplegic cerebral palsy. He was a fictional character then, but I believe he’s the climate hero we need today. The oil barons might still want him gone, but it is essential that those responding to the climate emergency do not.

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