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Sustainability Efforts Must Include the Disability Perceptive

This guest blog post was written by Sarah Kim, a freelance journalist and writer with cerebral palsy. Her work focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she has written for TIME, Betches, Teen Vogue, Glamour, I Weigh, Forbes, Greatist, and more. She is a graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Journalism School.

Since late 2013, I’ve become very conscious of my dietary habits and its effects on the environment, so I slowly transitioned into veganism. I have cerebral palsy and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), which causes pain and compromised movements in my jaw joint and surrounding muscles. Therefore, meat was always hard for me to chew thoroughly and digest. On top of that, I am also lactose intolerant, so becoming vegan seemed like the most sensible pathway to go, and the fact that this lifestyle aligns with my morals and ethics is a major plus!

However, when I do a quick Google search—“veganism and people with disabilities”—I am met with a clash of forums and Twitter threads that allege that going vegan is ableist. I am well aware of the privileges associated with being vegan. Such privileges are, for example, being able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables, not having digestive issues that prevent the body from breaking down plant-based foods, and having adequate education about nutrition and diet. However, I wish there were ways to make veganism and general sustainability practices more accessible to the disabled community.

Climate change and other environmental issues also affect people with disabilities, often at greater extents. The disabled community has been living with the consequences of climate change just as long as the rest of the population. They are the most vulnerable to the rapidly occurring wildfires, hurricanes, and air pollution since many live with compromised health conditions and limited mobility. 

For example, Hurricane Katrina affected roughly 155,000 people with disabilities over the age of five in 2007. Yet, it took nearly 15 years after the tragic natural disaster for the United Nations Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution on climate change and people with disabilities, as well as those in vulnerable situations. However, in June 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the HRC. Suppose the government doesn’t take adequate action to prevent even further drastic climate catastrophes, nor include disability in climate change research and policies. In that case, the sustainability of people with disabilities will continue to diminish. 

However, when climate and sustainability activists organize to promote and advocate for eco-friendly lifestyles, disability is too often left out of the narrative; it’s a mere afterthought–if anything at all. For example, when the plastic straw ban started, the disability community — myself included—felt utterly ignored. Bendable plastic straws were, in fact, invented in the 1930s for hospital patients to drink while lying in bed, since the existing straws were unbendable and were made of degradable paper. 

Soon after, these plastic straws became essential for people with disabilities, and they finally had a way to safely and comfortably drink liquids. Of course, there are claims that there are “alternatives” to plastic straws. But, paper and biodegradable often fall apart, silicone straws are not flexible enough for people with limited mobility, and metal straws can pose a safety risk for those with little jaw control. So, there aren’t yet any real “alternatives” to plastic straws for thousands of people of disabilities who heavily rely on them. 

The disability perceptive is too often left out from sustainability efforts. People with disabilities are no strangers to adapting, especially since the world fundamentally was not made with folks like us in mind. Instead of having strict eco-friendly policies and practices that inevitably shut out the disability community, include our voices and concerns in the planning process and work with us to come up with viable, alternative solutions, and not offload all the burden on us.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or position of Dropps / Cot’n Wash, Inc. 

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