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Each month a fellow blogger (A Chronic Voice) hosts a ‘Link-up party’. It is a monthly get-together for anyone with a chronic illness. An opportunity to share, to listen, and to learn from one another. A Chronic Voice provides 5 writing prompts each month, and we use these prompts as inspiration. 

September’s prompts are: Reusing, Recounting, Researching, Finding (and dating).

Many environmental initiatives are inherently ableist, here’s why

Reading through this month’s writing prompts, the one that sparked my interest the most was ‘Reusing’. When I think of ‘reusing’ I automatically turn to the need to reduce single-use plastic, and the detrimental effect plastic has on our oceans. It’s been the subject of many news stories this year, and the target for initiatives like “Plastic free July”. 

Our planet is dying. The climate crisis is very real. We must all take responsibility for our own negative impact on the environment. But what if your chronic illness or disability restricts the positive changes you are able to make? What if current environmental initiatives actually put your safety, and life at risk? 

Reusing

The past year has seen an upsurge in global government initiatives to reduce plastic waste, and the message is very clear: if we want to save the planet, we must all play our part. 

Unfortunately it has become pretty obvious that disabled people were not invited to the table, or even considered, when these law changes were discussed. 

The most predominant scheme has been the ban of disposable plastic straws, and we have seen many countries around the world adopting this new policy, with the England soon to follow suit, in April 2020. 

But this ban has not only put some disabled people’s lives in danger, but has also left them open to targeted ridicule and abuse for standing up for their need to use these products.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about how the straw ban discriminates against disabled people, or how unsuitable and often harmful the current alternatives are. Many disabled rights activists, who are far more qualified to discuss this than me, have covered this topic. Please watch this informative and entertaining YouTube video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozaed. Also read this article in HuffPost written by Robyn Powell, it explains the situation well.

But I will briefly summarise the problems: 

1. Many disabled people rely on disposable plastic straws, for a multitude of reasons. People who are bedbound, those who have conditions that cause tremors and spasms, those that cannot reposition themselves to drink from cups or tilt their head back, those with compromised immune systems, those with dexterity problems or painful conditions, and many more. This is a great Twitter thread if you would like to find out more. 

2. I know many of you are now screaming: “but there are loads of alternatives to disposable plastic straws”. But although these alternatives exist, they are unsuitable for many disabled people, and can actually cause harm. There was a recent case of a disabled woman who died after she impaled herself on a metal straw. On paper, the best alternative seems to be biodegradable plastic straws. But for many, using these straws can cause severe, life-threatening allergic reactions.

There are many reasons why these alternatives are not suitable. Please listen to disabled people when they say they are not suitable. This is a great table created by Hell on Wheels which summarises the problems.

Image by Hell on Wheels

3. The straw ban does allow for disabled people to request disposable straws while out in restaurants and bars etc, but this has lead to increased abuse and discrimination, from the general public, and restaurant owners in areas where bans are already in place. Many upsetting situations have been reported on Twitter, and these targeted acts of aggression seem to be on the rise. 

4. Disabled people want to be as independent as possible, and the world needs to be more accessible, not less. Disabled people should not have to beg for the use of something that is vital to their everyday life. And they should not have to live in fear of the backlash they receive just from asking for a disposable plastic straw. 

5. Others have stated: if they (disabled people) need disposable plastic straws, then they should provide their own. Sometimes it may be possible to prepare in advance, other times not. Why should a disabled person have to provide their own? Imagine the outcry if non-disabled people were asked to bring their own cutlery with them every time they ate out. 

6. Banning straws won’t save the oceans. And lastly; when compared to global plastic pollution levels, plastic straw consumption is almost negligible. Reports suggest that, globally, straws only account for less than 0.03 per cent of all marine plastic pollution (in terms of weight). Why are disabled people being targeted when there are much more effective ways to tackle plastic pollution? 

Recounting 

I have always been proud to say I play my part in reducing my negative impact on the environment. I have always recycled, used public transport when possible, and I have been very aware of my water consumption, and taken many steps to reduce food waste – amongst other things.

But when my health severely deteriorated 7 years ago, my needs also changed, and this demonstrated to me that it’s not always possible to live in a sustainable way.

To explain my situation with regards to my reliance on single-use plastics, I need to recount my story. 

I am a disabled woman with a number of chronic illnesses (ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia, Migraine, Osteoporosis and IBS). About 7 years ago my health took a sudden downturn, and I became bedbound. I suffer from a multitude of symptoms including chronic pain, dizziness, palpitations, severe fatigue and weakness, violent muscle spasms, tremors and twitches. For all these reasons, I became reliant on plastic straws. And although my health has improved a bit since, and I no longer need straws, I am very aware that I could return to this state at any time. I am also eager to stand up for the many disabled people that rely on these straws. 

But plastic straws are not the only single-use plastic products I rely on:

Pre prepared convenience foods. I cannot prepare food, or cook for myself, so I rely on others. But I spend a lot of time on my own and therefore I need convenient ways to feed myself. Most pre prepared convenience foods sadly come in plastic packaging. Products like these have recently been criticised on social media, with many considering a pre-chopped vegetable or a peeled orange in a plastic container as completely unnecessary – particularly when many fruits and vegetables come with their own natural ‘packaging’. But it’s obvious, yet again, that the needs of disabled people are being ignored. There are thousands of people with disabilities and mobility issues who are reliant on accessible food, not just for convenience, but to survive. 

Disposable plastic cups. I cannot operate the kitchen taps, so carers have to fill plastic cups for me. Why plastic? I cannot lift anything heavier, and due to my compromised immune system, I need these cups to be as sterile as possible – hence disposable plastic cups.

Medication packaging & other medical supplies. Most medication comes in plastic packaging – I cannot escape this. Also many other medical supplies relied on by disabled people, are plastic. 

Internet shopping – excess packaging. I rely on Internet shopping, and home deliveries for all my needs. And sadly many companies are not playing their part. The amount of plastic, non recyclable, or excess packaging used is frustrating.

Supermarket carrier bags for home deliveries. Recently, many supermarkets in the UK have banned plastic carrier bags for home deliveries. I cannot stress enough how much disabled people not only rely on home deliveries, but also how impractical these deliveries are without bags.

Wet wipes. I can only shower once a week so I rely on wet wipes for hygiene reasons, most days 

Restricted diet. And it’s not just my need for single-use plastics that has made me a target. Recently there has been a significant number of people switching to a vegan diet. This is done for many reasons, but many argue it greatly reduces the negative impact on the environment. Social media has been full of self righteous, non-disabled vegans berating all non-vegans for not doing their bit. But many of us simply couldn’t survive on a vegan diet – I would love to. My diet is already very restricted due to a number of food intolerances, and the only protein I can tolerate is chicken. I’m also intolerant to most fruit and veg, and I’m sure most of you will agree, that is a pretty big obstacle for anyone wanting to become a vegan. 

However, most people accept that there are bigger environmental problems than single use plastics. Efforts to reduce industrial emissions, like those from the fossil fuel industry, would have a much greater impact on the climate crisis. More about that later.

Researching

Having said all that, I still want to play my part in combating the ongoing climate crisis.

But is it actually possible for me to reduce my negative impact on the environment, given the many obstacles I face? Is it possible to reduce my carbon footprint, and adapt my life to be more environmentally friendly while living with a chronic illness or disability?

Time to do some research…

What I discovered is, there are steps we can all take, disabled and non-disabled people alike, to be kinder to the environment. Here are a few;

  • Reduce car use and air travel
  • Reduce food waste and food miles
  • Reduce energy and water consumption
  • Recycle and reuse where possible 
  • Change eating habits and eat less meat and dairy, where possible
  • Avoid fast fashion

There are also many companies going out of their way to produce sustainable products, and use eco-friendly packaging. By choosing these companies, and diverting our custom away from organisations that are reluctant to adapt, we can make a statement.

Steps to reduce our individual carbon footprint will have a bigger effect than banning disposable plastic straws. Although my carbon footprint is already pretty small when compared to the average consumer. I don’t travel by car accept for hospital appointments. I haven’t flown since 2010, and my last longhaul flight was was 14 years ago. I only shower once a week, so my water consumption is low. I don’t buy fast fashion – I live in PJ’s. And I don’t buy fast food or take out coffee. 

But the truth is; 46% of ocean pollution consists of discarded fishing equipment. Over 70% of carbon emissions come from fossil fuels. The richest 10% produce over 50% of global emissions,  and just 100 companies produce 71% of global carbon emissions­. So can we please agree that it isn’t disabled people that are responsible for the scale of environmental destruction we’ve seen in the last century.

Finding

So, how do we find green solutions that are suitable for everyone, and do not put disabled people’s lives in danger?

A good place to start would be to include disabled people in the conversation. What is very clear within the disabled community is; our rights and welfare are not even taken into consideration when laws are passed. This doesn’t surprise us, society is inherently ableist. But isn’t it about time disabled people were treated equally? Isn’t it time our needs were also discussed. Isn’t it about time we were included in the discussions BEFORE damaging laws are passed? Exclusion of disabled voices has done enough damage.

And what scares us is, after the straw ban, what comes next?; pre prepared foods, or maybe medical supplies?

Another simple way to help disabled people reduce their carbon footprint would be to make the world more accessible, starting with public transport.

But ultimately the responsibility needs to be placed on the large corporations that cause the most harm to the environment. Instead of asking disabled people to stop using disposable plastic products, why aren’t companies being forced to produce, and use, recyclable materials and packaging? Why aren’t they being made to reduce harmful carbon emissions? Why aren’t governments doing more to invest in renewable energy sources? 

What have we learned from all this?

Many environmental initiatives are inherently ableist. They do not take into consideration the needs of many disabled people. Forced laws like the straw ban are putting disabled people at risk of harm and abuse.

Limiting the use of plastic products to the greatest degree possible, whilst continuing to allow them to be available as a necessary tool for people with disabilities isn’t unreasonable. Sustainability campaigns need to empower people and promote good policies, not disadvantage disabled people.

Please include us in the discussion. There are 1 billion disabled people in the world – our voices matter. We are too often forgotten and excluded, but we also want to do our bit to combat climate change.

Please listen to us.

For more personal stories, reviews, news, inspirational quotes and in-depth discussion, please head over to my Facebook page.