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Disability and Sustainability

Thursday 11 October 2018 NUS News

Disability Inclusion or Sustainability: Why has it become a choice?

Sustainability campaigns are frequently seen to be at odds with disabled peoples' needs and rights to independent living, from the recent calls for a total ban on plastic straws, to the removal of prepared produce from supermarket shelves.

Let’s start off with getting the obvious out of the way – environmental sustainability and disability inclusion do not contradict one another. Rather, liberal conservationism has created a Hobson’s choice, that is the illusion that we have a “take it or leave it” situation. The illusion with recent popular sustainability campaigns has been that we must remove the offending pollutant entirely or not bother at all. We’ve seen this with the anti-plastic straws campaign that has gripped the third sector: we’re given the impression that if we don’t ban their use entirely, then all the turtles will die. However, what has been missed from this narrative is that many disabled people need a bendy plastic straw in order to independently consume fluids. Following a number of abhorrent comments levied at disabled students when raising concerns about the exclusionary nature of an all-out ban with their students’ unions, NUS is in the process of transforming and nuancing the narrative of The Last Straw through engagement with the Disabled Students Campaign. As part of this we are encouraging students’ unions and other organisations working to reduce the use of single-use plastics to take note of these changes and reorient their own campaigns in an inclusive way.

Indeed, we can have the same statistical impact on ocean plastic pollution [1] if we switch to disabled people inclusive policies. Don’t ban them, replace them if needed but ensure there are some plastic straws beneath the bar, so they’re available for anyone who requires a plastic straw to drink with – sustainability working with accessibility and the right to independent living.

However, let’s step away from the plastic straw debacle, towards the real issue at hand – the exclusion and erasure of disabled people’s voices and rights within our society. Whether it’s on our TVs or on social media, you’ll see a non-disabled person not listening to disabled activists, experts, or scientists, but still feeling entitled to tell disabled people what our needs are. The rhetoric surrounding sustainability campaigns built on social media actively promotes disablist ideas and eugenicist attitudes. Somehow society has managed to move the responsibility of conservation from the capitalist structures who’ve exploited and polluted our environments for centuries, to the disabled people who just want their human rights.

Apparently, the only thing we consider worse than an injustice, is an inconvenience. The consumer-focused sustainability campaigns can ignore the injustice of removing essential aids, discriminating against disabled people because it’s more convenient than tackling the main causes of pollution.

46% of ocean pollution consists of discarded fishing equipment[2], with the pollution from natural disasters equating to 20% of the great pacific garbage patch. With over 70% of carbon emissions coming from fossil fuels and recent surveys showing over half of all ocean pollution coming from non-consumer sources [3], sustainability campaigns need to empower people and promote good policies, not disadvantage and erase people.

When the richest 10% produce over 50% of global emissions[4], and just 100 companies producing 71% of global carbon emissions­[5], it isn’t disabled people that are responsible for the scale of environmental destruction we’ve seen the last century. In fact, it’s often disabled people who are on the frontlines of climate disasters, being disproportionately impacted by natural hazards.[i]  We need to start shifting the narratives of responsibility for the climate crisis onto the neoliberal capitalist order which is responsible for it, rather than the individuals who are already struggling in an oppressive society.

It is important to note that the exclusion of disabled voices has led directly to the rise of disablist and eugenicist rhetoric within the student sustainability movement, where disabled people are faced with abhorrent comments, when all we are fighting for is our rights.  

We, as student leaders, need to push back against disablism, push back against consumer-focused sustainability and as a collective we need to campaign for our institutions and local businesses to change. We need to campaign for divestment from fossil fuels, lobby for legislation on discarded fishing equipment, challenge businesses who remove essential aids for disabled people, and focus on pushing for the redistribution of power to the masses rather than the elitist few that it is currently centralised with.

Join us at The Sustainability Summit on Wednesday 31st October, register here (we have limited spaces left.)

In Solidarity

Piers Wilkinson

NUS UK National Executive Council

NUS Disabled Students' Committee