I grew up with a mother who has always been intensely engaged with environmental activism. In her younger years, she campaigned against the use of agricultural aircraft in our small Lincolnshire village after airborne pesticides burned holes in our washing causing my brother to develop life-long respiratory allergies. However, fifteen years ago, my mother was involved in a car crash and fractured her neck, resulting in chronic pain and partial lack of mobility. Ever since, she has felt frustrated at her inability to engage with activism in the way she used to. Marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and even the weekly meetings of her local Extinction Rebellion group proved impossible to attend. To exacerbate the issue, she began to feel guilty about the amount of plastic waste generated by the medication she took, about the amount of time the heating had to be on in order to keep her warm and comfortable. In short, my mother’s disability alienated her from the fight against climate change, a situation that for many living with a disability is all too familiar.
My mother’s disability alienated her from the fight against climate change, a situation that for many living with a disability is all too familiar.
At the end of December 2018, the Lancashire Police Force admitted to passing on the details of disabled anti-fracking protesters to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In a statement to the Independent, a spokesperson for the Lancashire Police acknowledged that the DWP were a ‘partner agency’ and that they felt it was their ‘duty’ to pass on any evidence that might suggest benefit fraud was being committed. In July of last year, the Greater Manchester Police Force also confirmed the existence of a working relationship with the DWP, in which information on disabled protestors was openly shared between the police and DWP. The Lancashire Police Force was also accused of the use of violence against peaceful disabled protestors, witnesses citing kicking, punching, manhandling and tipping disabled protestors out of their wheelchairs.
The Lancashire Police Force admitted to passing on the details of disabled anti-fracking protesters to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Such systematic targeting of some of the most vulnerable members of environmental protests is, sadly, not a rare occurrence. In October of 2019, the Metropolitan Police were accused of using ‘degrading treatment’ against disabled XR activists during their ‘autumn uprising’ protests. During the protests, the police confiscated equipment designed to make protest sites accessible to disabled people, such as ‘wheelchairs, disability ramps, noise-cancelling headphones, specially adapted toilets and other items.’ As a result of this targeted violence, environmental activism is increasingly under-representative as those most vulnerable to police discrimination and brutality are methodically deterred from protesting. What makes the alienation particularly painful is that it appears to come from both sides. While the police force and DWP combine to exclude disabled protesters from engaging in acts of dissent, environmental activist groups are still failing to accommodate those with disabilities.
Not only are disabled activists excluded from the majority of organised action, much of the advice for ‘green living’ publicised by environmental groups is incompatible with the needs of the disabled. Ditching single-use disposables proves impossible for those who use certain medications or disposable aids. Cycling to work instead of using the car is out of the question for those with mobility issues. Even becoming a ‘green consumer’ by researching which food products have the smallest carbon footprint is a mammoth task for many people with disabilities such as chronic fatigue, autistic spectrum disorders, or the visually impaired. Movements which insist on placing the onus of change on the individual consumer neglect to acknowledge the diverse barriers that people with disabilities might face.
Not only are disabled activists excluded from the majority of organised action, much of the advice for ‘green living’ publicised by environmental groups is incompatible with the needs of the disabled.
While these movements can make disabled activists feel as though their specific needs set the movement back, the popular right-wing narrative already encourages the view that those claiming disability related benefits are a burden on society. TV programmes like Saints and Scroungers and Benefits Street perpetuate the idea of the ‘faker’, those exaggerating or fabricating their disability out of laziness. Such a narrative justifies the frequent cutbacks and suspensions of benefits by the government and effectively silences those who complain. In 2013, the shift from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments meant that those who had previously been given life-time support for disabilities that were not likely to improve were now being regularly reassessed and down-graded. While the abolition of life-time awards figured as a reflection of the population’s growing suspicion of disabled people, it also meant that support was no longer secure or certain, allowing it to be appropriated as leverage by those wishing to deter disabled people from engaging in protest.
Reassessment means that those claiming disability benefits are constantly under scrutiny and must continue to prove that they are deserving of aid. The acceptance of aid from the government seems to negate the recipient’s right to protest, and therefore their right to engage in society and politics. If you are dependent on the state, then you no longer have a right to criticise that state. Like an abusive parent, the British government weaponizes its duty of care in order to suppress the dissent of its dependents. The message from the DWP reads loud and clear, that their support relies on the condition of total political assent. There are multiple factors which increase the risks attached to activism, such as socio-economic background, race and sexuality. Engaging in environmental activism with a disability raises the stakes tenfold as potential arrest becomes a matter of life and death for protestors that are financially dependent on the very government they are protesting against.
The acceptance of aid from the government seems to negate the recipient’s right to protest, and therefore their right to engage in society and politics.
When I encouraged my mother to attend an XR rally in Norwich, our local city, she expressed trepidation about one particular line in an email sent out by the local group en masse. The email told the members to prepare for the very real possibility of being physically engaged with by police, if not arrested. She decided it was not a risk she was able to take. My mother is still switched on, well-read, and as passionate as ever about the climate, but the very nature of protest excludes those who can no longer engage in the kind of active, physical activism she grew up practicing.
The good news is that these discrepancies have not gone unnoticed or unchallenged. The ‘Global Greengrants Fund’ aims to encourage environmental activism by persons with disabilities, providing funding for disability consultation in relation to local and global environmental issues. They also help fund infrastructure to help disabled people who are more likely to feel the effects of natural disasters, corporate environmental degradation, pollution or land-grabbing. XR is already pioneering accessible activism with their use of ramps, accessible toilets and other aids during the October protests of last year. XR demonstrates the importance of supporting vulnerable protesters and providing them with the equipment they need to attend protests safely, while challenging and confronting systemic discrimination against these individuals by police. Climate change is an issue that is terrifying precisely because it is universal. Our response and the rhetoric we employ should represent the needs and lifestyles of all those affected by it.
By Guest Writer Rachel Kitts