This article originally appeared on the Left Unity website and can be found here.
“Accessibility is about giving equal access to everyone and without being able to access the facilities and services, persons with disabilities will never be fully included”United Nations (2007)
Sandra Daniels and Bob Williams-Findlay are longstanding disability activists and leading members of the campaign organisation Act 4 Inclusion. Act 4 Inclusion believes that by using a community based eco-social approach to understand the basic relationships between service users and their environments, it is possible to move away from traditional need-led assessment procedures towards addressing how to create inclusive participation in both local communities and wider society. Having support to make decisions, exercising choice and control are all aspects of inclusive participation. Effective inclusive participation enables individuals and communities to work together to build capacity in shaping and engaging in decision-making processes through coproduction and the development of confidence, skills, knowledge, and experience.
Lateef H. McLeod, an American activist and writer, wrote an article entitled, Social Ecology and Disability Justice: Making A New Society, in which he explores commonalities between social ecology and disability justice in their respective visions for liberation. Despite some theoretical and analytical differences existing between American activists like Lateef and British activists like ourselves, there is enough common ground to build an understanding of what needs addressing.
“Focusing on the shared components of anti-capitalist critique, mutual aid or interdependence, and ecological sustainability, I will illustrate how these two movements can align to build a more just, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable world. I argue that social ecology and disability justice share a variety of values and goals that make them natural partners in struggles for collective liberation.” (1)
Our own campaigning approach contains these four components and we believe neither Climate Justice nor Disability Justice is achievable without the other. To put this in context it is necessary for us to place disabled people’s struggle for emancipation as a focal point. At the recent Birmingham’s Global Day for Climate Justice, Sandra explained that: “…. there remains a need to talk of injustices caused by climate change and potential injustices due to the lack of inclusivity within the climate change movement towards disabled people of all ages.”
Lateef made a similar point when he wrote:
“For social ecologists to be in solidarity with the disability community they must consider disability justice principles in any transition from capitalism. Social ecologists and other parts of the left also need to include the disability community more in their organizational strategies and making changes to ensure this goal is achieved. At a basic level, this requires paying more attention to access needs people may need in your group. This reflects the ninth disability justice principle of collective access.” (2)
The need to call out injustices
What Sandra explained to the gathered throng in Birmingham was that in order to achieve climate justice we must tackle the injustices and inequalities that exist. Climate injustices stem from how climate change is and will be, experienced differently by specific groups of people and how their lives will be disproportionately impacted upon by the worsening of climate change and if they are forgotten and not valued. These impacts are determined by a mix of socio-economic, environmental and cultural factors, as well as discriminatory institutional practices.
It needs to be acknowledged, the climate change movement often fails to consider or include disabled people in conversations about climate change, the risks involved and how we can transform societies. This lack of involvement contributes to the continued marginalisation of disabled people of all ages within society. Our lack of a voice and engagement reinforces the oppressive view that disabled people are simply made “vulnerable” due to our bodies and minds; when in reality, the cause behind our vulnerability is the oppressive ways we are seen and treated. Climate justice is impossible without addressing the disabling barriers and social restrictions imposed on us.
The ninth disability justice principle of collective access
The principle of collective access is not simply about ensuring physical access into buildings or transportation, nor it is just about developing ‘inclusive‘ practice either. Collective access has to be created by recognising the inequalities that exist in power relationships, the fact that diverse groups of people are impacted upon by normative values and oppressive practices differentially. Inclusive practice requires addressing intersectional issues, managing conflicts of need and interest, as well as drawing on the creative imagination and experience of different groups of people. Vic Finkelstein in 1980 said:
“The requirements are for changes to society, material changes to the environment, changes in environmental control systems, changes in social roles, and changes in attitudes by people in the community as a whole. The focus is decisively shifted on to the source of the problem -the society in which disability is created.” (3)
The social interpretation of disability focuses on the nature of society; but society is itself is only part of a larger whole as well. Complex systems are made up of many parts. It is not possible to understand the whole without recognizing how the component parts interact, affect and change each other.
Drawing from natural ecosystems which are defined as the network of interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment, it is possible to interconnect with social environments and therefore pay explicit attention to the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations. Ordinary lifestyles are interdependent; what happens in households, streets, communities, cities and the planet, impacts upon us all. The Covid-19 pandemic taught us this in stark terms. In order to remove disabling barriers and/or social restrictions, we need to address all the systems that impact upon human existence.
We cannot address one crisis in isolation, social support needs to be viewed in terms of the need to address climate change and sustainability at the same time. This is why Act 4 Inclusion has presented a vision and strategy for developing a new eco-social approach to replacing ‘Social Care’ which recognises the need to adopt an inclusive way of providing health, personal and social support within the context of developing sustainable communities. This approach acknowledges how the social model of disability can be enriched by ecology theory and used to identify how different systems, for example, at macro and micro levels of society, maintain social restrictions. The approach will also demonstrate how environmental systems interact with other environments, including the natural one, and contribute positively and negatively to older and disabled people’s lifestyles. Independent living is more than being about having personal support, it is also addressing how to ensure choice and control over all aspects of disabled people’s own lives. The ‘independent’ element in independent living refers to the right to self-determine lifestyles and a rejection to enforced dependency caused by disabling attitudes and practice. An eco-social approach would be more joined up, consider collective solutions and work towards being a transformative way forward for all human beings. (4) Vic Finkelstein also reminded us:
“We have repeated over and over again, and at every level in Society, that disabled people are not just ‘dependent’ disabled people because non-disabled people will depend on us to take a leading role in humanising the health and as community support services and in returning mainstream culture to its fundamental roots – the sanctity of human life.” (5)
The social support needs of older and disabled people are often ignored or unmet. It is taken for granted that people who do not conform to the expected and accepted ways of ‘doing normal tasks’ due to injury, chronic illness or impairment, are institutionalised. Disability politics are about challenging the social restrictions which prevent participation within mainstream social activities. The structures, systems, values, and cultures within society create disablement through the maintenance of capitalist social relations. Our systems of transportation are among the most disabling for older and disabled people.
We are not public
It is not possible to discuss the huge and complex issue of transportation for older and disabled people in detail therefore we are going to focus on certain aspects of transportation.
Without accessible transportation, many disabled people simply cannot get to school or the workplace, hindering their full participation in society.
Accessibility features in public transportation benefit non-disabled people too. A few examples include:
- A lift or ramp to board a bus is still necessary for people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices, older people who cannot climb stairs safely, or a parent pushing their child in a buggy.
- A reader board on a bus will provide access to spoken announcements for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, or for any passengers who missed the announcement when the bus is crowded and loud.
- Audio announcements of upcoming bus stops for people who have visual impairments or for inexperienced travellers who need help identifying their stop.
- Curb-cuts make pedestrian pathways accessible for people using wheelchairs or other wheeled devices such as walkers, buggies, or rolling luggage.
There is still a long way to go in making buses, trains and taxis fully accessible. We are not just talking about design issues, important as they are, but there are infrastructural barriers to address as well. There are barriers due to forced dependency on others for assistance or support. The age of Austerity has led to cuts in resources and services which have impacted on disabled people, but poor design in travel procedures contribute to the inequalities faced.
Let us however go back and put accessibility features in public transportation into historical context. Savitri Hensman, Patient and Public Involvement Coordinator for Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) South London, explains some of the British campaigning history.
“The Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) protested in high profile locations such as Oxford Street, for instance halting a bus as a wheelchair-user symbolically tried to get on. They explained to impatient passengers that, while their journeys were delayed, some people had been waiting for years to get to their destinations.” This was in the early 1990s and CAT made way for the Direct Action Network (DAN).
Savitri goes on to say:
“Activities were carefully organised, with plenty of photo opportunities for the media. Some protesters chained themselves to buses. A number of people were arrested; being willing to take this risk often involved a fair deal of courage, especially since police tended to have no training in how to move disabled people safely and getting into police stations and courts often meant being carried up flights of steps.” (6)
Whilst we need to acknowledge the following points they make, it nonetheless, hides a number of issues that still need addressing.
“From 2000, the new Mayor of London introduced what was, for a while, probably the largest accessible low floor bus fleet in the world. Changes were also introduced in the underground and overground train network, though a new leadership did not keep up the momentum. Nevertheless, the improvements had major effects on people’s ability to study, work or volunteer and be part of the community.
Yes, the fleet was accessible to a degree, but that is a mere technical point because it did not mean wheelchair users could travel on them. The design of buses means only one wheelchair passenger can board at a time; therefore, when us pair go to London, we cannot travel around in our wheelchairs together by bus. Then there is the competition with parents with buggies and prams, or what are termed, ‘personal wheeled transports’. What this means is travelling for disabled people is precarious, but not just for wheelchair users or just in London.
During the campaign for anti-discrimination legislation, the Federation for Small Businesses, argued that instead of making public transport accessible, disabled people should be subsidised to travel round in taxis. Not only was this view patronising, but it was also extremely ignorant. Many disabled people have low incomes and taxis are expensive. Add to this the discriminatory factors disabled people encounter as passengers. Both taxi and bus drivers, despite having a legal duty to do so, are often very reluctant to operate ramps. People with visual impairments or others with assistance dogs are often left standing by taxi drivers.
No one left behind
Developing greener modes of transport must involve ensuring ‘public’ means everyone. Legislation alone around ‘rights’ or ‘protecting the environment’ is insufficient. The pandemic has illustrated how capitalism reacts under extreme pressure and it is older and disabled people, along with women and children, who bear the brunt of the backlash. Transport For All in their London Mayoral Manifesto paints this reality when they write:
“With the fall in passenger numbers having a catastrophic impact on Transport for London’s finances, an emergency revised budget was hastily drawn up. We were once again reminded of the fact that when money is tight, accessibility is always the first thing to go. 9 stations’ step-free access projects were halted indefinitely due to the lack of funds available.
On the Underground, Turn Up and Go services were scrapped as TfL were unable to put practices in place to protect the health and safety of frontline staff while offering physical assistance and sighted guiding to disabled and visually impaired passenger. A Taxi service was instated in its place, but this was inefficiently communicated to staff, leading to many instances of disabled people being turned away.
Across the transport network, disabled people unable to wear a face-covering have been victims of abuse and hate crime as a result of ‘peer-policing’ from fellow passengers.” (7)
As disabled activists who work across climate and disability issues, we believe what Transport For All are reporting could become “the new ‘normal’”, if social ecology and disability justice are not tackled together.
We share Transport For All’s ultimate vision which is for “disabled people to be able to travel freely and with independence door to door, with the same options for modal or active travel as non-disabled people.
To do this will require sustainable, seismic change in how …. transport is designed, delivered, and run.”
What needs to be understood and addressed
As Lateef said, social ecologists and other parts of the left also need to include the disability community more in their organisational strategies. Too often their strategies not only exclude disabled people there is also a promotion of a ‘body fascist’ culture where it is seen as a crime not to walk or cycle, and to own a car is a real no-no. Whilst it is correct to campaign for car-use reduction, it is also vital to acknowledge as Lacey (2004) highlighted, that cars are the only practical method of transport for some disabled people. (8) Sandra illustrates this point when she wrote:
“I passed my test when I was 17 and a half years old. Getting my license and having a car changed everything for me. I was now not reliant on anyone to get me around and could go where I wanted and with who I wanted to go with. We are after all talking about the 1980s during the days when disabled people, especially wheelchair users couldn’t get on a bus, due to there being a step with a pole in the middle of the entrance.
In the next stage of my life, my early 20s the car become important in supporting me to be a parent. I had my first child in my early 20s and I could take my baby in my car where I wanted. I was not trapped; I could gather up my child and get away if I wanted or needed to. The car was my liberation ticket.
Later on, the car helped me to take my daughter to school and when my son was born by caesarean section after a complex pregnancy and birth it made me feel I had some independents. I know I wasn’t meant to drive for six weeks after the birth, but the car gave me the option of escaping if I needed, crazy I know!
My car also helped me to become the woman I am today, after all, It drove me to where I first met disabled activists and I became part of a community of people I share a vision of disability with. Now as a disabled woman in my late 50s my car and my freedom is as equally as important to me. Driving assists me in interacting with my family, friends, and the activities I choose, I can see and be part of my grown-up children’s and my grandchildren’s life.
My cars have got bigger over the years. There is several reasons for this, firstly the kids got bigger and there is more of them. Secondly, my lightweight rigid framed wheelchair and how much I use it has increased, so the car has become an even more essential aid to my independence, lifestyle, and contribution to society.
Although I am aware of the importance of eco-socialist solutions, unfortunately due to how inaccessible public transport still is, I’m only prepared to use public transport when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, public transport has not developed the access and increased independence to the extent disabled activists had hoped for during their campaigns.
In recent years I give where I park my car even more consideration. Having my adapted hand control car stolen again or off the road for any length of time has become inconceivable to me. I also need to give greater consideration to where I park my car these days as I can now only walk short distances using walking sticks. I need to be able to load and unload my wheelchair into the boot and be reassured that no other vehicle will park right behind me; stopping me being able to reload my wheelchair on my return.
The bottom line is, where I go my car needs to be as safe as possible, otherwise I’m not feeling liberated, free and relaxed.”
Without access and appropriate transportation, older and disabled people are trapped, imprisoned, and face a form of apartheid. One in seven people in the world have some form of significant impairment, yet it is all too common for them to be left out of advocacy and action to protect rights to a clean and healthy environment. With unique insights about injustice, structural barriers, and how to address them, disabled people have an enormous amount to offer the environmental and climate justice movement including many creative and relevant solutions that can improve communities, strengthen human rights, and protect our shared planet.
We can see numerous connections between environmental problems, the creation of impairment and disablement: lack of clean water, pesticide poisoning, air pollution, oil spills, mercury contamination, silicosis, worker safety in extractive industries, and climate-induced migration, to name a few. Global climate change, loss of land, water, and clean air threaten the rights of disabled people to enjoy safe and productive lives.
If environmental justice seeks the fair treatment of all people with respect to environmental decisions and policy, then disabled people must be part of the discussion, and yet they are regularly excluded from decision-making and face discrimination. Unless this is addressed, it could mean climate solutions and adaptation plans may be designed without their needs in mind, and they may not have equal access to the green jobs and opportunities of a just transition. For climate movements, it means they are missing valuable perspectives, talent, and experience that could broaden and enrich their agendas and increase their power to create systemic change. (9)
As Maria Barile, disability activist, feminist, and researcher, said:
“We cannot achieve social change by using the same structures that exclude people. Rather, it can be achieved by replacing these, with more egalitarian structures.” (10)
(1) Lateef H. McLeod, Social Ecology and Disability Justice: Making A New Society. https://harbinger-journal.com/issue-1/social-ecology-and-disability-justice/
(2) 10 PRINCIPLES OF DISABILITY JUSTICE
A. INTERSECTIONALITY “We do not live single issue lives” –Audre Lorde. Ableism, coupled with white supremacy, supported by capitalism, underscored by heteropatriarchy, has rendered the vast majority of the world “invalid.”
B. LEADERSHIP OF THOSE MOST IMPACTED “We are led by those who most know these systems.” –Aurora Levins Morales
C. ANTI-CAPITALIST POLITIC In an economy that sees land and humans as components of profit, we are anti-capitalist by the nature of having non-conforming body/minds.
D. COMMITMENT TO CROSS-MOVEMENT ORGANIZING Shifting how social justice movements understand disability and contextualize ableism, disability justice lends itself to politics of alliance.
E. RECOGNIZING WHOLENESS People have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity. Each person is full of history and life experience.
F. SUSTAINABILITY We pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long term. Our embodied experiences guide us toward ongoing justice and liberation.
G. COMMITMENT TO CROSS-DISABILITY SOLIDARITY We honor the insights and part
members, knowing that isolation undermines collective liberation.
H. INTERDEPENDENCE We meet each others’ needs as we build toward liberation, knowing that state solutions inevitably extend into further control over lives.
I. COLLECTIVE ACCESS As brown, black and queer-bodied disabled people we bring flexibility and creative nuance that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity, to be in community with each other.
J. COLLECTIVE LIBERATION No body or mind can be left behind – only mobbing together can we accomplish the revolution we require.
(3) Vic Finkelstein, Attitudes and Disabled People, https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/finkelstein-attitudes.pdf
(4) Act 4 Inclusion, Vision and Strategy https://act4inclusion.org/vision-and-strategy/#:~:text=H.1%20In%20order%20for%20the%20vision%20to%20be,educational%20work%20and%20development%20of%20policy%20and%20practice.
(5) Vic Finkelstein, Whose History??? Disability History Week, Birmingham, 10th June 2002 https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/finkelstein-Whose-History-2.pdf
(6) Savitri Hensman, We Will Ride: Making Transport Accessible, JANUARY 18, 2021 https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/diversity/2021/01/18/we-will-ride-making-transport-accessible/#:~:text=The%20Cam
(7) Transport for All, London Mayoral Election 2021 https://www.transportforall.org.uk/campaign/london-mayoral-election-2021/
(8) Lacey, A. (2004). Designing for Accessibility, an essential guide for public buildings Centre for Accessible Environments.
(9) Thanks to Peter Kostishack, 25 years alliance, for providing the information.
(10) Remembering Maria Barile https://www.dawncanada.net/news/remembering-maria-barile/?language=en
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