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Environmental hazard and disabled people: from vulnerable to expert to interconnected



Why are disabled people disproportionately affected by the impacts of environmental hazard, and is it really only their relative poverty that makes them so vulnerable? What might disabled people contribute from their experience of negotiating barriers to designing responses to the challenges of environmental hazard? Can the lived experience of inter-dependency, as opposed to individual independence, contribute to the radical rethinking of our relationships with the environment, other sentient beings and each other? Drawing on a short scoping study, this article reviews the multiple causes of disabled people’s vulnerability, and goes on to ask whether the experience disabled people enables them to become valued contributors, rather than just members of a vulnerable group. We also explore possible reasons for the lack of inclusion and diversity within the environmental movement, and suggest that the disability and environmental movements might make a more common cause.
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Disability & Society
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Environmental hazard and disabled
people: from vulnerable to expert to
David Abbotta & Sue Portera
a Norah Fry Research Centre, School for Policy Studies, University
of Bristol, Bristol, UK.
Published online: 06 Sep 2013.
To cite this article: David Abbott & Sue Porter (2013) Environmental hazard and disabled
people: from vulnerable to expert to interconnected, Disability & Society, 28:6, 839-852, DOI:
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Environmental hazard and disabled people: from vulnerable to
expert to interconnected
David Abbott* and Sue Porter
Norah Fry Research Centre, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
(Received 1 August 2012; nal version received 26 April 2013)
Why are disabled people disproportionately affected by the impacts of
environmental hazard, and is it really only their relative poverty that makes
them so vulnerable? What might disabled people contribute from their
experience of negotiating barriers to designing responses to the challenges of
environmental hazard? Can the lived experience of inter-dependency, as
opposed to individual independence, contribute to the radical rethinking of
our relationships with the environment, other sentient beings and each other?
Drawing on a short scoping study, this article reviews the multiple causes of
disabled peoples vulnerability, and goes on to ask whether the experience
disabled people enables them to become valued contributors, rather than just
members of a vulnerable group. We also explore possible reasons for the
lack of inclusion and diversity within the environmental movement, and
suggest that the disability and environmental movements might make a more
common cause.
Keywords: environment; hazard; disabled peoples expertise; inter-dependency
Points of interest
Disabled people are amongst the most vulnerable groups in relation to natural
hazards, because of additional vulnerabilities that accompany poverty.
Emergency planning authorities fail to recognise disabled people as an impor-
tant stakeholder group to consult. As a result, many warning and rescue
mechanisms are unsuited to the needs of disabled people.
Ableism underlies both the assumptions about the normal body that can
endanger disabled people in times of crisis, and the assumption that disabled
people cannot contribute insights from their lived experience to disaster plan-
ning and our thinking about sustainability more generally.
There are common social justice-related issues for both the disability and
environmental movements that could lead to productive conversations.
However, disabled people can feel alienated by being positioned as greedy
consumersof energy and resources.
*Corresponding author. Email:
Disability & Society, 2013
Vol. 28, No. 6, 839852,
Ó2013 Taylor & Francis
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We argue for a value system based on a recognition of interdependence and
Climate change will exacerbate deep inequalities within countries. It challenges us to
think about what it means to live as part of an ecologically interdependent human
community. The emerging risks and vulnerabilities associated with climate change are
the outcome of physical processes. But they are also a consequence of human actions
and choices. (United Nations Development Programme 2007, 23)
This paper is based on a relatively small scoping study carried out to think about the
relationships between what we have termed environmental hazardand disabled
people. We were motivated to explore this issue by a number of different things.
Firstly, we read and then acknowledged the challenge posed by Wolbring (2009) in
his important paper that questioned why so few connections were being made
between the challenges of climate change and issues for disabled people. Next we
drew on our own experiences of noticing how, for example, evacuation procedures
at meetings we attended assumed particular physical attributes. So in a meeting
attended by many disabled people with a range of support needs, we were told in the
event of a re alarm to Look for people in blue vests and listen out for personalised
alarms. As our reading developed we noticed the emphasis in the literature on the
inherent vulnerability of disabled people in the event of environmental hazard and a
much smaller literature that problematised the vulnerabilitycategory and the
absence of disabled peoples participation in forums and policy formulation in
response to environmental hazard. Our hypothesis was in fact that disabled peoples
intricate, daily negotiations with risk, hazard and barriers make them extremely well
placed to be at the heart of such forums in a way that would benet all as opposed
to being seen as a specialist or marginal viewpoint. Finally, one of us reected on
the experience of feeling increasingly troubled in environmental and sustainability
groups and organisations as a disabled person because of assumptions about the use
(and personal abuse) of energy that made no allowance for individual support and
access needs. This led us to reect on the space for ongoing dialogue and shared
interest between the disability and the sustainability movements.
This paper briey outlines the challenges posed by environmental hazard to
disabled people but, more importantly we believe, also suggests that disabled people
may have lived experiences which bestow expertise that would signicantly
contribute to discussions about and planning for environmental risk. We argue that
it is a waste of resources to marginalise the knowledge contribution that comes
from the margins of lived experience of disability, which can offer a whole new
way to view our relationship with each other, the environment and the move to
sustainability. We also suggest that the concepts of interconnectedness and
interdependence that have featured strongly in the eld of disability teach us
something about our relationship to the environment and each other and contributes
to our thinking about how to live more sustainably.
We have used the term environmental hazardto include large-scale natural
disasters, sometimes linked to climate change (e.g. ooding), as well as more
localised experiences of hazard such as re and other evacuation scenarios. We refer
to the concept of ableism throughout the paper and take this to mean:
840 D. Abbott and S. Porter
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A network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self
and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical, and
therefore essential and fully human. Disability is then cast as a diminished state of
being human. (Campbell 2009, 5)
Our scoping study
The purpose of our short scoping study was to map out the issues and associated
relevant literature and to formulate pertinent research questions for a subsequent
piece of substantive research regarding disabled people and environmental hazard.
Through a review of journal articles, reports and relevant policy documents, we
also made contact with other researchers whose work shared boundaries with our
own and whose work has contributed to our own thinking and sense-making. We
also embarked on conversations with relevant voluntary organisations, and groups
of disabled people to understand their views and insights into the issues. The
scoping study was funded by a local grant-making body and was given ethical
approval by the Ethics Committee of the School for Policy Studies at the
University of Bristol.
Disabled peoples views
We were struck by the lack of literature we could nd which mentioned or included
disabled peoples own views and those of disabled peoples organisations on topics
such as climate change and environmental hazard. We had contact with some
disabled peoples organisations in Japan and were interested in their experiences of
rebuilding their communities post earthquake. More substantially, our study engaged
with two forums of disabled people. First, the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations in London, who were convening a number of disability groups for
their Climate Change and Disabled Londoners Project. We took part in the second
workshop at which we gave an update on the research project, presented our interim
ndings and sought feedback. Second, our local disabled peoples organisation, the
West of England Centre for Inclusive Living based in Bristol, England, where we
met with 18 adult members of a peer support group to discuss the research, and
where we told the stories that for us typied both the underlying questions and
emerging thinking from the scoping study. The discussion lasted for four hours,
with breaks, and we took handwritten notes that we later analysed for broad
In both forums we wanted to explore the following hypotheses:
That disabled people possess a wisdom and expertise in relation to risk
management, problem-solving and overcoming large and small barriers.
That disabled people may have useful insights and embodied experiences of
the value and nature of inter-dependency and scarcity; that is, of things being
limited and living accordingly.
That these wisdoms and insights would prove valuable to wider societal
debates about sustainability, responding to large-scale and small-scale risk and
energy consumption.
That these wisdoms and insights are often borne out of the socially unjust
position many disabled people face in an ableist society but also perhaps
Disability & Society 841
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out of more positive experiences that arise from an appreciate of living inter-
That despite these skills, attributes and insights, ableist assumptions about
disabled people conne them to the role of vulnerable and needy, and struggle
to ascribe the role of expert or wise to them.
That ignoring or marginalising these insights both impoverishes everyone but
also perpetuates disabled peoples disproportionately high exposure to the
occurrence and impact of risk events.
In the National Council for Voluntary Organisations meeting, the concerns of the
groups attending as they related to climate change and environmental hazard could
be characterised under the following main themes: rising temperatures and associ-
ated physical discomfort; higher levels of rainfall and the difculties this posed for
being outdoors safely and comfortably and without interruption to public transport;
oods and the difculty of escape from threatened buildings, access to key services
in event of ood and the availability and affordability of insurance; drought and the
effects on health and well-being of water shortages; other climate effects, including
the costs of energy and availability of essential goods such as food; and pressure
for a low-carbon society that might stigmatise disabled people as excessive users of
energy, but also the opportunity for inclusion and esteem through taking part in
collective action to be responsible.
In our focus group discussion with the West of England Centre for Inclusive
Living we used a number of stories to guide the discussion. These stories focused on:
hurricane Katrina and the widely shared story of Benilda Caixetta (a disabled woman
who died in hurricane Katrina whilst awaiting rescue); a personal experience of a re
evacuation that relied on evacuees being able to see, hear and walk; a personal experi-
ence of being unable to attend a meeting about sustainability because the only avail-
able accessible toilet was a public one down the road; and our inability to persuade
various colleagues involved academically with environmental hazard that disabled
people could be anything other than vulnerable and in need of special protections.
Participants could clearly recognise the ways in which they might be vulnerable
and be discriminated against when it came to things like re drills or evacuations
or ooding. They had worried about how they might get out of department stores
in the event of a re, or even their own homes when escape routes were inaccessi-
ble. There were concerns about the suggestion that they should wait to be rescued
when in fact people felt this might not happen in practice: Were always the last
ones outand Its like that in real life too Im alright Jack. Participants reected
on the death of Benilda Caixetta and were shocked but not surprised, and suggested
that they would have no idea what should happen in the event of large-scale emer-
gency. Our own meeting room for the focus group neatly provided an example of
ableist assumptions around evacuation as we spotted the evacuation sign high above
a door a man running. Participants then began to question why disabled people
were not routinely involved in thinking about escape and evacuation routes or in
planning buildings and designing policies to deal with hazard.
In thinking about the relationships between disability and sustainability and the
environmental movement, individual accounts of discrimination surfaced espe-
cially in relation to public transport, which was described in largely negative terms.
One participant who used oxygen said he was not allowed to take it on the bus:
They say take the bus and save the environment its a bloody joke!Another
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participant defended her car use, remarking on how lostand isolatedshe would
be without it. Two other participants talked about their attempts to be green. One
said she wanted to recycle but that the recently introduced net covers for recycle
bins needed two hands to x them on so she was unable. The other participant said
that whilst they had insulated their house and tried to cut their energy use: People
always see the vulnerable as the biggest users of fuel. Weve done our bit and we
do what we can but were still labelled as a big user cos were disabled.
Finally, one of us reected that her daily experience of anticipating, meeting
and overcoming obstacles contributed skills of anticipation and assessment of risk
and barriers that were assets in problem-solving. In addition, the experience of
managing in a largely inaccessible environment and the attendant frustrations give a
felt sense of resilience. As someone with limits to her physical energy due to her
impairment, she has learnt to manage effort and expectations in order to prioritise
and conserve energy for the things that are most important to her. She does not
assume her energy is limitless. One of the greatest challenges facing those working
for sustainability is the addiction to consumption of the earths energy affecting
many people, particularly in the western world. The embodied experience of living
mindfully with limitednesscan be compared with our psychological and emotional
response to scarcity of natural resources. On the basis of this we made a direct
suggestion to the group that the lived experience of disability might engender skills
and greater expertise around factors such as physical safety and risk,
problem-solving in the physical environment, and understanding that personal
energy can be limited in the same way that natures energy might be limited. Whilst
several people nodded in reply to suggest that they agreed, nobody developed this
train of thought and the group returned to discussing barriers and individual needs.
Disabled people and environmental hazard: vulnerable by neglect and design?
Disabled people are disproportionately affected by the consequences of all kinds of
natural and human-made hazards: oods, res, terrorism, war, earthquakes. This is
true whether the hazard be large scale (e.g. 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami,
Japan; 2005 Atlantic hurricane Katrina) or small scale and relatively everyday a
re or other need to evacuate a public building. The additional danger and risks
posed to disabled people are several fold and relate to issues such as the added
vulnerabilities that accompany poverty, the accessibility of information about risk
and hazard, the design of the built environment and prejudicial, structural attitudes
towards disabled people, as a group, arguably, as the least worth saving.
Priestley and Hemingway (2007) argue that disabled people are usually amongst
the poorest in both rich and poorer countries. When infrastructure is damaged by envi-
ronmental hazard there may be particular difculties for disabled people, who may
have greater reliance on, for example, public transport and public services, as well as
interruptions to the range of relationships that disabled people may rely on to facilitate
and support independent living. Attempts at rescue may well prove problematic for
disabled people and those with health conditions disproportionately when affected by
adverse conditions such as ood, drought, and so forth (Shakespeare 2009).
Planning responses to the risk of environmental hazards may have ableist
assumptions about how people can respond based largely on ignorance of the needs
of disabled people. Where disabled people are mentioned in planning and policy doc-
uments, it is usually by way of classication of vulnerable, special needsand lack-
Disability & Society 843
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ing in any differentiation of support, access or information need. These approaches
not only miss the point on the range of needs different disabled people may have but
also perpetuate the focus on the individual over the need to challenge the collective
imagination of how society is structured to privilege certain kinds of bodies and
minds over others. So, for example, information about emergency responses may be
in inaccessible formats, may assume the capacity to be physically mobile or
physically autonomous, may assume alerts can be heard or seen, and so forth.
Underlying these assumptions are ideas of normalcy and the ordinary body or
mind. The normal body situates the abnormal and deviant body (Davis 1995) and
in that our society requires a t and economically active body, it is possible to
argue that the construction of responses to risk and disaster which privilege the
privileged and the norm are extensions of eugenics ideology. When environmental
hazard leads to signicant loss of public and social infrastructure, then, as Priestley
and Hemingway (2007) suggest, attitudes can be shaped by a value system that
prioritises non-disabled people who are viewed as most important presumably
because they are viewed as more economically useful or viable. Certain groups
become, as Fjord (2007, 16) describes, categories of persons for whom expected
losseswill occur.We can hardly serve the intact people, as the American Red
Cross was reported as saying about their response to Katrina in the National
Council on Disabilitys (2006) impact report. In this context it becomes dangerous
to be medically marked out as disabled:
in an emergency, being special is not only not a good thing, it can actually be deadly.
(Global Partnership for Disability & Development and The World Bank 2009, 13)
Policy documents (with the exception of Defra 2008) that include discussion of
disabled people continue to frame them as a homogeneous and inherently vulnera-
ble group likely to cause burdenon the health system (Defra 2012). The emphasis
remains on individual strategies to deal with and respond to hazard:
People with disabilities and their families need adaptation and coping strategies that
can mitigate and minimize the harmful effects of climate change (Global Partner-
ship for Disability & Development and The World Bank 2009, 5)
The responsibility might even lie with disabled people to explain their non-nor-
malcy in a bid to be considered fully human and to offer viable options in order to
be considered worth saving:
the disability community has to work towards demystifying disability, providing
technical guidance on appropriate measures to address different disabilities, and dem-
onstrating the feasibility of inclusive disaster management through practical solutions.
(Global Partnership for Disability & Development and The World Bank 2009, 16)
Beyond vulnerable: missing out on the participation and expertise of disabled
Shuttleworth and Meekosha (2013) argue that the largely unquestioned, widely
accepted and socially constructed category of vulnerablefor disabled people
allows us to remain unchallenged and unthreatened and neither expect, or indeed
allow, disabled people to exercise agency. Vulnerability is also exacerbated, even
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created by the absence of disabled people in conceptualising and planning responses
to hazard. There may well be a lack of basic participation opportunities for disabled
people to voice concerns about environmental issues (Charles and Thomas 2007).
Wisner et al. (2007) suggest that a merit in moving away from the category of
vulnerable peopleto thinking about vulnerable situationsin which everybody
faced risk would mitigate against the prioritising of one group over another.
Imrie and Thomas (2008) point out that disabled people face environmental
injusticeall the time by virtue of the physical barriers and obstacles they face,
which exclude them from all kinds of different physical spaces in both urban and
rural areas. As mentioned above, one of us has reected on the way negotiating
outdoor spaces requires anticipation of blockages. In an observation of being in the
countryside with environmentally conscious and committed friends, she reects:
When I listen to the recording of the conversation with my companions I hear us
talking about freight on trains and containers from China and the environmental for
and against of it all, and they are completely absorbed in it. But I can't afford that
complete attention to the discussion, Im always one step ahead, looking for the
obstruction, and in this case nding it and immediately triaging the situation, holding
the possibility of having to turn back even as I try to nd a way around. I have to be
resourceful, but I cant afford to be reckless. The capacity to sustain this, and not be
inhibited or depressed by it but to start again, is itself real resilience.
Burns, Watson, and Paterson (2013, 12) suggest that disabled people who do nego-
tiate what is seen as riskyoutdoor spaces and challenge environmental barriers do
challenge caricatures of disabled people as helpless and vulnerable and develop risk
management and problem-solving skills. But this is a rare suggestion and demon-
strates an underlying refusal to make a mind-shiftfrom disabled people as inher-
ently needy and vulnerable to disabled people as assets, as people with expertise
that would benet all and not just so-called specialisedor vulnerablegroups
(Kett and van Ommeren 2009). As Fjord and Manderon write:
inclusive design approaches to creating social environments full the everyday
needs of all members of their societies. (2009, 64)
The chance to start overin the face of catastrophe can, as Priestley and
Hemingway (2007) suggest, provide some opportunity for a reinvisaging of landscape
that does include other voices and views, including those of disabled people, and they
highlight the increase in accessible homes and communities that were (re)constructed
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Predictably this is likely to be most successful
when the expertise of disabled people (amongst others) is central to the envisaging,
the planning, the deciding and the evaluating. This requires a co-produced approach
to environmental hazard and responses to risk which is currently largely absent:
Disabled peoples organisations possess considerable untapped social capital that is
vital to the construction of inclusive communities, and interventions could be made
more effective by prioritising their direct and sustained engagement. (Priestley and
Hemingway 2007, 33)
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The idea of disabled people as active contributors and contributing beyond
debates about the provision of welfare services is not well embedded in societys
framing of disabled people:
Innovation that places disabled people at the heart of a process that will involve every-
ones quality of life also starts to get rid of the them and usdistinction which is at
the root of the discrimination still faced by disabled people. (Demos 2004, 60)
Is it the otheringof the disabled persons experience that marginalises something
which is inherently valuable? The non-disabled majority struggle to see how in
hazardous situations we are likely to all experience the onset of impairment and
possible sensory deprivation. Why not learn now from people who live with the
expertise of bodily difference and awareness, using what Fenney and Snell (2011,
259) refer to as the ‘… expert knowledge status and distinctive perspectives …’
Fjord and Manderson argue that current approaches to disaster already privilege
those most equipped to respond, and they argue:
Why not place disability-centred approaches at the core of disaster planning and
ensure that the probable needs of most residents are accommodated? (2009, 65)
Within this mindset, it is possible, in fact logical, to expect that disabled people will
have specic contributions to make because of their lived experiences, including those
of dependency and care, lack, limits, insecurities and the constant need to anticipate
and overcome obstacles, summarised by Leipoldt (2006, 21) as the experience of
resilience and wellbeing in the midst of the difcult circumstances of impairment:
It is possible that people will discover that particularly people with a disability have
gained a certain wisdom that society needs: that people have to learn to live with the
unknown; with the fact that any moment of the day anything can happen, whereby life
is changed completely. (Leipoldt 2003, 224)
One barrier is the lack of imagination and the prejudicial way in which disabled
people may be seen as less than full citizens. If disabled people are imbued with
knowledge or expertise then it rarely extends beyond disability specic and welfarist
topics (Edwards 2001). Edwardsreview of disabled peoples involvement in regener-
ation projects found that disabled people were directedtowards projects to do with
jobs and training. Attempts at engagement between key groups such as non-govern-
mental organisations and development organisations often only amplify some of the
key challenges, ableist assumptions and under-developed approaches to co-production.
Yeo and Moore (2003) and Flower and Wirz (2000), for example, both highlight the
limits to the participation of disabled people in mainstreamnon-governmental organ-
isations, citing the often tokenistic participation, the refusal to see disability issues as
anything other than specialistand beyond an organisations remit or resources, and
the failure of imagination to capitalise on the expertise disabled people offer:
The exclusion of the knowledge and talents of a signicant proportion of the popula-
tion is an inefcient use of human resources. (Yeo and Moore 2003, 577)
At a very practical level, the absence of disabled peoples input may, as Fenney
and Snell (2011) argue, render some green initiativeseven more disabling for
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different groups of people for example, if lanes to be shared by cycle users and
pedestrians are too narrow for wheelchair users or people with prams, then the
pavement becomes increasingly inaccessible.
The disability and environmental movements: sustainable bedfellows?
Our sense and our personal experience is that it can be hard for disabled people
to feel welcome or included in green and sustainability organisations because the
discourse around energy consumption and right behaviourmakes a number of
ableist assumptions. Environmental hazard and climate change discourse around
consumption at the local and individual level is based largely on reductions of
energy use. As with approaches to public health we are to be nudgedinto right
action and good behaviour to eat less, to exercise more or, in this case, to
consume less energy. But what assumptions are being made about the reasonable or
the excessive consumer?
Independent living can for some be dependent on higher than average use of
energy. So, for example, it is not a luxury to take the lift if you cannot climb the
stairs, but disabled people can be made to feel that: to be disabled is to be a
greedy guzzler of energy and resources(Pepper 2007, n.p.), as members of the
focus group we ran told us. Whilst the focus could be on higher level structural
changes such as making public transport accessible, it is more often on stigmatising
car use by the individual.
Disabled people are presumably, as Fenney and Snell (2011) suggest,
exceptions to the green ruleassuming passivity and lack of agency, contribution
and involvement. The successful positioning of responsibility onto the individual
masks the changes that are required at a societal level, diminishes the value we
place on inter-dependency and reciprocity and, as both Taylor-Gooby (2008) and
Morris (2011) argue, undermines support for collective provision and values-based
approaches to social need and challenges. In an environmental context, Middlemiss
(2010, 158) argues that we can only consider the role of the individual consumer in
tandem with how inequalities in society might be reproduced in environmental
the individuals responsibility to live a sustainable lifestyle can be framed as the
responsibility of society to provide infrastructures for an individuals sustainable life-
style. (2010, 158)
Recognition of this in the United Kingdom attempts to question the lack of
inclusion and diversity within the environmental movement and the absence of
minority ethnic people, disabled people and older people. However, as Imrie and
Thomas (2008) point out, the signicance of disablism as a form of oppression has
been as little acknowledged by the environmental movement as most other cam-
paigners for social justice, and the disability and environmental movements have
developed and continued to be largely separate:
While environmental activists have long advocated the importance of pursuing social
justice as an integral part of sustainable living, the signicance of disablism, as a form
of oppression, has not registered with them. (Imrie and Thomas 2008, 478)
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Imrie and Thomas (2008, 478) suggest that disability and environmental activists
need to work more closely together and articulate the need for social justice in a
broad sense as an integral component of environmental sustainability. Adebowale
and Church argued that it was imperative to link the concerns of the environmental
movement to wider concerns about justice and inequality:
The drivers for engagement are not just about human rights but about the need for
community cohesion and security. The impacts of climate change, the building of
resilient communities and equality all provide a moral, legal, environmental and
political context for action on diversity and inclusion within the environment sector.
(2009, 13)
If the experience of disabled people, Leipoldtswisdom, is to offer insights to
those whose focus is the natural environment then it will be important to understand
what the two movements share, and where they differ. Obvious points of connection
include a concern for democratic control, stakeholder participation and the role of
and respect for citizen knowledge(Low and Gleeson 1998). Imrie and Thomas
(2008, 478) suggest that one of the things that might unite the concerns of disability
and environmental activists is the tendency to seek modernist xes for what is
regarded as challenging what is natural or normal and thereby mendingor curing
Thus, the ambiguous promise of the technical x and the fundamental questions it can
raise about the kind of beings we are, and should be, stimulate and trouble both move-
ments. Imrie and Thomas (2008, 478)
For the disability movement this comes uncomfortably close to ideas within a
medical model of disability which suggest that cure, or at least rehabilitation, is the
most signicant response to impairment; at the same time, many disabled peoples
quality of life is dependent on the application of technology. Within environmental
groups the response is also complex, with much activity being technology focused
and the language of science used to conceptualise and communicate the environ-
mental threat, yet a strong resistance to the concept of intervening in and adapting
natural systems. However, for a signicant number of environmental thinkers and
activists, the technical solutions are seen as an interim means to manage the threat,
and a people x, which shifts attitudes to our natural environment, other humans
and sentient beings and our responsibilities as active citizens as the more sustain-
able approach. It is usthat need to change, otherwise all we are doing is deferring
the day when the material resources run out. Ehrlich takes the view that the prob-
lem of sustainability is not the environment, it is human nature(2000, 306).
The core principle of sustainability for the environmental movement that of
interconnectedness, an attribute of a systems approach is also a key issue for
disabled people. It is this contribution of a (lived) understanding of interconnected-
ness that is one aspect of the learning that disabled people can offer to any shared
Towards a social model and values-based approach
In Rethinking Disability Policy, Morris (2011) asks What changes should disabled
people be campaigning for?and argues that we need to shift our focus from the
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individual to the social structure (and strictures) that establish and maintain inequal-
ity. A similar argument could be made for the agenda to counter the current
disproportionate impact of environmental crises on disabled people, substituting
crisis/disaster planning as sites for change in focus, attitudes and practice. Wolbring
(2009) points out that the international response to climate change and the associ-
ated natural hazards is around adjustment and adaptation: adaption of behaviour,
consumption, planning, education and at individual, household, local, region,
country and global levels. But what is being adapted, who is involved in adaptation
and where is the principle focus the individual or the societal?
A social model approach (to disability, sustainability and inter-dependency) that
is attuned to the ableist discourse inherent in discussion about environmental hazard
and responses to it may help us through its focus on the political and structural as
opposed to the individual. As Hemingway and Priestley (2006) suggest, it helps us
see that the unequal consequences of something like a natural disaster are not
inevitable but are socially produced by the oppressive way in which disabled people
are disempowered and disadvantaged. The challenge of the social model can also
be extended to a more fulsome critique of a societal approach that privileges the
individual, and this limitation, which Fenney and Snell (2011) suggest, is problem-
atic both for the disability and environmental movements. They argue that seeking
change within the existing dominant paradigm of individualism ignores and
downplays our interdependency, our interactions with each other and the natural
world, and assumes that only market forces can address the challenges of
sustainability. Interestingly the main reason given for undertaking a climate change
risk assessment in the United Kingdom was to ensure that the UK is best placed to
remain one of the worlds strongest economies(Defra 2012, 5).
Aldred and Woodcock (2008) propose a different take on the social model of
disability, seeing its power as lying in its transcending the disabled/non-disabled
binary to understand how categories are rooted in broader social forms, and subject
to change. They make a case for making common cause with other excluded
groups, by recognising shared oppressions for example, disabling environments
for wheelchair users may also exclude parents pushing buggies while juggling
shopping and ask whether environments are made ‘… in the image and likeness
of non-disabled bodies(Hughes 2002, 71). Pointing out the potentially temporary
nature of the non disabled body, they question the ‘… common perception that dis-
abled and non-disabled people make up two entirely distinct and xed groups
(Burchardt 2000, 661).
Sustainability, one of our starting points, offers us a way to view the
values-related aspects of the issue. Sustainability has had many denitions in the
relatively short period it has been in current usage, but all include the need to
recognise the interdependency of three key elements; the economic, the environ-
mental and the social (Sustainable Development Commission 2013). In the context
of sustainability, interdependency is not a lackor deciency, but a recognition of
a systemic relationship. It is our argument that this systemic understanding of
interdependency needs to be extended to the position of disabled people within
Interdependency runs as a theme throughout the writing we have identied
through the literature review for the research, or should we say the need to recog-
nise interdependency. Leipoldt (2006, 15) argues that disabled peoplesexperience
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of interdependence offers both a vision towards which to aspire and the practical
means to [move] towards it.
Concluding remarks
A critical social model and values-based lens helps us see how much disabled
people are categorised as vulnerable in relation to environmental hazard as a way
of masking the societal structures and attitudes, which prefers or best understands
disabled people as needyrather than expert. The concept and practice of
inter-dependency, however, challenges us to see our relationships with self and
others in a more sustainable way and one which, it seems to us, provides a neat
bridge between the environmental and disability movements.
Our limited interactions with disabled people and organisations as part of this
scoping study and with academic colleagues in elds related to environmental risk
and hazard support the contention that there is some way to go to transition from
inherently vulnerableto an interconnected expert. On balance we felt that the
disabled people we spoke to had so many experiences of deliberate exclusion on a
daily basis and so few active invitations to contribute on an equal footing that these
experiences did not engender the status of expertor active contributor.It
appeared to us that the immediate pressures on individual disabled people under-
standably led to a short-term focus on needs and barriers. There may be skilful
solutions to hazard and risk developed by disabled people, but little energy left to
break through the social positioning as needyto a more embodied, condent sense
of their own contribution. What agency they have is likely to be focused on
campaigning on immediate issues.
This scoping study was in part motivated by the story of Benilda Caixetta. Her
experience, of being left to drown by rescue services who unashamedly spoke of
needing to prioritise the able-bodiedis, sadly, unexceptional. In an ableist culture
the disabled body is an error, unnatural, not fully human, Other, and these attitudes
are seen to inuence planners and services.
From Japan came stories of lessons learnt from earlier earthquakes that led to
changes in the design of temporary housing and equipment such as beds provided
to the displaced. The Japanese government funded a network of disabled peoples
organisations for a short period after one such event, in the hope that this would
continue to inuence planning and inclusive design and build capacity in the
disabled peoples movement, but once the crisis had past funding reverted to other
priorities and the capacity-building and networking funding lapsed, so that in the
most recent earthquake there was little capacity for disabled peoples organisations
to link with each other and to offer assistance. Disabled and elderly people manag-
ing their own evacuation in the face of the failure of appropriate emergency
services were reporting being denied support and personal assistance in the areas
they relocated to because you chose to evacuate(Japan National Assembly of
Disabled PeoplesInternational 2011). As the Japan National Assembly of Disabled
PeoplesInternational petitioned their government:
In our view, a strong society that can overcome natural disasters is an inclusive
community where people can get necessary supports, actively participate in the society
and extend social network. We strongly feel that a recovery measured being discussed
now should include rebirth as inclusive society as major objective, not rehabilitation
850 D. Abbott and S. Porter
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of the conventional society. Our present relief activities revitalizing from disaster indi-
cate that our movement should be developed, regarding future policies for persons
with disabilities as key point. (Japan National Assembly of Disabled PeoplesInterna-
tional 2011)
We remain interested in what stories and lived experience can tell us about the
situating of disabled people in the discourses of climate change, environmental
hazard and sustainability. We are still of the view that disabled people may possess
nuanced and informative experiences relating to: overcoming barriers; responding to
risk; understanding the importance of the relational; and appreciating the limits
rather than the limitlessness of things. We plan a larger empirical study that will
explore this hypothesis with disabled people and also explore how we might
develop approaches and stories which continue to enhance dialogue between
disability and environmental activists.
The authors are grateful to the individuals and organisations who met and corresponded with
them. They acknowledge the support of the Margaret Egleton Fund, which funded the
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... While we have focused on eco-normativity in studies of toxic politics, the concept travels. Consider how disaster and climate emergency planning often marginalized the voices of disabled people (Abbott & Porter, 2013). Likewise, anti-immigration rhetoric is linked to eugenics, which often is predicated on ethno-nationalist norms (Dolmage, 2018). ...
... One persistent tension between environmental discourses and disabled people often arises with the topic of consumption. Abbott and Porter (2013) argue: "Our senseand our personal experienceis that it can be hard for disabled people to feel welcome or included in green and sustainability organisations because the discourse around energy consumption and 'right behaviour' makes a number of ableist assumptions" (p. 847). ...
The field of environmental communication has yet to integrate disability or ableism as a primary area of research or intersectional investment. The ableist silences and disability slights are notable, however. This review essay provides a working definition of eco-ableism, including a summary of disability imagined through medical and social models. Then, the authors reflect on the role of voice as a method. Next, the essay synthesizes existing interdisciplinary literature to establish three broad trajectories of environmental communication research: (1) ecoableism in wilderness and outdoor recreation; (2) eco-normativities in public health discourses; and (3) climate justice futurism as public advocacy. While not exhaustive, the authors hope this review essay will help prompt the overdue cripping of environmental communication.
... The focus on the first wave of Covid-19 was chosen to assess how the immediate response to a global pandemic took into account-or failed to account for-the inclusion of disabled people. This is particularly relevant as previous evidence strongly suggests that disabled people have been excluded during the critical phase of emergency management for previous pandemics or environmental disasters (Abbott & Porter, 2013;Battle, 2015;Gartrell et al., 2020;Görgens & Ziervogel, 2018;King et al., 2019). We argue in this article that the data which emerged during the pandemic provides clear evidence that, once again, disabled people have not just been "left behind" but have been deprioritised and had their human rights violated during the response at a global level. ...
... Firstly, we highlight the de-prioritisation and systematic exclusion of disabled people across all aspects of planning and service delivery. While the importance of involving and consulting with disabled people in disaster and crisis management has been frequently highlighted (e.g., Abbott & Porter, 2013;Campbell et al., 2009;Görgens & Ziervogel, 2018), our literature review was not able to identify a substantial body of evidence that indicated that positive change has been achieved or lessons learned either during or in the aftermath of previous disasters or pandemics. As discussed previously, we only identified 14 relevant articles on prior pandemics and disasters in LMICs as part of our literature, and many of these describe similar failings during the immediate emergency response phase as we have identified in the literature review. ...
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The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected disabled people across the globe. This review article maps the impact of the pandemic on disabled people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICS) during the first ten months of the pandemic, based on a semi-systematic review of 113 articles of empirical and “grey” literature. We highlight the multiple exclusions faced by disabled people across the sectors of health, education, economy, community, and pandemic management. Following this, we discuss the broader issues arising from the literature, including the systematic de-prioritisation of disabled people in emergency planning, the ongoing framing of disability as a medical rather than a social or human rights issue, a recognition of how the complexity of societal structures creates systematic disadvantage, and local, national, and global policymakers’ lack of engagement with disabled people during pandemic management. We identify the need for both stronger quantitative evidence on disability in LMICs to inform planning and policy processes, and the need for equitable collaboration with disabled people from LMICs across research, policy, and development programming, in the spirit of “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
Au cours des deux dernières décennies, la planète a vu une augmentation marquée du nombre de catastrophes naturelles et de leur impact sur les populations humaines. Les liens entre les changements climatiques, les évènements extrêmes et les vulnérabilités, ainsi que la résilience de divers groupes humains, sont explorés de façon croissante. Les catastrophes affectent de façon différentielle chacun des groupes de la société civile. Un groupe particulièrement affecté par les catastrophes est celui des personnes en situation de handicap. Le taux de mortalité de ce groupe en contexte de catastrophe est de deux à quatre fois celui de la population générale. Les situations de risque existantes se présentent sous des aspects à la fois généraux et spécifiques. Des opportunités existent également afin de répondre à ces problématiques et de mettre en place des stratégies inclusives et adaptées à la réalité des personnes en situation de handicap. Cet article désire donc explorer les concepts de continuum de gestion de crises humanitaires, de catastrophes, vulnérabilité et résilience. Des cadres d’analyse propres à aborder cette question seront définis afin de proposer des pistes d’exploration pour l’avenir afin de promouvoir les recherches académiques et leur application en pratique.
Usually, vulnerability is equated to weakness and resistance to strength. Drawing on a feminist critique of this conceptualisation, this article aims to discuss how vulnerability to forest fires and local action are mutually and contradictorily related. I analyse the ways in which people in two rural communities surrounded by tree monocultures in Sweden and Spain think, feel and act after being exposed to acute forest fires in 2018 and 2017, respectively. Attentively listening to the experiences of vulnerability during and after the fire in the two cases helps to explain vulnerability to forest fires as an emotional, care‐related process that opens up contradictory and transformative interconnections between peoples, nature and the state. Also, looking at the two cases together, this article shows how vulnerability to fire is mediated through unequal expectations across Europe's North–South divide. By re‐signifying the implications of vulnerability, disasters such as those analysed here can be seen as facilitators of radical transformations towards new rural futures in Europe's forests.
This chapter uses Hurricane Katrina and the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami as case studies to undertake a comparative content analysis of news media coverage about the impact of post-disaster inaccessibility and miscommunication on people with disabilities. It argues that the construction of people with disabilities as a “vulnerable group” during disasters overlooks fundamental inequities in access and service that exist between this group and non-disabled people. A content analysis of English-language news stories from the United States of America and Japan about the two disasters produced three stereotypical frames of disability, demonstrating that the image of people with disabilities as a particularly “vulnerable” population continues to impede the active and direct involvement of this group in emergency management planning and disaster risk reduction policy.KeywordsNatural disastersTōhoku Earthquake and TsunamiHurricane KatrinaDisabilityMediaContent analysisDisabilityCrisis communication
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Although it is often assumed that physically disabled individuals have different behaviors towards environment, there has been very little empirical evidence supporting this statement. For this reason, this study aimed to explain the different behaviors and preferences of potential users by analyzing their attitudes towards an electric vehicle specifically designed for rural mobility. In other words, this study analyzed both the willingness of disabled people to drive an electric vehicle and their willingness to pay (WTP) for such a vehicle. A total of 209 data were collected from a sample of physically disabled consumers in Italy using a structured questionnaire. Therefore, a stated preferences Italian dataset was used, and an exploratory factor analysis, a probit model, and an ordered logit regression model were applied. The results suggested that to encourage the use of electric cars for rural mobility, it should be necessary to manage environmental concerns, vehicle-related attributes, attitudes towards eco-friendly cars, people’s emotional experience, and their purchase intention. In addition, to improve customer intention, development plans and service features must be synergistically organized to mutually support each other.
Despite the trajectory towards climate catastrophe, governments are failing to take disability-inclusive climate action. We discuss how the scientific community could advance and hasten the development of disability-inclusive climate resilience, and which areas should be prioritized.
Social service providers work to alleviate social disadvantages, which may particularly loom during crises. These organisations have a close understanding of the needs of their clients. However, this knowledge is rarely taken into account in tailoring crisis measures, which may lead to increased vulnerability and create additional suffering. In this paper, we take a novel look at the role of care organisations as intermediaries between their clients and the authorities in representing the needs and capabilities of vulnerable people and explore the factors hindering or facilitating this representation. We focused on care organisations in Europe and collected data from 32 interviews, followed by 5 workshops and an international colloquium with 6 language-based discussion groups with participants from organisations offering care services to socially marginalised individuals. The results demonstrate the role these organisations had in advocating their clients' needs to the authorities to adapt the crisis measures accordingly (“bottom-up approach”), and communicating official information about the risks and government rules to their clients (“top-down approach”). We found effective mediation to stem from long-term, trusting client relationship to be able to reflect on clients’ needs, while the lack of collaboration protocol and tradition can be seen as the main barrier to inclusive crisis management. Networking with social care services to bring their expertise into crisis management systems is essential to promote the resilience of the diverse society.
Safe shelter from cyclones for individuals with disabilities, who are at greater risk of injury and death than other populations, requires close attention. The purpose of this study was to gain the perspective of individuals with disabilities on the experience of sheltering during the three most recent severe tropical cyclones in northern Queensland, Australia. A qualitative, interpretive methodology was used to explore the experience of 12 individuals with disabilities. Data was collected using semi-structured interviews and interpreted using inductive thematic analysis. The experience of sheltering was characterised by three factors and the dynamic interaction between these factors before, during and when recovering after the cyclone: capacity of the physical environment; the physical and psychological impact of the cyclone; and availability and capability of support networks. Hearing first-hand from individuals with disability on their sheltering experience, reinforced the need for an individualised risk reduction approach, to accommodate each individual's changing needs over the course of a severe cyclone event, and which draws on their own capabilities and resources. Furthermore, to ensure safe sheltering for people of all abilities in a public shelter, consideration of the changing needs of individuals with disability and their inclusion in the process of design is essential.
Current conceptualizations of vulnerability have so far served to describe—and reproduce—social difference, setting people apart at local and global scales. Yet vulnerability is fundamental to the connectedness in social relations critical to understanding and acting on climate change. A more compassionate type of research is urgently required; that is, one that goes beyond the material and political dimensions to investigate the deeply personal. Drawing on politics of adaptation, emotional geographies, sustainability science and psychology literatures, the paper reconceptualizes vulnerability as co-suffering, linking lived experiences with a shared humanity.
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On August 29] Susan Daniels called me to enlist my help because her sister-in-law, a quadriplegic woman in New Orleans, had been unsuccessfully trying to evacuate to the Super-dome for two days…but, despite promises, no one came. The very same paratransit system that people can't rely on in good weather is what was being relied on in the evacuation. I was on the phone with Benilda when she told me, with panic in her voice 'the water is rushing in.' And then her phone went dead. We learned five days later that she had been found in her apartment dead, floating next to her wheelchair. Natural disasters and disasters that directly derive from human actions, both evolving and sudden, trace the structural fault lines of the societies that they affect. Disaster outcomes disproportionately impact those with the least access to social and material resources: women and children, and people who are elderly, disabled or impoverished. Using a disability conceptual framework, the essays in this volume focus on disasters within their social and environmental ecologies, with particular attention to the ways in which conventional disaster planning and responses ensure that existing social inequalities will be perpetuated as consequences of disasters. We argue that by foregrounding the needs of those with the fewest resources, an applied anthropology of disaster points to potential benefits to all when disaster preparedness, response, and recovery plans include the expertise of disabled people.
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Disability in the 21st century constitutes a legitimate and growing area of study in the academy. Interdisciplinary by nature, the origins of disability studies can be traced directly to social movements of disabled people organizing to define disability as a social rather than a medical problem. In the US, disabled sociologists such as Irv Zola, a leader in the American Sociology Association, were key figures in the field’s formative years. In Britain, sociologists such as Mike Oliver (1990) and Colin Barnes, both founding members of the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) used the social model to bridge the divide between disability studies and sociology (Barnes et al., 1999). Disability studies is now a growth area in the social sciences, the humanities and a host of other disciplines operating across the North/South divide.
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Mills’s idea of the sociological imagination has captured many generations of scholars interested in the difficult social issues that people grapple with in their lives. Yet, sociology has traditionally had a poor record of linking disabled people’s ‘private’ accounts of their difficulties to ‘public’ issues. We contend that disability is still marginal to the sociological imaginary, despite attempts by disability studies and subdisciplines within sociology to make the concept relevant to the larger discipline. There is a range of conceptual tensions in sociology such as public/private and normal/abnormal that can be better illuminated by focusing on disability. We argue that critical disability studies, with its reimagining of disability within late modernity, may be better positioned to make more effectively the case for disability’s significance to the sociological imaginary. Facilitating dialogue with sociology on the concept of disability, however, may require disability scholars to develop more explicit strategies of engagement.
The policy and research literature on disaster management constructs disabled people as a particularly “vulnerable group.” In this paper, we combine concepts from disaster theory and disability theory to examine this assumption critically. Drawing on primary, secondary and tertiary sources, we assess the vulnerability of disabled people in two globally significant disasters: Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and the Asian tsunami of December 2004. In both cases, disabled people were adversely affected in terms of their physical safety and access to immediate aid, shelter, evacuation and relief. Using a social model analysis we contest the view that this vulnerability arises from the physical, sensory or cognitive limitations of the individual and show how it may be attributed to forms of disadvantage and exclusion that are socially created. The paper concludes that “natural hazards” are realised disproportionately as “human disasters” for disabled people, and most notably for disabled people in poor communities. Social model approaches and strong disabled people’s organisations are key to building greater resilience to disaster amongst “vulnerable” communities in both high-income and low-income countries.
Humanity is faced with serious socio-environmental problems, the causes and manifestations of which appear more complex than we have ever faced before. At the same time our value system seems unable to cope with these problems. Not only that but the magnitude of many of these problems is such that they are often experienced as overwhelming, which in turn contributes to apathy. In this article I propose that the disability experience of interdependence offer a practical framework towards a sustainable and flourishing world. This experience on, and from, the margins, may be a contributor towards reducing the disabling distance that we have created between the environment and ourselves, and between ourselves and others. I propose that the disability experience of interdependence offers both a vision towards which to aspire and the practical means to towards it. Its transformational path points to the human condition as one of vulnerability and dependency while identifying those resources in human nature that may enable us to live a fulfilling life within inevitable limitations.
Risk is used to deny disabled people access to many parts of mainstream life. Using qualitative data we explore disabled people's views and experiences of outdoor recreation, bringing together ideas from two areas of sociology - disability studies and risk using the concepts of edgework and psycho-emotional disablism. Many people felt that the outdoors represented a risky environment. For some, risk was one of the main drivers for going out into the countryside; whilst for others, risk was a major cause of their reluctance to venture into the countryside. Engaging in risk both can disable and can challenge disablist views.
In the overlaps between the academic and policy fields of disability and the environment lie a myriad of issues, both complementary and conflicting, which have to date received little attention. This paper aims to draw together the small amount of literature – both academic and non-academic – which has addressed such issues and begins to map both the nature and extent of the overlaps. It discusses key themes that have emerged from the literature analysed and points to a number of areas and issues which may well benefit from further research. In particular, it highlights the invisibility of disabled people, and the consequences which arise, in many areas of environmental concern.