If you’ve never wondered about the link between disability and our changing planet, you’re probably not alone. In fact, if I hadn’t become ill, I don’t know that it’s something that would ever have occurred to me which feels odd, given how I now take any available opportunity to bash my climate activist drum and tell my brother off for leaving lights switched on. Anyone who’s struggled with their health will tell you (spoiler alert) it’s not much fun, but at the risk of sounding cheesy (vegetarian, not vegan I’m afraid) one of the best things to come out of my illness has been the way my relationship with the natural world around me has been transformed.
With the pandemic and health dominating the political agenda, we’ve seen all too clearly how disabled young people are often overlooked when it comes to vulnerability. This vulnerability extends to climate change. The UK may have a relatively mild climate, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks, particularly for those with health conditions: UK forest fires are growing in number with each record-breaking summer and for anyone with severe asthma or COPD, these are incredibly dangerous. Likewise, during the next cold snap spare a thought for those with mobility impairments, for whom icy pavements are not mildly fun or irritating, but dangerous or entirely inaccessible. Growing up in a town that often floods, to my shame it was only when I started writing this article that I wondered how a blind resident would fare navigating streets dotted with sandbags or having to follow unknown routes because of diversions. The choice between getting out to live your life and staying home, safe from obstacles and hazards, is hardly a fair one. (This BBC clip on the impact of covid restrictions for the visually impaired is also really worth a watch)
Aside from additional concerns and vulnerabilities we may share, the disability community can play a key role in the struggle ahead, using their disability-related insights. In my own case, the burnout nature of my illness felt like a problem I should and could have seen coming but failed to stop because I was prioritising my present activities over my long-term health, much like the climate crisis. (I’m not conflating the seriousness of the two, just projecting my own frustrations and desire to act). As I tried to aid my recovery by eating more healthily and giving up meat, I became more educated about the climate impact of the meat industry (I knew meat mattered, but learning it made up half of my carbon footprint certainly made that first Christmas without pigs in blankets easier). Most important in my climate conversion was my experience of missing out on nature. At first I was too unwell and brain-fogged to think about what I was missing, but after weeks stuck in my room, I began to crave the outside. The general world, but in particular the beautiful, natural aspects that I’d only ever glanced over. I began to associate the outside not with boring family walks (sorry Mum), but with the constancy of nature even as my life changed, and with the triumph of having made it outside and walked a greater distance than the previous time.
In learning to appreciate the small things, a lesson many disabled people know only too well, I am now a die-hard tree hugger (although I think it’s nature supporting me more than the other way around). As my health and worldview changed, I had to adapt and I want to emphasise the loss it would be for the climate cause to continue to overlook disabled people’s experience and insight from dealing with challenges and approaching everyday situations from a different perspective. A disabled person prioritising their energy resources (‘spoons’) isn’t so different from figuring out how to manage the green-energy transition, while disability-inspired text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology demonstrates the kind of creative technological solutions which will be crucial in the coming years. We need the determination and adaptability of the disability community as we face the challenges to come.
The benefits of nature and its importance in our lives aren’t unique to disabled people. Mental health is increasingly being recognised as a spectrum that affects everyone, and I believe more time outside could create more tree huggers, and benefit everyone’s mental wellbeing as many more people found out during lockdown. I’ve yet to master meditation but the closest I can get is walking somewhere green and quiet; my over-thinking brain somehow stops, and all I can think about is what I’m seeing and appreciating. That is pure mindfulness and heals the soul like nothing else.
(Originally published 15/11/21)