Being environmentally friendly and disabled

In one of the papers I read about disability and the environment, I came across a Defra sustainable lifestyles framework from 2011 which I thought would be interesting to look at through a disability lens.  

The following is likely to sound a bit defeatist, like it’s virtually impossible for disabled people to have a sustainable lifestyle.  That is not my intention.  Every disability is different and impacts on lifestyle in different ways.  I am playing devil’s advocate a bit here but what I want to show is that measuring disabled people’s sustainable lifestyle against able bodied people’s doesn’t take into account a different starting point.  I also want to highlight how important it is to engage with disabled people when it comes to solutions.

Eco-improving your home (retrofitting)

  • Insulating your home
  • Upgrading your heating and hot water systems
  • Fitting and using water saving devices
  • Generating own energy by installing renewables

A lot of disabled people I know live in council housing, or privately rent.  Very few people I know actually own a home, let alone the disabled people I know.  This means that we have very little control over the insulation, the ability to fit solar panels, the type of heating and so on.  I strongly believe that there should be a landlord minimum standard around eco-improvement because they are the ones who can make the changes needed.  And I believe that this should be a stronger standard when it comes to council housing.  Why don’t council houses have solar panels on?  Why aren’t they all appropriately insulated?  Why aren’t all the windows double glazed?

One note on a kind of rental agreement which includes all bills – based on my experience, this tends to result in excessive use of heating because there is no financial incentive to be careful.  It’s also most common in shared housing and so you end up with no one taking overall responsibility. 

Using energy and water wisely

  • Managing temperature
  • Washing and drying laundry using minimum energy and water

Managing the temperature of your home when you are disabled can have different consequences.  You may not move around or might use a wheelchair and it gets a lot colder when you aren’t moving.  You may be home all day and thus needs to use more heating.  You may at risk of illness if temperature is not managed appropriately.

However, as disabled people tend to be poorer, you may end up using less heating because it is literally a choice of heating or eating.  An environmental benefit as a result of living in poverty…

When it comes to laundry, some disabled people need to do more loads of laundry and often space is a premium in rented properties, so there may not be a practical place to dry laundry.  If you have a wheelchair user, you need more clear floor space and that can mean having to use a dryer.  You might also be using your spare room – an obvious place to dry laundry – for your carers to stay in, or for all the random bits of equipment which tend to come with being disabled.

Extending the life of things (to minimise waste)

  • Maintaining and repairing (instead of replacing)
  • Giving new life to unwanted items eg furniture
  • Making the most of kerbside and local recycling services

This isn’t too badly hindered by disability, of course depending on the nature of the disability.  When it comes to maintaining and repairing, I physically can’t do this most of the time but I do get friends and carers to help.

I prefer second hand things, which have stories and aren’t run of the mill, so giving new life to unwanted items is actually something I would do regardless of the environmental benefit.  It is often a cheaper option – I got a bedside table for £3 because it was second hand and it has worked fine for me for maybe ten years now.  York has a few charity shops which focus on furniture and the wonderful Community Furniture Store which offers reduced rates for people on means tested benefits.

When it comes to recycling, I feel this is an area where the council could do more to make it easier for disabled people.  When I moved into my flat I was asked if I needed help getting my recycling to the kerb and I said yes.  Nothing ever happened.  I was ok as I just asked friends and carers to help but I wonder how many people aren’t recycling because of difficulties getting it to the kerb.

On a slight aside, it really winds me up when the refuse workers abandon bins and recycling boxes in the middle of the pavement… I can’t just hop off and walk round… Infuriating…

Cooking and managing a sustainable and healthier diet

  • Choosing foods grown in season (in country of origin)
  • Increasing proportion of vegetables, fruit, and grains in diet (eating a balanced diet)
  • Cooking sustainable and healthier food
  • Wasting less food
  • Growing your own food

Choosing foods grown in season often means being able to get to local shops – often not accessible – or receive a (heavy) veg box.  It also means being able to prepare fruits and veg which can be a nightmare for many of us.  Growing your own food is also difficult and many people don’t have space, disabled or not.

Choosing eco-products and services

  • Using labelling to choose most energy and water efficient products
  • Choosing fairly traded, eco-labelled and independently certified food, clothing etc
  • Borrowing, hiring or sourcing second-hand or recycled
  • Buying ethically when travelling

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, disabled people are more likely to be living in poverty and the first two suggestions often end up costing more initially.  Yes they might be long term more cost effective, but that assumes someone has the money at hand when they need to make the purchase.

Travelling sustainably

  • Making the most of cycling, walking, public transport and car sharing for short journeys
  • When buying or replacing a vehicle, take advantage of lower-emission models available
  • Making the most of alternatives to travel, eg video conference
  • Making the most of lower-carbon alternatives to flying, eg trains
  • Driving more efficiently

Oh how wonderful it would be to have public transport as a realistic option… But buses don’t turn up, they turn up but with no space for a wheelchair, they don’t always go where you need.  Trains are a nightmare as your booked assistance may not turn up so you miss your train, or you get on the train but no one turns up to get you off… The stress that these unpredictable factors add to a journey is awful but it also means you have to plan for things to go wrong.  You also have to arrive 20 minutes early for a train if you need assistance, so a half hour trip suddenly takes nearly an hour, one way.  Instead of spending an hour traveling somewhere and back, you’ve doubled that.  Assuming nothing goes wrong.

Cycling and walking are clearly not options available for everyone.

When it comes to vehicles, finding a vehicle that works for the disability is likely to be a priority, otherwise what is the point.  If you are able to get a Motability vehicle, then you are limited to their options and I might be wrong but the end of the price range I was looking at didn’t have any eco options that would work with my wheelchair.

Setting up and using resources in your community

  • Setting up car share and using car clubs
  • Installing community micro-gen
  • Sharing knowledge, skills etc

Car share schemes and car clubs seem to be gaining popularity and I see more of them parked around York meaning they are more accessible and there’s more likely to be one near you.  But I’m yet to see one you can get an electric wheelchair in.  And they won’t be much use for people who can drive but require adaptations to do so. 

Community micro-gen assumes you have the authority to make that sort of decision about the home you live in. I’ve not checked, but I’m going to assume it’s not that straightforward if you’re renting. My old landlord wouldn’t even let me change energy providers…

Using and future proofing outdoor spaces

  • Gardening for biodiversity and environment
  • Enjoying the outdoors

Again, this requires space for a garden and the physical ability to access that garden, and to actually be physically able to garden.

Enjoying the outdoors is more accessible but isn’t problem free… Think steps, lack of suitable paths etc…

Being part of improving the environment

  • Volunteering
  • Getting involved in local decisions

These are more achievable than many of the other sections in the framework.

As I said at the beginning, this isn’t meant to be a list of reasons why it’s impossible to be an environmentally friendly disabled person but to highlight some of the barriers that exist.  Many of these barriers are easily overcome but require societal level change, not individual level change.  Further, if disabled people weren’t automatically at increased risk of poverty, a number of these suggestions would be easier to enact. 

I’m thinking about doing a follow up post which looks at the ways disabled people can follow some suggestions, despite and acknowledging, the barriers that exist.  For example, when it comes to outdoor spaces, I’ve already written about engaging with nature when you’re disabled.  If you have any suggestions or tips, I’d love to hear.

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