Ableism in the environmental movement

There is already evidence that the environmental movement is “a site of exclusionary practices including racism and sexism” (Fenney) and there is increasingly evidence of ableism. This matters because any exclusion may reduce the effectiveness of the movement to achieve its goals.

 

As a note, I’m saying environmental movement but am aware that it’s much more complicated than the phrase sounds, that its made up of different groups with different approaches and different strategies.  However, any part of the environmental movement would benefit from considering whether they inadvertently exclude any groups.

There are barriers to certain aspects of sustainable lifestyles, pro environment activities and activism and Fenney suggests that “there are particular features of the British environmental movement which may exclude disabled people”.

Barriers include physical access to meetings, protests and conservation sites.  A lack of accessible information as well as a lack of information about accessibility.  Increasingly websites are relied on for information and these are not always accessible and accessibility information isn’t always up to date.  Financial and social barriers play a factor as well, with the latter that might be being dependant on the help and kindness of others who can refuse, as well as attitudinal issues.

“Broad environmental concerns can also be considered a feature of privilege, however.  It may not always be a priority of disadvantaged groups because of their increased need to focus primarily on the difficulties encountered in their everyday lives and environments”
– Fenney

The social hierarchies from general society transfer over to the environmental movement, but can feel much worse because of the narratives around embodiment.  Assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do, and are and aren’t interested in, are made unquestioningly in wider society and unfortunately are also found within the environmental movement.

In Fenney’s research, participants identified implicit ableism in campaign messages and materials, giving cycling as a key example.  Cycling is often positioned as an alternative to car use but can be promoted in a way that focuses on physical fitness and ability as well as suggesting a moral superiority.  Another participant raised the issues of requiring medication which is produced by big multinational companies and how this doesn’t work in the simplistic view of natural is good and unnatural is bad.  Relying on medication also goes against a narrative of self sufficiency and independence.

“…the environmental movement is deeply attached to the notion of “the solitary retreat into nature as the primary source of an environmental ethic” … By implying that one must have a deep immersion experience of nature in order to understand nature, ecocritics create a situation in which some kinds of experiences can be interpreted as more valid than others, as granting a more accurate, intense, and authentic understanding of nature.”
– Kafer

This emphasis on self sufficiency and solitary retreats erases the importance of interdependence that many people – disabled or not – rely on.  We hear over and over again how we should be independent – every man is an island – and yet there are many environmental benefits to being an interconnected web instead of a lone off gridder.  Of course, different things work for different people but from my corner of the world, there are huge benefits to most people of accepting interdependence as a model.

Even living the rural idyll has its disadvantages for some people with disabilities.  If I had followed my teenager dream and moved to the middle of some fields in Wales, then I would struggle to have my care needs met, to have carers that I love and to have the access to the health system that I need.  It wouldn’t be impossible, by living in a city I have more choices and more opportunities.

For some people, disability and conservation are irreconcilably mutually exclusive.  This can be seen in the creation of accessible paths in natural reserves.  There is this misunderstanding that in creating a certain kind of path or access, you will damage the natural environment.  This ignores the fact that creating any access, even for able bodied people, has an impact.  It has actually been found that some accessible access can actually be more protective.  Instead of soil paths which erode and which mean people can wander off the path and damage the flora, raised boardwalks limit the damage, create sheltered environments under the path which can benefit certain species and mean that animals don’t have to risk crossing a path.

As well as the moral superiority found in some parts of the environmental movement, there can be a competitiveness to be the best at being green and this creates a hierarchy of sorts.  Certain behaviours can be status enhancing and often these aren’t available to all.  For example, being in the wilderness miles away from anything, being able to swim in wild water, getting off the literal beaten path, getting away from technology, the privilege of walking with feet in contact with the soil and so on.

Also on the hierarchy are things like not using straws to drink with – and not letting anyone else either, or at least not without an argument and intense justification.  For some people it’s not easy to turn the heating down by a degree, or use public transport and “inaccessible solutions to environmental problems risk adding to disabled people’s exclusion from participation, as well as threatening the success of these solutions” (Fenney).

Ultimately, the environmental movement needs to consider any implicit or explicit exclusion because without a full spectrum of members, there will never be solutions which work for everyone.  With people living longer, and with everyone at risk of becoming disabled, we need the environmental movement to work in an inclusive way or their goals will never be fully successful.

Reading

The wilderness ideal, nature writing and disability

“Mountains and disabled people have something in common, they both get stereotyped as inspirational”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

On the whole, the ideal nature person fits into the wilderness ideal which I will come on to but first I wanted to mention the one image of a disabled person in nature, and that is the supercrip.  Supercrip stories tend to be about an individual overcoming their disability through hard work and perseverance in order to do something spectacular.  There is a sense of transcending not just nature but the body itself.  This is a person who ‘overcomes’ their disability in order to scale a mountain or someone who uses a wheelchair but skis.  These people are often the exception and whilst what they do is great, it can’t be the only vision of disability within nature thinking.

Back to the typical wilderness ideal though… There is a particular body type – white, male, fit, ablebodied – who can have the elite, transcendental experience and be a bona fida naturalist.  Having this ideal means you have created the opposition, the person who is not welcome in nature.

Alison Kafer explains that there are “complicated histories of who is granted permission to enter nature, where nature is said to reside, how one must move in order to get there, and how one will interact with nature once one arrives in it”.  Additionally, not only do you need to be in the wilderness, but you should be alone and off any tracks or trails.  And people who can do so are generally cast as better nature people.

As the disabled person has been cast as the antithesis to the wilderness ideal, there are no images of disabled people in nature, let alone a stereotyped image of a ‘normal’ disabled person within nature.  This absence is referred to by Jaquette Ray as the “disability-equals-alienation-from-nature trope” in her writing.  She finds “the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat – symbolic rather than actual”.

It seems to me like there is a hierarchy of moral superiority with the wilderness ideal at the pinnacle of the mountain and disabled bodies at the base, unable to climb up unless they happen to fit the supercrip model.

I have a separate post planned about ableism within the environmental movement and will expand on this idea of moral superiority in that context but as a way of seeing this in action, think about this:

There is a hierarchy of species that you interact with as well as where you interact with them.  To see a rare plant or rare creature comes with more status, as do megafauna and exotic species.  This by default means that connections with more common species is seen as lesser, especially if you interact with them outside the wilderness.

Within the wilderness ideal trope, we find the narrative of technology as an antithesis to a good experience.  We are told to leave tech behind in order to have a more embodied experience, one that is more about presence but this ignores the value of tech.  Technology allows electric wheelchairs and other mobility aids to experience the world, phones include apps that enhance the experience and provide a safety net for those of us who cannot be alone without backup on hand.

Writer Edward Abbey took this rejection of technology to the extreme and positioned electric wheelchairs with cars, and both as alienating us from nature and the wilderness.  He pressed the issue by telling people to get out of their electric wheelchairs and that unless one walks, one cannot experience nature.  The only way to know nature is to move through it on foot.  Whilst Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published in 1968, the thinking is still very present in many people’s minds.

Extending this narrative to nature writing, we are told that writing with pencil and paper is somehow better than writing on a computer or speaking into a dictaphone.  Again, this way of thinking pushes writers with disabilities out of the picture, assuming we even managed to get into the scenic nature photograph in the first place…

“There is a long tradition in ecological writing that defines people with disabilities as the opposite of environmentalists.”
– Wheeler

Much nature writing is first person and may touch on a bit of health but often as something to overcome either through nature or so one can return to nature.  Often it is a short term condition, or one at least that can be managed well.  It might be cancer or depression and this isn’t to make light of those serious conditions but there is a difference between something you can recover from and having a chronic, long term health issue or disability.

“First person nature encounter narratives generally focus on the interaction between one specific body and one specific landscape.  A narrow focus can eclipse the possibility of other body types and other landscapes.”
– Wheeler

Many nature writers talk of the personal transformation or spiritual experiences that comes when you are alone in the wild or having reached the summit of a mountain, something clearly not accessible to everyone, disabled or not.

Polly Atkin wrote in the New Welsh Reader about what has been called ecocrip.  She writes particularly about poetry but obviously what she has to say extends to nature writing more generally.

“As ecopoetics has become established, certain practices and expectations of ecopoetic process and content have also become established.  These predominantly presuppose able-bodied practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both poetic process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem.”
– Polly Atkin

Miranda Cichy said that “a lot of nature writers seem to believe that you have to go our alone and on foot in order to write about it.” But this doesn’t have to be the case.  A genre needs many voices, many perspectives and disabled people can add their own experience.

“The love of nature does not require specific bodily abilities.”
– Wheeler

I have written about my own way of interacting with nature and I do hope some of the examples I’ve given help other people to feel inspired and to value their own experiences, even or especially when they differ from the norm.  Kafer affirms that “the experience of illness and disability presents alternative ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the environment.”

I wanted to end with some quotes that I find inspiring and that validate my way of interacting with nature and encourage me to share the way I see the world.

“Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation.”
– Kathleen Jamie

“Dominant stereotypes and ableist narratives tend to overlook the richly textured ways in which people may experience nature; not to master it or to overcome impairment but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel part of nature.”
– Bell

“Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as white guy who goes out into the wilderness… but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bring other ways of seeing this human-nature connection – not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquillity, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture and identity.”
– Melissa Tuckey

“Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.”
– Tupac Shakur

Reading

Within her essay, Atkin mentions a few ecocrip writings:

I’ve just bought all three so maybe that’ll be the basis of a future blog post.

(in)accessibility and nature

I will be talking primarily about access from a mobility perspective in this post because that is my main experience.  There are so many ways in which health and disability can affect engagement with nature and I do hope to touch on that in another post.  In the meantime, if you want to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments.

As I have discussed, there is a privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There is an unspoken assumption that nature means somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance, we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk, or who don’t navigate the world in the same way as the majority.  Some of us require carefully cultivated paths which regulate our experience, inevitably some might say.  But is that not because an able bodied world has determined that we don’t need the same access as others?  That by adding a short circular route near an information centre the tick box exercise is complete.  That we don’t need anything more.  That being disabled is a uniform experience and thus we want a uniform way of being in the world, and by extension in nature.

Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places – that tend to be less maintained and hence are less accessible – are often considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Of course, there are other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track including where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.  Race, gender and class all have roles to play as well and of course these barriers need to be broken down too.

Another common narrative about getting into nature is that of getting away from technology.  If I am leaving my house, I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair, with the latter being much more comfortable and more independent.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and, in that way, can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread of the discussion around getting into nature is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  Say I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

This is to say nothing of all the mental work that goes into finding somewhere suitable to go in the first place.  There is a dearth of information about accessible nature out there.  It is improving but you can still get better information about where to go for a romantic stroll on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website than you can for wheelchair suitable walks.  If you filter by the latter, you will get zero results, even though I know at least a few of their sites are wheelchair accessible…

But, despite all of this, there are some very easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more inclusive.  Adding edges to the paths means visually impaired people who are using white canes can identify the borders of them more easily.  Replacing locked gates with radar locks.  Making kissing gates a little bigger.  Even just providing all of this information online and through other methods helps immensely.  Styles with spaces for guide dogs to walk under.  Adding wooden board walks.  Adding a ramp into a bird hide.  Adding benches every so many metres and having a map to show where they are.  Adding a gap into a cliff fence at wheelchair height.  These are not difficult changes, they just require things to be done differently.  Instead of repeating what has always been done, an open mind can come up with easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more accessible to everyone.

Connecting with nature when you have limited mobility

Ok, so I’ve covered connecting with nature when you’re stuck in your house, what about those of us who can sometimes leave the house but have limited mobility?

As much as I want to go tramping through wild woods and paddle in streams and hike up hills, it’s never going to happen.

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Wet and windy Scarborough, from the car where we had our picnic

So what can I do instead?

  • Bird watching/photography from the car was the theme of an article in the latest Disabled Photographers Society magazine.  There is a perception that to birdwatch, it’s necessary to trek miles of cliff paths or scrub.  However, with sensitivity, the car can be a great location to spot birds from.
  • If you have a wheelchair, that will help a bit – some reserves/forests etc have specific wheelchair routes but from experience (being pushed in a manual wheelchair), they can be hard work to wheel over.  Some places hire out all terrain wheelchairs which look fantastic.  You can also get wheelchairs for going on the sand eg at Whitby and other east coast beaches.
  • Even if you don’t use a wheelchair, information on wheelchair routes can be helpful: Accessible Countryside for Everyone, Walks With Wheelchairs, The Bimblers and Access The Dales are just a few of the websites which can help you.  I’ve found that a number of nature reserves are fairly wheelchair friendly so maybe have a look at those as well.  They have the advantage of sometimes having facilities such as blue badge parking and disabled toilets.
  • Look into wheelchair routes but don’t limit yourself to them.  For example, if I was going off the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website, I’d possibly not have bothered to visit Moorlands and the path there was better than the advertised wheelchair path in Dalby Forest.  Euan’s Guide is one way to find out what other disabled people thought.
  • If you don’t have a wheelchair, can’t hire one and have limited mobility, just going for a drive through the countryside can be a great option.
  • But don’t overlook what’s on your doorstep.  Perhaps you have a garden?  If so, could you or a friend create a wild area, put up a birdbox or set up some chairs or a shed so you can watch and listen to the wildlife that is right there in your back yard.  The same goes for the stars.  Although light pollution can limit things, you can still see some spectacular sights from your door.
  • Try your hand at gardening.  Some people struggle because it’s hard to bend down, if this is the case maybe think about pots or raised beds.
  • Maybe look into local parks.  Although they tend to be more managed that The Great Outdoors, you can still find lots and lots of interesting plants and animals hanging out.
  • If you can, walking barefoot on sand, grass or the earth is a great feeling and really helps me feel connected to nature.
  • Get to know a tree – spend time with it, return to it at different times of the year, see how it changes.  This can be any tree and most people will have a tree reasonably close by or one they see regularly on the way to work or hospital appointments.
  • Take up photography.  It can really change the way you see things: “…carrying a camera trains you to scout out beauty in unexpected places” (Oh Comely).  Similarly, taking an identification book with you helps you look more closely at trees, plants and animals.
  • And try some of the things I mentioned in my previous post.

Please use the comments to share any other ideas!

Taking up space*

The issue of taking up space is one that seems to come up time and time again in my life.  As a young child, I was quiet and well behaved and easy to miss.  As I got older, my depression convinced me that I was worthless, useless, a waste of space.  I withdrew, I would withhold opinions, I wouldn’t challenge things I knew were wrong.  I dumbed down my intelligence.  Older again, and this time it would be anorexia that would convince me I took up too much space.  I was literally too big.  I was metaphorically too big.  Fast forward again and this time the culprit is my disability.

Something happens when you start to use a wheelchair you take up more space literally and this isn’t always an easy thing to do.  In this society we are told that women should not take up space.  (If you’re a male wheelchair user, I’d love to have a chat about this with you, especially if you’ve not always used a wheelchair and can compare the difference.)

There’s no denying it. The chair takes up space. It doesn’t fit it a regular car, it doesn’t fit in some shops, in cafes people have to move for me. And all the time I’m apologising for it. I can’t reduce the size of my chair or the space I take up so instead I am constantly stuck in apology mode.

I’m so sorry that my existence is having some impact on you. I’m so sorry you’re having to adjust your path to get past me. I’m so sorry I’m trying to get a table in a restaurant and you’re having to move to accommodate me. I’m sorry I embarrassed you when you came out of the disabled toilet and got ‘caught’ by a disabled person**. I’m so sorry for existing as a disabled woman.

And yet I feel I can’t stop apologising. As a disabled woman my chance of having a crime committed against me is quite high. I’ve had people get annoyed (thankfully only in that British way of grumbling loudly to their friend so far) when I’ve not played the game and not apologised for the few seconds I inconvenienced them. I’ve had people grumble that I shouldn’t go into town on a weekend because it’s busy. I try to avoid this anyway as I hate crowds but that is my choice.

My wheelchair takes up space but I should still be able to go where I want when I want. Except again, this isn’t a reality. Because there are places where no amount of apologising will help me. I can apologise all I want but I’ll never get into the corner of the shop which is crammed full with displays in the aisles; “If you tell me what you want, I can get it”…”I’m sorry… I don’t know what I’m after…” and I leave.

 

With every half-finished sentence, every statement ended with a question mark, with every apology we offer to someone who has wronged us, minor or major, we deny ourselves, we deny our value.

With every tentative whispered proclamation, with every “I think…” when we know, we deny ourselves the space we are owed.

We are so socialised to believe we are not allowed space that we are complicit in our own erasure.

We make ourselves small so others are more comfortable. If I make myself small, people don’t have to face my disability and with it their own mortality, their own imperfect infallibility, the imperfection of me, the guilt I seem to impose on them. If I make myself small, they don’t have to face themselves, their lack of consideration when I turn up at the party and there’s a step into the house or the bathroom is upstairs.  “I didn’t think…” they mutter…as if I’m the one who should be embarrassed.

 

Every time I tell a shop that it’s ok when they don’t have a ramp, I’m letting them off.  I’m telling them that I’m not important and it’s ok that they aren’t accessible.  I’m giving them permission to reduce the amount of space I can take up.  Whether that’s in their shop or in their minds.

Every time you have to ask for the key to the disabled toilet or get a stranger to go into a shop to ask a member of staff to bring out a ramp or get told to go in the back entrance by the bins, you are told that you are not important.  You are not as valued or as worthy as other people.  You are told that you are a burden, a nuisance, an ‘other’. That you should not be there.

Letting yourself be who you are and owning that in a society which does all it can to prevent this is a powerful act.  Without it, the issues which make us feel unable to take up space will be perpetuated and will continue to reproduce.  We need to challenge the physical issues which keep us “in our place” but also the attitudinal issues.  Why should I apologise because you need to let go of your boyfriend’s hand in order to pass me on the pavement?  Why should I be embarrassed when I ask you to pull a chair in so I can get past?  All I have done “wrong” is to exist with a disability.  If you can’t deal with it, you should be the one apologising to me.

Taking up space is a truly political act.  When I was at my worst with anorexia, I had no capacity to question or object to the way society treats women, the patriarchy was having a great time. When I can’t access buildings or facilities because of my disability, I can’t easily or effectively object – I can’t physically get to the people I need to complain to.  I can’t make them see me.  They’ve engineered that well.  Preventing us from taking up the space we’re entitled to is a fantastic tool of an oppressor.  Let’s try and break that.

Take up your space and take it up proudly.  We are all human. We all deserve to take up space.

Check out Vanessa Kisuule’s “Take up space” for some excellent poetry about women and space.


 

*I’m going to use the word space a lot.  I mean literal space as in the physical footprint I have when I stand or sit or lie down.  I also mean audible space – the space that is inhabited by noise.  Like all ‘spaces’ there is a finite amount available. In this case, people who are shouting take up more of it.  Similarly, I might be referring to the space in societies’ consciousness.  Or the space for ideas and thoughts and opinions.  This idea of space as more than physical is talked about by Rosalind Jana.

**not all disabilities are visible but I’ve had a lot of cases of people who misuse disabled toilets, normally because they are getting changed or want a shit…