By Emily Johnson March 31, 2020

As a person with a disability, I’ve seen firsthand how people like me have been left out of the conversation surrounding climate change and sustainability. This is due to a variety of reasons, societal constructs being one of them. Those with disabilities may be construed as weak, unintelligent, incapable – the list goes on. There is a long history of those with disabilities being treated poorly, whether it be in the workplace, schools, or in personal relationships.

I was born severely hard of hearing, and though I am not entirely deaf, I’ve dealt with these struggles my entire life. I was “mainstreamed,” which means I was integrated into a hearing world, starting at a young age. I have many memories of being in elementary school, feeling different from everyone else because I had to get special accommodations to account for my hearing loss. I remember struggling to understand my peers and teachers. I still deal with that today, as a senior in college who can’t afford a hearing aid, which can cost thousands of dollars (which is another major problem facing those with disabilities – medical equipment and care is often expensive and potentially unattainable). In short, it’s been really difficult at times.

But I’ve still excelled – I’ve been an honor student ever since I began school, I’ve done multiple internships, and I’m on track to graduate this summer with a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in Political Science. I’m just as capable as anyone else; it’s just taken more work to get to this point. My voice matters just as much as anyone else’s, and the same applies to all those with disabilities.

It saddens me to say this, but the environmental movement is not very inclusive, though it has improved in recent years. This is not the fault of the movement itself, but the ignorance of those who facilitate it. Many people simply don’t give a second thought to the voices that may be left out, and groups that may be harmed by a well-meaning piece of legislation or product. A great example of this is the movement to ban plastic. Our oceans and landfill are full of plastic – there’s no doubt that this is a huge problem. The issue lies in the implementation of alternatives. There are replacements for plastic straws – silicone, metal, and bamboo straws are some examples – but some of these simply won’t work for those with disabilities. This doesn’t apply to my own experience, but there are folks who need straws in order to sustain themselves. The alternatives may not be durable, affordable, or as effective as plastic straws. Here’s another example – “greener” menstrual products. Menstrual cups have gained much popularity in recent years as a reusable alternative to pads and tampons. Those with conditions such as arthritis may find it difficult to use a product like this in comparison to non-reusable options. And yet, no one wants to talk about the fact that environmentalists can be ableist and non-inclusive.

I am all for promoting products that improve the planet’s health and encourages less waste generation, but not at the cost of disabled peoples’ comfort and accessibility. We must consider the needs of minority groups when looking at how to confront the climate change crisis. So, I encourage you – listen to the marginalized. Ask them how you can help them, and see how we can work together to produce less waste while improving inclusivity. It is possible!

Emily is a senior and Defend Our Future campus ambassador at the University of Central Florida.