A Stake in the Fight: An Activist’s Take on Eco-Ableism

Black background. A clear drinking glass filled with multicolored plastic straws.

I’ve been involved in advocacy on disability and chronic illness-related issues for several years now; my work has taught me important transferable skills. Because I have a deep love for nature and our planet— and since disabled people are disproportionately impacted by climate change —I sometimes ask myself why I’m not using those skills to organize at the intersection of disability and environmental justice.

The unfortunate truth is, everytime I begin to dip my toes into an environmental advocacy space, I’m reminded rather quickly of the reason I haven’t spent much time there. As a disabled person whose access needs don’t always align with the idealized “perfect” eco-friendly lifestyle, I’ve had a few too many interactions with individuals in the environmental activist community that left me feeling misunderstood and unwelcome. I know that I am not alone in this experience. 

I believe that living in alignment with our values is important, and for me, that includes being mindful of how my actions impact the earth. I practice eco-friendly habits as much as possible: I thrift almost all of my clothing, I compost, and I’ve made nearly every sustainable swap that one could think of. But as someone living with complex, disabling chronic illness, certain lifestyle changes are not possible for me. 

My particular disabilities mean that I cannot simply forego air conditioning in the summer, go vegan, or bike to work. I rely on my car more than I would like to because walking too far can trigger chronic pain. In addition, my weekly immunoglobulin infusions produce an unfortunate amount of plastic waste that is outside of my control.

Some people with disabilities face different barriers than I do to sustainable practices, depending on their needs. I have disabled friends who require plastic straws to drink, and others who rely on pre-packaged foods and single-use items because chronic illness limits their ability to cook. Unfortunately, these kinds of needs and limitations, when asserted in environmentalist spaces, often seem to be met with skepticism, disapproval, or even condemnation. 

A few years ago, in a conversation with a local climate organizer, I tried to explain why following a vegan diet is not possible or healthy for everyone. Like many others in the chronic illness community, I’ve endured extended stretches of time during which I could only tolerate a few “safe” foods without scary mast cell activation syndrome reactions. Over the years, I’ve learned that my most consistently safe foods are not plant-based and that I need to give my body whatever nourishment it accepts.

As I explained this to the activist, she asked invasive questions about my medical conditions, expressed disbelief that any chronic illness could make a fully plant-based diet inadvisable, and implied that I was further harming my health by not being vegan. Essentially, someone who barely knew anything about me told me that I was wrong about my own disabled body. I have watched a similar pattern of behavior unfold repeatedly on social media, whenever a disabled person states that a particular eco-friendly change isn’t accessible for them. 

I didn’t know until recently that there was a term for this particular brand of disability discrimination that shows up in environmental activism, called “eco-ableism.” Eco-ableism is the result of nondisabled people failing to consider that their proposed solutions to environmental issues can make life inaccessible for disabled people, all while neglecting to recognize the fact that disabled people are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. In my experience, eco-ableism often also involves a failure by nondisabled people to believe or empathize with disabled people when we speak up about our access needs or the ableism that we’ve encountered. 

There are steps that environmental activists can take to prevent eco-ableism and make their spaces more welcoming to disabled people. One of the changes I most hope to see is a shift away from the scrutiny that disabled people are often met with when we assert our needs. Everyone can be a better ally in general to disabled people by trusting that we know our own bodies and access needs better than anyone else can. 

Unfortunately, nondisabled skepticism about our access needs is nothing new for the disability community. Many of us know what it’s like to fear that we’ll be harassed for using accessible parking, accused of “faking” if someone sees our legs move in a wheelchair, or judged as “lazy” if we are unable to work.

Activists striving to be anti-ableist in their organizing can avoid perpetuating this exhausting scrutiny by accepting a disabled person’s stated access needs without disbelief, invasive questions, or unsolicited feedback. If a disabled person shares that there is a particular way they need to eat, drink, get around, or take care of their body, the first instinct of fellow advocates should be to believe them

I’ve also noticed that eco-ableism typically manifests when activists are spending energy analyzing each others’ individual actions, often at a detriment to work on larger systemic issues. To be clear, our individual choices matter; we should all do what is within our abilities to live in alignment with our values. However, irresponsible corporations and government inaction are largely to blame for the climate crisis— not disabled people who need straws to drink.

I hope that, instead of questioning individuals about whether their disability actually prevents them from making a specific sustainable swap, advocates will redirect that energy toward systems change that creates a more just world for all of us. Since climate change has a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities at a systems level, an inflexible focus on individual actions that frames us as the problem ironically only serves to further alienate a marginalized group from advocacy on an issue that we are experiencing most acutely. 

Finally, to avoid eco-ableism and ensure that proposed environmental policy changes don’t inadvertently leave any marginalized group of citizens behind, it’s also essential that disabled people play a significant leadership role in shaping environmental movements and policy.

When diverse  perspectives are valued and integrated into a movement, the solutions we fight for are solutions that lift up all of us, as opposed to unintentionally  creating more obstacles for some. To achieve true equity, not only do we need to make sure that disabled people have seats at the table, but also that our viewpoints are regarded as important and meaningfully incorporated into decision making. 

Despite the barriers some disabled people might face to a sustainable lifestyle, disability justice and environmental justice are not in conflict. Rather, they are deeply interconnected, and the disability community has a serious stake in the fight for the future of our planet. Disabled activists also have valuable skills and perspective to bring to environmental advocacy; I’m confident that our involvement will only make the movement stronger. While eco-ableism is discouraging, I’m optimistic about the kind of world we can build when we work together to ensure that all perspectives, abilities, and needs are taken into account.

Leah Stagnone (she/her) is a disabled community organizer and nonprofit professional based in New England. She is a Co-Founder of  #MEAction’s New Hampshire State Chapter, where she fights for equity for people with infection-associated chronic illnesses like ME/CFS and Long COVID. When Leah isn’t engaged in advocacy work, you can find her gardening, reading, spending time in nature, or partaking in one of her many crafty hobbies.