‘Nothing About Us Without Us’: Disability Justice is Climate Justice

I’m one little person. That’s partly a pun, because I have dwarfism and am quite short. And partly a play on words because I’m truly only one person in the vastness of the universe.

But as a kid, I recognized the power of my voice, of speaking up. I started writing short stories and poems — I needed a place to express my thoughts, a place of reflection and catharsis. In college, I took a course on writing social justice and majored in journalism. I strongly believe in the power writing has to create change. Now, as a board member of Split This Rock, a poetry nonprofit dedicated to poetry of witness and social change, and as the Co-Chair of OutWrite, Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ+ literary festival, I feel like I’m embodying younger me’s vision of who I wanted to become.

Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to find your calling. Determined enough to actually pursue it in school and find a job in a field you enjoy, one that’s fulfilling, one that gives back to the world. For the past three years, I’ve been working as a communications professional at World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit organization that works with government, business, and civil society to research, design, and carry out practical solutions that improve people’s lives and ensure nature can thrive. I work in the Water Program, communicating water risk data, urban water resilience challenges and solutions, corporate water stewardship, and more.

In January 2020, my friend Denali Sai Nalamalapu published my essay on disability and climate change in her newsletter Entropy Inherited. Later that year, it was republished on 350.org as “The Future is Disabled: Planning for Climate Change Must Include People with Disabilities”. Since then, I’ve been interviewed by ABC News and Climate X-Change for articles highlighting the importance of including the disabled in climate planning.

Earlier this month, I received an invitation from David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, to speak on climate change and disability at the Phoenix Consultation, the North American Consultation on Children’s Right to a Healthy Environment. That little girl writing fantasy stories and poems about chronic pain never would have imagined being invited by the United Nations to discuss accessibility, disability, and inclusive climate action. But here we are in 2021, the second year into a pandemic, and here this invitation landed in my email. I’ll be joining the panel on Saturday, and can’t wait to hear from other disability activists and young people.

It shouldn’t be surprising to say that governments, countries, decision-makers at all levels need to consider the disabled when making climate change plans. A recent UN resolution calls on governments to “promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations.” The resolution encourages governments to formulate disability-inclusive approaches to address climate change.

Nearly 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, are disabled, according to the World Bank. Many people affected by the intensifying impacts of climate change will be disabled. Consider this: the landmark legislation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is only 31 years old. There is still a long way to go in terms of disability rights. For example, marriage equality is still not a reality for many disabled people.

Nothing about us without us” is a motto that has been used by disability activists as well as other underrepresented and vulnerable communities. It encourages the active involvement and participation of people with disabilities in the planning of strategies and policies that affect their lives. Ensuring the world is more accessible, inclusive, and equitable will take work. But accessibility doesn’t just help disabled people — it often improves things for all. Think about curb cuts, how they make navigating through cities and streets possible for wheelchair users, but also help parents with strollers.

Disabled people move through a world that isn’t designed with us in mind. In fact, it’s often the exact opposite. Disabled people often have to create workarounds, design our own solutions, be our own advocates. And that requires resilience — something the climate action/justice movement is increasingly calling for.

The social model of disability proposes that what makes people disabled isn’t medical conditions, but rather the attitudes and structures of society. The climate movement should learn from disability activists; climate action must address the underlying social structures that have created environmental inequity. This is why disability justice is climate justice. Climate justice is disability justice. These movements, calls for action, and impetus for change and increased access are interconnected. We mean it when we say “nothing about us without us.”