Alistair Gentry analyses the results of Unlimited’s consultation with disabled artists and arts organisations on the environmental problems of the present, and sustainable futures.
A few months ago in the days of BC (Before Covid-19), via a shared collaborative document we invited disabled artists and arts organisations who work with them to contribute their ideas on environmentally sustainable careers and art practices. Of course the lives of most people in Britain have changed a lot since then; for disabled people, perhaps doubly so as our blogs by disabled artists here on the Unlimited site have shown repeatedly.
Our local and global environment is still in danger, though, and some of these questions have become even more relevant in our new pandemic-centric reality. In this blog and its follow-up we’ll share some of the best quotes from participants and summarise the lessons and consensus they collectively decided upon. They’re anonymised so everyone could be as honest as they liked, but they’re all real people!
All the illustrations here were drawn for us by INTO Doodles. (Instagram: @INTO_Doodles)
How do we ensure organisations don’t create green policies that make life worse for disabled people?
Soundbite: “What if a policy was an invitation to consider something?”
Lessons: Policy can be a conversation, not a direction. Shaming people is not the best tactic when asking them to change. Consult people with lived experience of the subject about what they think, be flexible and trust their knowledge.
J: “What if a policy was an invitation to consider something? What if policies were built in collaboration? Perhaps a policy might be to encourage people to think about what is in their power to do, or what they are happy to trade off. We each have to make decisions about what is possible or not possible for us. I imagine that is different for different individuals.”
R: “We need to eradicate shame as a tactic for climate action and take an intersectional approach to climate justice within our organisations. In doing less harm we need to demonstrate care and ensure that climate action does not create barriers or preclude participation. Ways to do this? Ensure that disabled voices are at the table when policies are made, and in the artistic stories we tell through the projects we produce.”
C: “The best policies are the ones that allow flexibility and trust the individuals involved to be given a voice to say “this point is ok, but this other point will be incredibly detrimental to me.” Green policies aren’t designed to make everyone’s lives worse, it’s not denying technologies and inventions that we have made, but just asking people to think about their use of resources. i.e. a good green policy wouldn’t ban using taxis, but just ask people to consider how they get about.”
K: “By creating work that authentically reflects the lived experience of disability, so that non-disabled folk have a more realistic idea of what it is to be disabled, and are exposed to practical day-to-day realities that they might not be aware of when they’re making policies like the straw ban which make life more difficult.”
Do you think environmental discussions by organisations ignore or discriminate against disabled people?
Soundbite: “Discussions and activism around climate emergency put an emphasis on self-sufficiency and almost survivalism.”
Lessons: Many activist groups and debates are seen to have an unexamined privilege problem that they need to address if they mean to be truly and fully inclusive. Even unintentional survivalist rhetoric can be extremely off-putting for disabled people. Protest and resistance are often assumed to be by and for certain (usually normative) types of body, mind and experience. Technologies may not be perfect, but they usually exist for a reason.
E: “Yes, take Extinction Rebellion for example who encourage very physical direct action for long periods of time, not taking into account those who may suffer from fatigue or have limited mobility.”
C: “Yes, I do think most of them do. Some groups seem to not understand that technologies exist for a reason, e.g. the use of plastic in medicines is vital– and there is a privilege problem in many greenie groups.”
K: “A lot of discussions and activism around climate emergency put an emphasis on self-sufficiency and almost survivalism, as well as feeling somewhat inflexible and purist. I think that’s changing with things like the school strikes, which feel more approachable for everyday people, but certainly in the past, it has felt like, well, if you need to use a car rather than public transport, or get in a cab because of fatigue you can’t also be an effective or ‘good’ activist. That can put disabled people off from getting involved, which means that essential voices are missing from the debate. A lot of activism is also quite physical, relies on being there, etc, which isn’t possible for everyone.”
U: “It can be difficult to participate in discussions and actions that are labour intensive when one has limited energy and ability to participate. I found extinction rebellion wanted to be inclusive, but in reality most of their actions required long periods of ‘action’.”
Sometimes disabled people have to think more about day to day survival, financial stability and all the barriers put up by society in their lives already. How can disabled people be environmentally responsible, and is it a priority?
Soundbite: “The DWP is going to kill me before climate change does, so that’s my priority.”
Lessons: Non-disabled people can greatly underestimate the basic, daily struggles of disabled people, including particularly their poverty. Accessibility and sustainability don’t have to be contradictory. Everyone has some responsibility, but there are structural problems and disabling factors that no individual disabled person can tackle alone.
S: “While people are worrying about climate change, disabled people like myself are worrying about having my funding for care being taken away and worrying every time you see a brown envelope come through the door.”
E: “It’s not a priority as austerity cuts and living from one day to the next will take priority over a future that we may not see.”
F: “The gritty determination that many disabled people display in their lives will act as a model for challenging the adverse effects of climate change.”
I: “Everyone has their own set of values and disabilities differ in their needs and urgency. I don’t think it’s a main priority as I do have a lot to think about (for) everyday survival, but I am well aware of the environment… It should be a priority in general as a look to the future as a joint mission.”
C: “No one should be punished for being unable to adhere to certain green policies, but I think it’s important everyone asks themselves ‘what am I able to do?'”
K: “We all have a collective responsibility to remove societal barriers for disabled people, and that includes removing / not creating new barriers thanks to responses to climate emergency.”
V: “The Tory DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) is going to kill me before climate change does, so that’s my priority when I make work or protest. Limited energy means you pick your battles.”
Y: “Meeting the needs of disabled artists should be the biggest priority for organisations, it’s a matter of equity… Is there a misconception sustainability and accessibility are at odds? Let’s discuss!”
A: “The climate crisis is an existential threat to all life, yes there are massive structural inequalities in society that make life very hard for people from minority groups, but that doesn’t mean we can be excused from reducing our own impact, as long as it doesn’t impact on functionality of being an artist.”
R: “Environmental policy in the arts can learn a lot from disabled artists and disabled art action in terms of the need for organisations to make adjustments… Imagine if there was a social model for the planet? e.g. the planet is the planet, it’s the behaviour of the organisations that needs to change.”
Do you think issues around climate emergency are different for people with visible disabilities compared to people with invisible disabilities?
Soundbite: “It’s easier for people with visible disabilities to make claims regarding their needs.”
Lessons: Climate emergency affects everyone, but even some disabled people may not know or understand how disabling its effects are to some people, and how the discourse around it impacts neurodivergent people, people with sensory disabilities, or people with mental health conditions.
V: “I do know of many people who experience mental health related issues who have been triggered extensively by the climate emergency.”
G: “Especially for people who already live with anxiety, depression, or similar things, the apocalyptic language and tone around these things, while understandable in some ways, is probably not helping them to deal with it.”
I: “I think visibility or invisibility of the disability is more about the social awareness. And therefore it is easier for people with visible disabilities to make claims regarding their needs.”
How much power do you think individual organisations have to change the conversation and/or the reality of the situation for disabled artists who are trying to be environmentally responsible?
Soundbite: “… a lot more than they realise they do.”
Lessons: Find allies, be an ally, share and cooperate. Those with more stability and capacity need to shelter and lead by example the smaller and more vulnerable organisations.
V: “They can open up space, be prepared to listen, adapt and change. Be allies in the other fights disabled people have to gain equity.”
Y: “It’s an economy of scale– larger organisations with more robust staffing structures and stable income or funding have a huge amount of responsibility to lead the way and demonstrate best practice for the sector.”
A: “Sustainability, for me, doesn’t really sit in the same category as other forms of knowledge as it’s a shared responsibility… Education and knowledge tends to accumulate between positions of privilege and only more radical forms of sharing resources and cooperation can subvert this.”
R: “A lot more than they realise they do.”