Disability justice

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Disability justice is "a framework that moves beyond the legislation-centric approach of the disability rights movement; a social movement guided by ten principles: intersectionality, leadership of those most impacted, anti-capitalist politic, commitment to cross-movement organizing, recognizing wholeness, sustainability, commitment to cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation." -Sins Invalid, adapted by Michelle Xie [1]

  • "All bodies are valuable, hold beauty, and are deserving of care. This extends to our community bodies, to the bodies of our plant and animal kin, and to our shared planetary body itself, the earth." -Sins Invalid
  • Every body is integral to any movement toward justice. Ableism believes that some bodies are superior to, and thus more valueable than, other bodies. -Sins Invalid
  • "Disabled people are not disabled due to their impairments, rather they are disabled by structural and systemic barriers within society." -Jake Clarke

Sometimes approaches to climate can reinforce ableism, and this is represented by the term eco-ableism. See our definitions page on ableism for examples of eco-ableism.

The ideas and knowledge shared on this page come from:

1) An instagram live with Priya Penner, moderated by Kenzie Harris (HUB team member). Ideas coming from Priya are highlighted throughout.

2) Knowledge compiled by HUB anglo librarian Kenzie Harris, using resources provided by staff at the People's Hub

Instagram live speaker

Priya Penner (she/her) is a multiply-disabled queer leader of color with grassroots organizing experience on the local, state, and national levels. Priya learned about disability pride and disability rights at a very young age. She spent several years using her knowledge of the Independent Living philosophy to organize on the grassroots level with the national disability rights organization, ADAPT, as well as with various colleagues on the local and collegiate levels. It was in college that she discovered the Disability Justice framework, which now serves as the touchstone for all her work. She joined The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies in June of 2020 to help ensure marginalized communities, especially multiply marginalized people, are heard within the disaster response and recovery field. Priya received her certification in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) from Cornell University in 2023. She serves on the Board of the Alliance for Consumer-Directed Supports. -The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies

Disability justice is a climate justice issue

1. Natural disasters disproportionately harm disabled people
  • Structural barriers become a matter of life or death during disaster. 
  • [Paraphrased] People with disabilities are 2-4x more likely to die during disasters. [2] Why is that? One of the things you learn is we are forgotten. We aren't part of planning conversations, disaster preparedness. We aren't talking about what happens when the best laid plans go wrong. We aren't part of the conversation in planning for disasters. So when we talk about climate, we see again that we're forgotten. People with disabilities aren't mentioned in plans at all. Countries are neglecting their obligations to fulfill the rights of disabled folks in response to the climate crisis. When we look at smaller conversations about planning for disaster, plus the larger conversations about climate justice, we aren't included.
  • [Paraphrased] As a multiply marginalized person, we don't get invitations to join conversations. The fact that the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies exists says a lot, that things are changing, but we have to keep pushing.

Specific examples include:

  • "Some members of the disability community are especially vulnerable to extreme heat events due to increased sensitivity to keeping our body temperatures cool enough." -Tiffany Yu
  • Natural disaster can cut electricity, "which is especially problematic because so many disabled people need electricity-powered medical equipment to survive." -Tiffany Yu
  • Droughts and flooding cause food and water insecurity. "Because of other social factors like the disproportionate number of disabled people who are caught in an endless poverty cycle, the disability community is especially vulnerable during these shortages." -Tiffany Yu
  • Disabled people may be unable to evacuate from disaster and/or may lose "critical mobility and accessibility devices (wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, hearing aids, communication devices)." -Tiffany Yu
  • Post-disaster, "the prospect of rebuilding a home that had been built around an individual disability can also be daunting and expensive ― particularly considering disabled workers typically earn significantly less than their able-bodied counterparts." -Jenavieve Hatch for Huffington Post

2. Disabled people are marginalized and are equally deserving of liberation

  • 80% of disabled people live in the Global South, regions most impacted by the climate crisis and exploitation. [3]
  • "From homeless encampments to local jail cells, the social, political, and economic disparities among disabled queer and trans people of colour put our communities at the frontlines of ecological disaster.” -Patty Berne
  • Disabled people are not 'hoarding resources' or 'draining the system', two phrases often used to demonize disabled people for collecting disability benefits. The ultra-rich benefit from blaming disabled bodies, while they continue to benefit from the system.

3. Systems of oppression are intersectional and best addressed by leadership of the most impacted

  • [Paraphrased] You can't separate identities from a person. We can't separate these systems of oppression. We recognize none of us are free unless we're all free. Disability justice provides a framework for creating inclusive resistance movements that support other movements by resisting these intersecting systems of oppression. It's not like we can say 'I'm only going to fight ableism' and ignore white supremacy. They're all connected. It's not going to be climate justice if we don't prioritize the needs of the most impacted. Some of the most marginalized folks are multiply marginalized disabled folks. We know we have to prioritize their leadership. This is one key way to effectively resist. Disabled folks know what it's like to resist these systems, and our solutions are pretty bad-ass. We are some of the best problem solvers because we have to go through it day in and day out.
  • Disability justice is migrant justice. "Climate change is accelerating forced migration at a time when disabled people find it increasingly difficult to cross borders — not simply because of the physical demands, but also because of political opposition." -Julia Watts Belser
      • Disabled people may be unable to enter countries because their diagnosis or condition is considered 'burdensome'. -Julia Watts Belser
      • Migrants may struggle to access the services they need (health services and long-term medical, financial, and social support). -Tiffany Yu
  • The oppressive conditions we’re living in can be disabling themselves. For example...
      • Chronic stress can be disabling. Neurodivergent people (ADHD, dyslexia, autism, anxiety) are more likely than neurotypical people to experience physical health problems. 
      • Racism can be disabling (e.g. Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old black child, experienced a brain injury after being shot by a racist white man).
      • Colonialism can be disabling (e.g. Aamijiwnaang First Nation has been impacted by settler colonialism, capitalism and environmental racism. Over 60 petrochemical facilities can be found within a 25 km2 area. Community members face high rates of cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive health issues). [4]
      • Living in poverty can be disabling. It significantly increases the likelihood of developing chronic or acute health problems (e.g. limited access to healthy foods, shelter, clean air and water, chronic stress etc). [5]

4. Environmental racism and natural disasters cause disabilities

  • "If we ask ourselves why Black and brown communities have higher rates of asthma, we also must look at where they live." -Daphne Frias for Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  • Injuries obtained living through a natural disaster (e.g. earthquakes, hurricanes etc) or from being exposed to toxic chemicals (e.g. Mercury, see environmental racism) may cause acute or chronic disability.

5. Eco-ableism reinforces oppression

  • "Prioritizing personal ownership of environmental impacts over corporate responsibility fuels ableism and discrimination toward people with disabilities."-Daphne Frias
    • See our eco-ableism section of ableism for examples.
    • Disability is one of the first forgotten or first attacked experiences when discussing climate accountability or solutions. It's important to recognize disabled people caring for their needs are not to blame for the climate crisis. True accountability lies in those hoarding resources and wealth (the ultra rich).

6. There can be no climate justice without addressing immediate survival needs

  • "Disabled people are so busy just surviving. We have to self advocate all the time for access to employment, education, benefits or healthcare. It means unless there is a flood at my door I’m not thinking about the climate so much. We need to get people out of poverty because you can’t do anything about the climate if you are completely ostracised from participating in regular life.” -Pauline Castres
  • "When issues like discrimination, access to adequate healthcare, unemployment, and poverty are among our top concerns, climate change tends to be an afterthought. When we are fighting for basic human rights and equality, how do we have time to think about climate change? Being concerned about and fighting for climate justice is a privilege." -Tiffany Yu
7. 'Survival of the fittest' is an oppressive mindset
  • Accepting the loss of some lives to the climate crisis as 'inevitable' is oppressive. "We aren't just talking about physical vulnerability; ableism, racism, class inequality and other forms of oppression work together to compound and intensify risk." -Julia Watts Belser
  • Access to wealth makes it easier to evacuate, and white supremacy translates "into the political clout and communal resources that make climate disruptions more survivable in the first place — better infrastructure, less exposure to environmental hazards and more robust public assistance during and after crisis." -Julia Watts Belser
  • We all deserve to have our needs met on a planet that has enough resources, but that are hoarded by a minority. Capitalism describes disabled individuals as a drain on our resources. In contrast, it is capitalism that drains us, and drains the earth's resources. 


See the following video by Climate Atlas of Canada for a quick overview of how disability justice intersects with climate justice:

Why is Accessibility Critical to Movement Spaces?

Access Culture expands on definitions of accessibility, explaining:

"For people who live on the margins, who have to fight to prove their existence, who are excluded from movements, who are subject to abuse in the form of isolation, having access to spaces means having access to community, to connection, to existence. When we make spaces accessible, when we build movements based on inclusion, we recognize that each person has an intrinsic value, that our existence is beautiful and necessary. Creating accessible spaces is about recognizing that connection is necessary, that community is necessary, that our culture is built on the myth of separation, the lie of disconnection. We must move from independence to interdependence in order to transform society." 

Accessibility matters for the following reasons:

1. Collective liberation: we all win when we oppose ableism
  • Disabled people are oppressed by the same systems of power we are fighting across movements. Ableism denies people with a physical or mental impairment opportunities to care for themselves. It is deeply rooted in capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy. 
  • Disability justice is anti-capitalist. It opposed the push for productivity, extraction and commodifying our bodies for labour and building wealth. 
2. Not actively unlearning and practicing = replicating oppression
  • We want to fight marginalization, not contribute to it. Within movement spaces, we must actively work to unlearn behaviours that reinforce oppression to fight against it. This includes practicing an access culture and challenging internalized ableism, racism, homophobia etc. 
      • Internalized ableism prompts: do we reward some people over others because they can contribute more time and effort? Do we favour their voices over those who have to care for their health, need to work a second job, have caretaking responsibilities etc.?
      • Access goes beyond disability. There's a reason primarily white folks are accessing climate activist spaces. 
3. Prioritizing and leadership of marginalized people
  • The needs of those who do not benefit from our current oppressive systems must be prioritized as decision makers for a just world that prioritizes people and the planet.
  • Those most affected by forms of oppression are best suited to define how we can operate our society more equitably. Disabled, black, brown, trans etc. people live through some of the most challenging consequences of capitalism and the climate crisis
4. Meeting everyone’s needs = more people power
  • On a strategic note: We will not mobilize the mass we need without considering disability justice, access needs and building cultures of care that actively challenge internalized oppression.
      • If people do not see their immediate survival needs being prioritized by your campaign, they will not want to join.
      • Otherwise, those who would be interested in organizing may be unable to join, or continue, if their access and care needs are not considered. 
  • Putting the planning in today means greater and sustained participation tomorrow. We are all likely to experience chronic or acute disability or access needs in our lives, whether from old age, stress, illness or an accident. 
  • To do physical activism, you need a lot of people to support you in the background to ensure you're successful. I started with a grassroots organization, trying to figure out where my place was in this movement. Within that journey I was part of different subcommittees. I was part of the media committee, and these people are so important, but quickly realized to be successful in this role you need to take a step back and see what's happening, call the media and put in the hard work of calling 20, 50 etc outlets. I realized the importance of that, and did not enjoy that part nearly as much. I feel most comfortable being directly in the action. Important to recognize how many roles need to be filled.

5. Organizers burn out when opposing ableism isn't prioritized

  • Non-disabled organizers are impacted by ableism too. Oppressive systems have their own way of defining what value and care mean, and who is deserving, and when.
      • Internalized ableism uses productivity and sameness to define our worth. Doing too much to achieve too much can lead to burnout; a major problem in movement spaces.
  • Disabled queer and trans communities of colour have already been preparing for the survival of their communities through disasters. They teach each other skills in resilience-based, care-based organizing to strategically create the changes that we need for our futures. These skills are necessary for other organizers to learn from. [6]
  • Learning from other multiply marginalized people, I've found amazing community. There is so much love, support and sustainability in these relationships. I wouldn't be here in the ways I am without these friends, because they've supported me when I needed support or solutions. Turning to my disabled friends and comrades is one of the best ways to get something done. Finding that community to sustain yourself and co-conspire with you, and recognize what you're going through, is key.

As described by Aerik Woodams at People's Hub, individual access is often framed as extra work; that there are 'more important things to address'. Disabled and otherwise marginalized people ask us to do things differently. This might feel like work at first, but these efforts benefit all of us by giving us more strength, understanding and tools to build a better world. 

If you have any suggested revisions or additional resources to share related to the above content, please email them to kenzie@lehub.ca.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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