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Unveiling Eco-Ableism: The Hidden Costs of Green Policies on Disability Communities

Discover the unseen impacts of 'eco-ableism' as green policies collide with the needs of people with disabilities.

By Dr Cathy Mungall-Baldwin Guest Author · 28th March, 2024
Wooozxh Emn Zy Cj Hhgs Unsplash


When well-intentioned green policies go wrong, who bears the costs? Dr Cathy Mungall-Baldwin, a behavioural science and public health consultant and member of our network working group on Disabilities, Intersectionalities, and Eco-Social Contracts, shares her personal experience of how eco-ableism can impact people with disabilities, and what happens when 'eco' and 'social' perspectives aren't considered together by policymakers.

The Unintended Consequences of Green Policies

Leith Shore, my neighbourhood in Edinburgh, won the 2023 Great Neighbourhood Award for best in the UK and Ireland for its heritage and “community spirit”. As a climate change activist with disabilities who advises governments on equitable and climate-smart urban development, I’ve experienced a dark side. In May 2023, a low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) was implemented in Leith by the City of Edinburgh Council (ECC). LTNs aim to reduce car use and encourage ‘active travel’. I awoke in shock to the pedestrianisation of the road outside my flat’s gate, removing pick-up/drop-off access.

Whilst it's crucial to reduce air and noise pollution and road traffic accidents, Transport for All's Pave the Way research survey outlines the negative impacts on people with disabilities (PWD) and older people who cannot walk, cycle or ‘wheel’; or for whom crowded streets or pavements with multimodal active travel cause stress (forms of autism) or who cannot see the changes or hear pedestrians and bicycles. Vital car journeys to access food, medicine, healthcare and social support can be contravened.

Fighting for Disability Rights in Urban Development

A mobility-impaired, dyslexic recovering from stroke, housebound and asleep in 2022, ECC’s consultation didn’t reach me. No door knocks or contact with Disabled (Blue Badge) drivers; leaflets were accidentally printed in tiny inaccessible font but not reprinted. The ex-ante Integrated Impact Assessment (IIA) lacked data about PWD. No member of Edinburgh Access Panel, who highlighted five generic negative impacts on PWD, resided in Leith. I faced a main road diversion of up to 20 minutes in traffic to park in my building’s underground car park. I couldn’t always manage this, with limited neurological energy.

I spoke to the press, and funded my carer[1] to advocate to ECC as no cash-strapped local advocacy agency could help. In contacting friends and therapists to testify to the mental health effects I suffered, my carer mistakenly stated that we wanted to eradicate the LTN. I rectified this five minutes later, “No, we just want consideration under the UK’s Equality Act 2010,” but one able-bodied ‘friend’ rubbished the sincerity of my climate change work and refused to meet. ECC eventually restored drop-off access outside my gate. As volunteers, we spoke with 11 other PWD struggling with the LTN and related local schemes, and shared their accounts and troubling findings from our ’social model of disability’ analysis of the IIA with ECC and legal organisations.

I briefly had to park illegally until given an exemption but without visual evidence. I received five erroneous parking tickets. Neighbours photographed and ‘shamed’ my car on Facebook and wrote nasty stories about me, a hate crime under local law. Someone anonymously reported me to the driving license agency as unfit to drive. My NHS doctors’ time was wasted writing medical reports although I’d been cleared to drive. ECC refused the visual evidence of my parking exemption until I threatened legal action, my MP intervened, and an ambulance trip to hospital diagnosed ambiguous symptoms as PTSD triggered by these events. Legal organisations told me about apparent legal violations and offered their services.

Climate change mitigation schemes designed by able-bodied people prioritise their user needs. PWD are the most negatively impacted by climate change and the least included in decision-making about climate policies.”

Serious social injustices are raised

'Wheeling' - the oversimplification of disability: Mobility impairments vary across a vast spectrum between full-time wheelchair user and slight walking impairments. Not all wheelchair users can ‘wheel’ distances. Upper body impairments, manual wheelchairs/funding/maintenance problems with electric wheelchairs limit this option. Hostile and inaccessible public transport systems pose usage barriers for PWD, e.g. long distances to transport stops, single wheelchair spaces on buses and trains with competition from pushchairs/buggies, negative attitudes towards invisible or variable disabilities, the cold, inability to queue or carry bags, and no seats.

'Ecoableism' - denounced by the UN, Scottish NGOs and a neighbouring local authority: Climate change mitigation schemes designed by able-bodied people prioritise their user needs. PWD are the most negatively impacted by climate change and the least included in decision-making about climate policies. Engineer-led IIAs don’t differentiate between the preferences of able-bodied residents and PWD’s lack of choice over mobility and travel. A sociologist wouldn’t be asked to design a road so why leave welfare issues to an engineer? Due diligence fails when PWD are not directly consulted and key publications
ignored. We are guinea pigs in an experiment left to squeal and fight negative access, health, and economic impacts whilst councils slowly apply selective retrospective mitigations. PWD are caught between vilification for essential car use dependence, and the inaccessibility of electric vehicle charging points and unaffordability of electric cars.

Negative attitudes and disability discrimination: There is a culture of entitlement that if PWD have “special privileges”, others should too. The rise of internet trolls has allowed individuals to use online public forums to judge others and win the approval of the mob through accumulating ‘likes’, whether or not their aspersions are grounded in truth, morality or accurate medical knowledge. This spurious moral policing incites this entitlement, making people with unseen and variable disabilities an easy target.

This blog was published as part of our Global Research & Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract, a joint project with UN-RISD, supported by funds received from the European Union.

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