Eco Ableism and Climate Justice: Addressing eco-ableism within the environmental movement.

I actually just discovered the term ‘eco-ableism’ today when I began to do some research for this blog post.  It is a good descriptor of what I see as a continued exclusion of disabled and marginalised people from the environmental movement.  The topic of ableism has been to the forefront of my mind for some time, partly because I have always felt this to be a social injustice but also, more recently, because the intersection of disability and climate have come to my attention in various ways.

Pale pink image with the text: Eco Abelism and Climate Justice, addressing eco-ableism within the environmental movement

Firstly, what is ableism?  The definition below from Access Living describes it well

‘Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.’

It should be noted that ableism isn’t always a conscious process (although it can be at times). It can manifest in a multitude of ways, like inadvertent exclusion, assumptions of inadequacy, or can simply be the act of centring a dominant narrative, which, within the environmental movement, often is middle class and white.

I was, some time ago, part of an Irish zero waste group on Facebook. Whilst there was much to be positive about, with well-intentioned efforts to reduce waste and care for the environment, there was also a great deal of rampant ableism. This made me uncomfortable to the degree that I eventually felt I had to leave the group. Unquestioning assumptions that all people have an equal level of ability, financial security and health meant that judgements of those outside that unspoken norm were frequent. Much of the debate centred around plastic straws and single use plastic, with very little acknowledgement of the needs of disabled people. According to this article from Impakter,

‘The focus on straws drew attention away from larger systemic issues that contribute to climate change such as changing government policy and holding large corporations accountable, and ignoring disabled people’s needs for plastic straws.’

Whilst the plastic straw debate is an obvious example, there are many more nuances to the single-use plastic/climate discussion. Those with disabilities (including invisible disabilities) may have motor coordination or mobility issues, chronic fatigue, sensory issues, lack of access to a variety of food supplies or diminished capacity due to mental health difficulties. To demonise the disabled person, instead of focusing on the source of the pollution and the inequalities that society creates for disabled people, is fundamentally wrong.

According to Cram et al., (2022),

‘Eco-ableism is the privileging of typically abled bodies and minds through environmental design, practices, and discourses (including stereotypes and bias against disabled environmental communicators). This hegemonic bias falsely assumes that there is only one correct or ideal form of personhood.’

This idea of having a ‘correct’ way of being leads to the exclusion of disabled people from policy planning and decision making, because unfortunately, representation of disabled voices is at best tokenistic. This tokenism is reflected in much of the conversation around climate and the issues that are discussed most often. I was very taken aback recently to see a tweet from an account I follow which was implying that charging for hospital parking would lead to people leaving their cars at home. To be fair, the full context was that infrastructure badly needs to be improved so that people have the option to bus or cycle to hospitals – which I fully agree with. However, it struck me as somewhat tone deaf to be using this particular example to illustrate the need for more active travel. Given that most people visiting hospital are either ill themselves, or visiting family who are ill, the circumstances are not ideal for focusing on the ‘how’ of making this journey in a sustainable way. 

 As a person who has dealt with a great deal of personal and family illness due to long-term health conditions, the level of stress and grief this brings is very hard to describe. And it fills up every part of your being, so that every other normal concern has to be cast aside for a little while. Tackling climate issues should never be done in a way that makes the lives of disabled or marginalised people even worse. I feel there is a certain flippancy about this, almost, as though integrating inclusion into climate policy or conversation is an afterthought or tick box exercise, instead of an essential component of any action. It’s crucial to look at the global picture also. According to the UN Refugee Agency,

’80 percent of persons with disabilities live in low and middle income countries, many of which are highly climate vulnerable.’

The article goes on to outline the myriad of ways in which disabled people are more vulnerable to climate change, from lack of access to information or education, the inability to move location, the greater impact of climate disasters and lack of accessibility of relief locations.

In this global arena, the lack of disabled voices in mitigating risk is likely to create further inequalities, simply because of assumptions of norms of social need. The heightened risks that disabled people will undergo are linked to the broad perspective of climate justice and intersectionality. Those countries who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are already feeling the bulk of the impact, and that impact is increased considerably if gender/race/ethnicity and/or disability are factored in. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I had completely a short Disability and Climate course created by Viatores Christi and the Abilis Foundation. I can highly recommend doing this free online course in order to get a perspective on the global impacts of climate change on disabled persons.

I feel that we need to begin to practice inclusion at home in order to create better equity for disabled people and a better understanding of how to address some of the global inequalities. As an autistic person with an awareness of many of the issues around disability, I have been in far too many environmental spaces which were blindingly white and with very little to no inclusion of disabled people.

A study examining ableism and disableism in the UK environmental movement speaks of the

‘ongoing exclusion experienced by disabled people with regard to pro-environmental activities’ (Fenney, 2017).

The study describes some of the barriers to inclusion such as physical access and access to information, as well as social barriers and ableist messaging, which is referred to here:

‘Implicit ableism in campaign messages and broader environmentalist debates was identified by research participants and also noted in the campaign materials of the environmental movement.’  

This refers (amongst other things) to a particular cycling promotion campaign which had the slogan ‘two wheels good, four wheels bad’.  

Whilst the slogan refers to cars, this kind of implicit messaging can have a negative consequence on wheelchair users. The study also refers to the judgement on sustainability issues that I mentioned above and outlines that ‘some participants in this research described judgemental attitudes about unsustainable aspects of their lifestyles from members of the environmental movement.’ This type of attitude can create barriers to involvement and as I mentioned earlier, on a personal level, this is something I have experienced myself, where the lack of understanding of disability issues made an environmental space less desirable for me.

From a climate justice perspective, we need to do much better in creating equitable spaces and organisations. Listening to disabled people is always a good starting point, as well as actively having genuinely inclusive policies and rules. Making it clear that a group or organisation welcomes disabled people is another means of bridging the gap, as well as reaching out to disability organisation and advocates for input.

Personally I have reached a point where I feel I can’t participate any longer in practices or groups which exclude disabled or marginalised people. As an autistic person with a different communication style to the neuro norm, I no longer have the energy to continually advocate for myself as well as doing climate work, as the toll on my energy is too great. Which is why it is so important to have allies who are willing to speak up, to be inclusive, and to fight against the prevailing ableism within the climate movement.


Baker-Wacks, S. (2022) What Is Eco-ableism And Why It Has No Place In The Climate Movement - Impakter, Impakter. Available at: (Accessed: 23 August 2023).

Cram, E., Law, M. P. and Pezzullo, P. C. (2022) ‘Cripping Environmental Communication: A Review of Eco-Ableism, Eco-Normativity, and Climate Justice Futurities’, Environmental Communication, 16(7), pp. 851–863. doi: 10.1080/17524032.2022.2126869.

Fenney, D. (2017) ‘Ableism and Disablism in the UK Environmental Movement’, environ values, 26(4), pp. 503–522. doi: 10.3197/096327117x14976900137377.

How Climate Change Disproportionately Impacts Those With Disabilities - World (no date) ReliefWeb. Available at: (Accessed: 23 August 2023).

Randall, C. (2021) Eco Ableism And The Climate Movement, Friends Of The Earth Scotland. Available at: (Accessed: 23 August 2023).

UNHCR (2021) Disability, Displacement And Climate Change | UNHCR, UNHCR . Available at:


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