An unfair burden
When it comes to our duties as conscientious beings, we aren’t given any concessions. As individuals, we are equally responsible for ‛saving the planetʼ. Cut down on consumption. Use greener alternatives. While big multinational companies and the capitalist systems that power them can get away with man-made disasters which irreversibly damage our ecosystem. Disabled people are very familiar with this model of injustice. Society systematically excludes persons with disabilities, creates barriers for them, makes them powerless, and then puts the onus of survival on disabled individuals.
Disabled people have been asked to make sacrifices ‘to save the planet’ frequently, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Plastic straws became the prime enemy of everyone doing ‛climate activismʼ and were replaced by the ‛eco-friendlyʼ paper straws, without any consideration for many disabled people who could not drink without plastic straws. It was as if their consent was never required. And that is the overall feeling one gets when the planet is being ‘saved’ by individuals. Disabled people are seldom even included in this decision making and policies around climate change rarely take into consideration the most vulnerable populations, which include persons with disability.
As a disabled and chronically ill person, the idea that you can save the planet or that you are not doing enough only leads to guilt. For example, I have to regularly use diapers whenever I go out, and apart from the social stigma, it bothers me that these diapers might not be biodegradable. I have had dreams of rows of diapers upon diapers, becoming part of mountains of garbage, failing to wither away, turning into shame. To put things into context, there is no way I can go out for work or social engagement without wearing diapers since my bowel and bladder are adversely affected by my disability. A diaper provides me with a sense of security and confidence to step out. In India, adult diapers are very expensive and other biodegradable options are not available. Even when they are available, I wonder if I would be able to afford them. The welfare provided by the state machinery to disabled people is completely insufficient to even cover the cost of food for everyday consumption. How can you afford diapers? And why should I be guilt-ridden about this while the world around me engages in unimpeded consumption?
The idea of moral decision-making is much more complicated for persons with disability, even more so when you live in a country like India where disability and mental health policy is driven by tokenism rather than action. We barely have any welfare support and even the basic protections offered by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, are out of reach of the majority of the disabled population. Lack of awareness and stigma of disability only leads to exclusion. The situation is likely to get worse depending on your class, caste, and gender. While there is shared responsibility on all of us, it is also true that the disabled will face comparatively worse consequences of climate change when compared to able-bodied individuals.