Climate Justice implies Inclusive Justice - MHI




Climate Justice
implies Inclusive Justice

Climate Change needs to include
Issues of Disability Justice
and Mental Health at the
Centre of its Discourse

Abhishek Anicca


Amreeta Banerjee


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

Winters are difficult for me. My legs get numb without warning. The bladder develops its own routine. Walking becomes difficult on days. Pain becomes a regular feature of my scoliotic back. My disabled and chronically ill body wants to quit and go to a distant place where there is no winter, but these plans seldom work out. Lying in bed for days without an end brings me down. There are bad mental health days, too many of them to count. Anxiety and depression become two sides of the same coin and there are many days when mere survival seems difficult. This is only compounded by days of illness and recovery. Monsoon is no better. The roads are waterlogged and I can’t even step out. Even a wet floor may result in a sprain, or worse still, in a fracture.

The weather outside has an immediate impact on my physical and mental health. It always did but for the last few years, the weather seems erratic and unpredictable. 

Extreme temperatures. Unplanned rains and thunderstorms. My body and mind react adversely to these events. A fear grips my existence. I cancel more plans than I make. The idea of climate change impacting day-to-day lives seemed distant a decade ago but as the years roll by, we realise it’s right here, in our room, dictating our moods and the decisions we make.

The world is changing

If the subtle changes are not enough, you keep getting new warnings every day. Flooding cities, forest fires, and unbearable temperatures – disasters that one can ignore only if they are not ready to read the signs. As disabled people, we have more immediate, pressing needs, of course. Accessibility, healthcare, security, survival. The world around us is inaccessible. Many of us can’t even get to a school or a hospital. The healthcare system is crumbling and has little space to give special attention to persons with disabilities. We focus on survival.

The last two years have been very difficult for us. Living in a pandemic, through lockdowns, doing everything to protect ourselves and yet, depending on others for our basic needs. The wait for vaccines was long, and when they came, we grappled with inaccessible vaccination centres. Our lives had come to a halt. Many of us had comorbidities. We grappled with fear as we heard stories of people not being able to find a hospital bed. There was news of immuno-compromised friends dying every other day. No one prioritised disabled people’s well-being. We were out of sight and out of mind. If anything, this pandemic was a warning for all of us, a preview of how life might become in the face of impending disasters and climate change if we don’t prepare for it. That we might be forgotten.

Disabled people, like others in the margins, are always disproportionately affected by disasters. 
After the Nepal earthquake of 2015, I had this constant paranoia of not being able to get out of the building in case of the next earthquake. I lived on the first floor because I couldn’t find an affordable and accessible flat on the ground floor. Such paranoia is not uncommon among disabled friends. There is the constant fear of being left behind.

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.

Survival on the line

The able-bodied world loves to use war metaphors. A pandemic, a climate crisis, a mental health ‘epidemic’: everything turns into some kind of war. These wars often erase the experiences of disabled people who are fighting hard for our survival every day, against the state, against inaccessibility, against apathy, and sometimes against our own bodies. This is a lonely battle and there is never enough empathy to go around. 

With these larger ‛warsʼ looming over us, there is a persistent fear of fending for ourselves in disaster situations, our quest for survival reduced to a personal battle. When it comes to the system, you are left with more questions than you have the answers for. For example, with rising water levels many cities might be flooded. What will happen to disabled people in such situations? Will their rehabilitation and resettlement be a priority? What about rescue situations in disasters? With physical infrastructure being inaccessible in many countries across the world, will disabled needs be taken into consideration while planning disaster management?

All of these questions are only made complicated by the cost involved in barely surviving. Disabled people have difficulty finding employment. Many disabled people are forced to live in poverty, burdened by the expenses of medical care, and forced to depend on the entitlements given by their respective states, no matter how meagre they are. Their ‛productivityʼ is often questioned and utilitarian arguments strip them of their dignity. As we try to fight climate change and rebuild a better world, what will happen to the economic needs of the disabled? Free healthcare, disability pensions, and accessible workplaces are essential for the quality of lives that the disabled live. With the world falling apart, one fears that their basic needs might not remain the priority for governments across the world.

Climate change is already affecting marginalised populations across the globe. The question of climate justice must consider the present inequities which push disabled people into the margins and the possible ramifications of climate change on their day-to-day lives. That process won’t be possible unless they are given a seat at the table. Their voices have to be heard; their opinions have to be taken. The current discourse on climate change and disability is mainly focused on non-profit organisations and one worries that climate justice might end up becoming just a discussion driven by the global funding cycle. Climate justice for the disabled has to do more, not only as we await the crisis to become worse and prepare for disasters that may happen but also plan for a more equitable, accessible world for the disabled where they can live with dignity. There would be no climate justice in a world that is full of injustice and inequity, where disabled people are pushed to the margins every day. We have to start working on that right now, taking collective responsibility, with disabled people at the centre of every decision-making process.

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