A just transition for disabled people

A disability lens on greening economies and society

Hey Debriefers,

Áine here. Thanks to so many of you who shared how my piece on the meeting of disability and climate resonated.

Climate chaos is forcing the world to reckon with large-scale economic and societal restructures. As the Climate Justice alliance warns, transition is inevitable, but justice is not.

I took the idea and framing of “just transition” as a starting point for this edition. I explore a series of snapshots from different geographies and communities trying new things, offering hope as well as impetus to continue resisting harm.

As the International Labour Organization says, a just transition "presents a unique opportunity to advance decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty". In its fullest sense, this relies on cross-movement solidarity. It's a chance to move beyond cycles of compounding inequities to possibilities of flourishing.

Some of the initiatives I illustrate in this edition come from fantastic people I've been talking with on the Enabling Commons podcast. It features conversations at disability and climate intersections and season two, hosted by me, is coming out now.

Disability Debrief is supported by the people and organisations that read it. Thanks to a new contribution from Isolina. Our climate series is supported by CBM Global.

Leaving disabled people behind

In the 2021 Glasgow climate negotiations, the Just Transition Declaration recognised the need to ensure no one is left behind in the transition to net zero economies. It explicitly included persons with disabilities in that.

In reality, consideration of disabled people's rights and our meaningful involvement in just transitions planning and initiatives is often absent. This has been picked up in reports from the ILO, the European Disability Forum, Spanish disability advocacy organisation CERMI, and resources for disabled people about green jobs funded by the US Department of Labour.

Priorities include combatting the un- and under-employment of people with disabilities, investing in inclusive upskilling opportunities, tackling energy poverty, accessible infrastructure and transport, and designing robust social protection measures which account for the impacts of both climate disruption and transition policies.

Equity means going beyond a narrow focus on directly impacted workers to a view on whole of community transitions, and disabled people's insights within them. One example of emerging work exploring an Indigenous and community-led view on transition work is being carried out by the Western Australia Climate Justice Union and Edith Cowan University in partnership with Wilman Elders and members of the historically coal-centred town of Collie.

As well as calling for clean industries with stable and fair employment, their forthcoming report calls for "address[ing] structural barriers to employment such as caring responsibilities, racism and access needs." Its recommendations extend to centring Indigenous voices and knowledges, inclusive community engagement and disaster response, and ensuring basic infrastructure and services like accessible public housing, healthcare, therapy and disability support are sustainably developed and well-resourced.

Living off the land

Worldwide, agricultural work like farming, fishing and forestry is an income mainstay, especially for people in low-income countries and people living in poverty. Their livelihoods are disproportionately affected by climate impacts already, whether from unpredictable weather extremes, from droughts and floods impacting crop yield, or extreme heat making outdoor work unsafe.

These conditions are leading to food insecurity and water rationing for people with disabilities in the Pacific, where farmers also experience challenges relocating plantations to more fertile soils. Under such conditions, the shift towards inclusive ecological agricultural practices becomes imperative.

In India, Pavan Muntha is a climate resilience trainer who works with farmers, with and without disabilities, to provide training on regenerative farming models. His focus is equipping families and people with disabilities in rural areas to live off the land in a sustainable way which promotes ecological land use, supports their livelihoods, and yields nutritious food.

On the Enabling Commons podcast, Pavan explained to me that the approach taken emphasises ecological models which don't cause harm.

"By doing away with chemical farming, we will not be contaminating our water or air, we will not be contaminating our plants, and we will not be contaminating our food."

Upskilling the farmers serves as an opportunity to shift mindsets to focus on holistic solutions.

"When we do these trainings, we give them a comprehensive knowledge of what climate change means and what inherited knowledge means and what sustainability means and [how] all these really impact their livelihoods when you see livelihoods in relation to the other species," he says.

"That is where I have seen a major shift in the approach, when they realise that unless these animals, birds, microbial populations, our water systems, air and drinking water, irrigation water--[unless] all these things are protected, it is impossible for human beings to survive."

Pavan says the collective endeavour of farming lends itself well to people with disabilities taking part when responsibilities are distributed among families. Farm activities he's seen them involved in include helping to identify and process the best seeds, sewing seeds, grazing and caring for the health of animals, packaging, and food processing. Within the wider operation, other people can gain income from shops for producing organically-prepared pesticides or for the production and maintenance of farming tools.

Disabling climate impacts

The impacts of environmental damage and climate disruption, including in regards to livelihoods, can be disabling. Just transitions need to account for this. The health impact of environmental racism is acutely felt by workers and communities of colour forced to breathe in the pollution from extractive coal, oil and gas production.

Calls from health bodies to end fossil fuel reliance are laudable, but construing a relationship which singularly portrays environmental illness as a health--and by implication, cost--burden on economies and health workforces misses what queer disabled writer Eli Clare calls a "a broad-based, multi-issue politics of chronic illness and disability… [which would] locate injustice in many places all at once". As he writes in his book Brilliant Imperfection, "cure also requires dismantling racism, poverty and environmental injustice."

In Honduras and Nicaragua, coastal fishing has long been a core livelihood activity for the indigenous Miskito people, but overfishing has depleted stocks. This has led both to environmental impacts on the oceans and health impacts for the divers who've had to go deeper to catch fish and lobster. Many have acquired Decompression Syndrome, a disabling condition with significant neurological and mobility impacts, to which some divers have lost their lives.

After advocacy from Miskito organisations, the International Human Rights Commission acknowledged that the Honduran government was violating work safety rights. Partnerships between funders and organisations on the ground including the Association of Honduran Miskito Divers with Disabilities and Fondo Tierra Viva have led to rehabilitation and treatment provision for the divers with disabilities, along with efforts to assist family members of disabled divers to generate income. Regardless of the industry, workers with pre-existing or acquired disabilities whose jobs cease to exist or are no longer viable for them should be entitled to income security.

In the Pacific Islands, people with disabilities reliant on fishing are also at a disadvantage when it comes to adapting. Fish catch has decreased significantly due to climate impacts like rising sea temperatures along with waste contamination and overfishing. This has pushed fishing further offshore, and in Kiribati, research from the Pacific Disability Forum reports people with disabilities being unable to access loans to buy the boats with outboard engines typically used. It's also noted that deaf people may avoid using the outboard engines due to the dangers of not being able to hear when a mechanical problem occurs whilst out in the open sea.

New work in clean energy

As clean energy jobs are reaching into the tens of millions, disabled people are still under-represented within them. That's according to this US-based paper from The Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, an initiative which collaborates with government, the clean energy sector, advocacy organisations and other stakeholders to "help make clean energy apprenticeship programs more inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities".

As they highlight, the range of jobs in the industry is considerable as the sector covers everything from converting building heating systems to heat pumps, installing efficient lighting alternatives, solar energy installation, assembling electric vehicles, developing more energy-efficient building materials and working on the battery manufacturing supply chain. Ensuring vocational and apprenticeship programmes are accessible and inclusive is a prerequisite to getting more disabled people into these roles.

We need to be cautious about technological innovation intended to meet disabled people's needs. It spans the gamut from products and tools with wide uptake from our community to so-called innovations that do not in fact serve disabled people, which Liz Jackson has aptly termed “disability dongles”. Well-intentioned climate action initiatives can easily reproduce such problematic dynamics.

One example of where innovations have been explored is the 2022 ICT 4 Inclusion initiative in India. It solicited proposals from start-ups in India on 'mitigating the impact of climate change on people with disabilities". One of the selected winners was described as "an interactive AI enabled information access and social networking platform generating personalized alerts and mitigation strategies, to support older persons and persons with disabilities". The other was an AI-powered chatbot designed to inform people with disabilities in multiple Indian languages about climate change.

A stronger focus on justice could involve people with disabilities being paid, at market wages, to design and test out solutions, including technology-based ones, which could benefit their own local disability community. This principle applies to so-called eco-friendly products too, such as moves to phase out single-use plastics which tend to marginalise disabled people who are reliant on items like plastic straws to drink.

Segregation and rubbish work

Historically, disabled people's employment options have frequently been confined to sheltered workshops or other segregated options with extremely limited choices of work, receiving miserly salaries well below (theoretical) minimum wage levels. People with intellectual disabilities, in particular, still frequently work in these settings.

Economic transitions can be an opportunity to reform segregated approaches and demeaning conditions. They can also end up rebranding the status quo and putting more money into sheltered work.

A more positive example is Will&Able, a New Zealand social enterprise primarily employing people with an intellectual disability. They create cleaning products with eco-friendly packaging and employees with disabilities are paid market rates. That message is included on the product packaging, made out of recycled milk bottles. While it's still a segregated setting, they are working towards employing 100 disabled people and aiming to provide the employees a stake in the business via profit-sharing or ownership.

A questionable example is the French project SoliFoodWaste. It has a similar interest in ecological sustainability and the circular economy, and employs people with disabilities to divert food waste from landfill. However, it is based in sheltered workshops, and there is no mention of the wages the employees are earning. This is despite it being explicitly framed as a just transition project and receiving European Commission funding via the programme LIFE Environnement-Climat.

There are parallels with the exploitation that other workers can face in these areas, as seen in these calls from waste pickers to value their work. People who collect waste, including recycling, for a living are particularly susceptible to getting sick from toxic exposure to metals and burning plastics, and are perennially under-paid and working in conditions open to exploitation and abuse.

In Germany, a study of whether recycling workers in sheltered workshops faced toxic exposure from e-waste found hazardous substances to be at safe levels. That may be the only such study done. The question that motivates it urgently applies to millions of disabled people in sheltered working conditions, already rife for exploitation, getting swept under the rug.

Tackling energy poverty and access

There are many facets to making energy transitions work for disabled people, such as the need for reliable access to power during and in the aftermath of climate-fuelled disasters, energy affordability, and our access to renewable forms of energy.

Our community's disproportionate rates of poverty globally intersect with high reliance on energy usage for fundamentals like heating and cooling, powering mobility or medical equipment and due to being likely to spend more time at home.

After Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria in 2017, some people were without power for almost a year. In many countries including South Africa, load shedding involving regular rotating power outages is only becoming more pronounced. It is disproportionately disruptive and even life-threatening for some people with disabilities and health conditions, reliant on power for medical needs.

An initiative in Cyprus invests in tackling energy poverty disabled people face but a requirement for the proposed actions to be 20% co-funded by disabled people poses a (rather obvious) barrier. Disabled people can't enjoy the right to an adequate standard of living without reliable energy access and income security.

Green investments

The European Disability Forum highlights that funding for energy efficiency renovations and building accessibility should go hand in hand in Europe's Green deal. They spotlight examples of housing renovation in the Basque country in Spain, and in Bordeaux, France, which jointly aim to improve both.

When it comes to institutional and carceral structures, a more nuanced analysis is warranted. Investing in green transitions can bring ecological benefits but offers no guarantee of being transformative. On the one hand, such initiatives--for prisons at least--can divert massive amounts of waste from landfill, enhance access to nature or green care settings for prisoners and provide eco-friendly upskilling opportunities which may also serve prisoners well in future. On the other, improved green credentials become a form of legitimacy for imprisonment.

Institutions where disabled people are too often still confined face a similar paradox. While Living conditions do matter, Ines Bulić Cojocariu, Director of the European Network on Independent Living points out that green investments tend to overlook disability rights paradigms. She says they prolong the life of institutions. "This goes under the radar, because the organisations monitoring these funds do not necessarily know about the [UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities], segregation and similar."

Ines says that the separation between the world's of energy efficiency investment and of disability rights mean that disabled people's organisations find it difficult to track and monitor these funding streams. As usual, the intersections of climate and disability pose a challenge to those of us in policy and advocacy to move beyond systemic siloes.

Part of living in more sustainable ways for ourselves and for the planet looks like envisioning and investing in non-extractive and reciprocal models of care. This is something multiply marginalised disabled people, in particular, have paved the way for. Peter also picked up on this theme in a recent Debrief edition. "As we've found new forms of interdependence in our own lives," he wrote, "let's be part of making them in our societies."

Getting around

Transitions to low-carbon modes of transport risk adding to the already considerable inequities disabled people face.

Shared spaces, where pedestrians, micromobility like cyclists and e-scooter users, and cars share a more open space, are theoretically supposed to favour pedestrians and incentivise lower traffic speeds. However, they can create a form of unpredictability and lack of safety for many disabled footpath users. They need to have a clutter and car-free accessible zone, demarcated through both visual and tactile means.

As Karina Cardona, a disabled person who has researched mobility and ableism points out, the same can be said of active transport lanes. Their implementation can introduce new barriers like continuous curbs along the length of the lane, making transferring into vehicles challenging or impossible for wheelchair users.

A changing mobility landscape is creating new hazards. E-scooters can on the one hand provide a form of mobility which is extremely useful for some disabled people, but they are also virtually silent, speedy and sometimes inconsiderately-parked.

Low-carbon transitions are variously prioritising car-free zones and the switch to electric vehicles. Such moves are already jeopardising the availability of mobility parking and limiting where those with a legitimate need to travel by car are permitted to go. Disabled people's needs have to be taken into account, especially those of people reliant on driving for accessibility reasons. Equally, electric vehicles introduce new challenges due to their quietness at low speeds and also regarding the accessibility of both vehicle modifications and of charging infrastructure.

Drawing on scholar David Sibley's work on geographies of exclusion, Karina asks "who are spaces for, who do they exclude, and how are those prohibitions maintained in practice?" She is also a cyclist herself which is an easier way of getting around than walking for her. "I like the benefit of being able to use wheels in spaces I might not otherwise have been able to, but I also don't want my opportunities in safe cycling to be preventing other people in my community from living their lives," she says. "No one person's experience with disability will cover all the bases."

Beyond policy change

It's still rare for politicians to acknowledge disability as an integral component of just transitions frameworks and policies. Jaime from the Western Australian Climate Justice Union points to the intransigence of policy-makers to community-led approaches to transitions:

"They explicitly said they just needed to switch out a large economic driver for another and everything else would take care of itself including social justice concerns and reducing inequality.

"I think there is such a disconnect here between political rhetoric and grand statements and the ability of these systems to actually do the work needed - because they aren't employing disabled people, they aren’t employing local Aboriginal folk or working in equitable co-design / co-production ways."

Climate justice and workers rights advocates should join with the disability community and sector in calling for that to change.

During the 2021 Conference of State Parties (COSP) to the UN disability convention, Finland's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change proved to be one politician who was at least talking about the case for intersectional investments.

"When we invest in public transportation to reduce carbon emissions, we must invest in public transportation that is accessible to persons with disabilities," she said at the Conference.

"When we invest in innovation and technology, let’s make sure it is accessible and inclusive to persons with disabilities. When we invest in skills development in the green jobs sector, let’s make sure these programs are inclusive to persons with disabilities.”

Transitions are inherently messy, and not inherently just. At their best, they're a chance to move beyond resisting oppression to envisioning and planning for not merely policy change, but systems change. There has to be hope in that.

In solidarity, and with determination,



Many thanks to everyone who contributed to or helped shape this piece: Pavan, Jaime, Karina, Ines, Kamil, Stefan, Angela and Alexis. Many thanks to Peter for editing and refinement.

Thanks to the Disability-Inclusive Climate Action Research Program (DICARP) at McGill University for funding and providing a platform for the Enabling Commons podcast.

Thanks to the readers and organizations who support the Debrief and to CBM Global for funding my climate work for the Debrief.