"We can turn this around": Bristol's plan for a Green and Accessible Future

Plus: Floods in South Africa and systemic roots of climate breakdown

Hey Debriefers,

Áine here. Many thanks for the encouraging feedback on my first Debrief contribution last month, on responses to climate change leaving disabled people behind.

There's nothing inevitable about that reality, when proactive planning happens and disabled leadership is harnessed. Today I bring you an interview with an organiser of disabled-led climate planning in Bristol, England, about what she learned creating the city's plan for a green and accessible future.

Before that, I've got a few reflections on developments in the climate arena, recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa, and why we should be paying attention to the links between colonialism and climate change.

I can bring you these under-reported perspectives on disability and climate thanks to reader support. And if you missed it, here's Peter's most recent disability news buffet.

Before we dive in… this month I also wrote about why New Zealand and Australia's ableist migration policies need to be scrapped. The same week, the story of one family impacted by those policies went viral and was featured in the Guardian. Your support in posting or tweeting to spread the word on these injustices is appreciated!

April has been a big month for climate news, with another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on climate action. Last time I wrote about how the IPCC refers to disability. We also had Earth Day. Like many climate justice organisers, I'm not a fan of the commercial, whitewashed and greenwashed exercise Earth day has become, so I'll spare you on that topic.

That said, Earth Day is as good an excuse as any to explore this extensive, high-quality collection of international climate stories, newsletters and more, which have been selected as finalists for the Covering climate Now journalism awards. Part of expanding and deepening our understanding of the complex links between disability and climate involves diving into how wider climate conversations are evolving, and in particular how frontline communities are being impacted now. After all, every frontline community includes disabled people.

Impacts of South Africa's floods on disabled people

Also in April, floods in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal have left devastation in their wake, killing over 443 people and destroying countless homes and livelihoods. With adequate planning and resourcing in place, such large-scale loss should not be inevitable. But the impacts are particularly stark given that the city where they were centred, eThekwini, has had a climate change plan since 2014.

So far the only coverage of how disabled people were doing which I could track down, in English, resulted from this government media advisory. Social Development officials distributed relief supplies to a church which blind people living in a residential facility have been evacuated to. One of the residents is quoted as being thankful for the staff ensuring their timely evacuation and saving their lives. The Deputy Minister talks about the need for disaster preparedness and response to better meet the needs of people with disabilities. So far, the Government response appears to be limited to “hand[ing] over relief supplies to the affected families and directing social workers to provide psycho-social support”.

During a previous round of flooding in Durban three years ago, an article highlighted how the disaster exacerbated the precarity of inaccessible housing, long wait times for essential modifications and a lack of employment opportunities.

IPCC names systemic roots of climate breakdown

Fossil fuel industry lobbyists and politicians stalling action are often successful at shifting blame for climate breakdown and inaction away from themselves and onto everyday people. So it's a big deal that the world's most authoritative climate body has now made it clear that while individual lifestyle changes can be consequential particularly among the wealthiest, it's these coal, oil and gas interests and lack of political will which are really holding us back.

As this excellent read on eco ableism from Catrina Randall of Young Friends of the Earth Scotland reminds us:

“Individual behaviour change as a climate solution on its own is always going to be ableist and exclusionary. There are so many marginalisations that lead to barriers to engaging with lifestyle change – disability, poverty, class, geographical access to name a few. One size fits all will never work. More importantly it puts the onus on individuals, not on the systems and powers who are causing the problem (many of us will be familiar with the stat that 71% of emissions are caused by just 100 companies).”

Meanwhile, the second part of the IPCC report (the climate impacts one), names colonisation as a climate change cause for the first time in over 30 years of IPCC assessments. As indigenous activists have been pointing out for decades, colonisers and their descendents have exploited indigenous land, resources and peoples for centuries.

Indigenous disabled journalist and organiser Jen Deerinwater has written for Truthoutt and recently spoken about the compounding injustices indigenous communities are up against and their disabling effects. Research and perspectives from multiple indigenous communities show the ongoing environmental illness and injustices resulting from fracking, oil pipelines, radioactive nuclear waste, military activity, and mining on indigenous lands. Many of these activities needlessly exacerbate food insecurity and water shortages.

As Jen highlights, across the globe “[t]he potential impact to the health of indigenous people lies heavily in the hands of government and corporate entities that often steamroll over tribal sovereignty.” For instance, the fossil fuel industry is responsible both for eroding traditional indigenous knowledge and ways of life, while indigenous people end up taking up manual labour jobs in that same industry because of the pay. Jen notes that figures from an unreleased United Houma Nation study strongly suggest that this work is in turn leading to increased likelihood of illnesses and disability, including hypertension, asthma and depression. It's critical that indigenous disabled voices are central to how we understand and act on the harms climate change causes within our communities.

Also, the concerted efforts made to embed indigenous perspectives into the IPCC report suggest where the efforts of disabled scholars and organisers could be focused in order to speed up similar focus on disability. As Yessenia Funes reports for Atmos, a paper was published last year setting out climate impacts on indigenous communities in a form eligible to get cited by the IPCC. There's also now a mechanism for indigenous and local communities to input into the report process, which the IPCC author who crafted the language around colonialism in the report described to Atmos as a “game changer”.

This time, the IPCC report authorship was more diverse in other ways too, with more women scientists, scientists of colour and social scientists included. So with that in mind, it must be time to start figuring out how disabled scholars and those in the disability/climate field can get a prominent word into the IPCC's next assessment cycle.

Bristol's disabled community get organised on climate

In many cities across the world, local administrations are putting in place plans for a more sustainable, climate-friendly future. But there's a problem. There's no guarantee these plans won't make new barriers for disabled people, or rely on eco-ableist assumptions like the idea that transitions to car-free cities don't pose extra barriers for disabled people.

Around the world, large-scale infrastructure projects will transform urban environments in the effort to transition to a low-emissions future. That means it's a crucial time to be embedding accessibility into these plans, rather than having to retrofit later. The city of Bristol in England is setting an example of what this can look like.

Bristol Disability Equality Forum, an organisation led by disabled people themselves, has worked with the Bristol City Council, community groups, and most importantly, lots of disabled people, to co-produce a community climate action plan setting out how Bristol can become both green and accessible.

That's a big question which deserves a holistic response, and this plan is a visionary yet practical document which I think rises to that challenge. It sets out actions across transport, housing, energy, food and gardening, waste, nature, jobs and more. It's divided into city-led and community-led actions, which is a useful way of ensuring that both the city and disabled community both take proactive roles in climate action that work well together. The plan is available as an accessible PDF, in Easy Read, and in British Sign Language.

How did Bristol do it?

If any other cities are working on disabled-led climate action plans, please do let me know about them. This level of community-led planning is not the norm for disabled people, yet, and Bristol's example highlights the benefits of resourcing communities to co-produce plans which ensure their needs and expertise are centred. For that reason, I wanted to find out and share more about how Bristol's plan came about, and what other disabled people's organisations and local administrations could learn from this process.

I emailed Dr Emma Geen, project coordinator at Bristol Disability Equality Forum, who has generously shared background and insights on her experience. Here's our exchange.

Key ingredients

Áine: What were the key ingredients that made it possible to develop this plan?

Emma: The work was done by the Bristol Disability Equality Forum, which is a DPO [Disabled People's Organisation] that has been around since 1994 and has good links in the city and made it possible to reach lots of Disabled people. The plan was made as part of the Community Climate Action Plan project held by the Bristol Green Capital Partnership that supported 6 disadvantaged communities in Bristol to create their own plan. This meant that they got funding from the National Lottery for us to do the work.

It also meant we had a good link person to the council who could loop me in with whoever I needed to talk to. We were also supported by the Centre for Sustainable Energy. The connections were very useful and nice to have but another DPO could do the same work without them if they can get a grant to pay someone to do the work. I'm employed three days a week for the job.

Outreach strategies

Áine: What strategies did you use for reaching out widely within the disabled community, to get a range of disabled people's input for co-producing the plan, including to folks who may have never engaged explicitly/knowingly on climate action before?

Emma: Bristol has promised to go net-zero by 2030, this means that big changes are coming to Bristol that will impact Disabled people, on things like driving, buses, heating houses and jobs, whether they care about climate change or not. So we told people that you need to get involved so that we make sure that these changes are good for us and don't make new barriers.

The outreach was tricky because it was rolled out when lockdowns were still happening but we tried to get around this by doing as many types of outreach as possible. We went through our communication channels with members, we went to disability groups when they started running and through other DPOs in the city that are impairment specific, we had an online survey and a paper survey, we made a project video with British Sign Language and subtitles and posted that to people, we had a stall in the street and invited people to chat with us over tea.

We also had sharing sessions where we brought Disabled people together with subject experts to discuss specific themes, like food while having a picnic.

Top take-aways

Áine: What are 2 or 3 top take-aways you learned from the process of developing the plan, which might be useful for other DPOs or other city stakeholders looking to set up something similar in collaboration with disabled people?


  1. Frame climate change about the things that Disabled people care about and highlight how acting on climate change in the right way can be good for Disabled people. There is going to be a lot of money going into work around climate change in the next couple of decades and there are going to be huge infrastructure changes. So this is a huge opportunity to get accessibility right.
  2. Meet people where they are. That's physically going to the places Disabled are, instead of expecting them to come to you, and meeting them wherever they are in their feelings about climate change.
  3. Coproduction is really important, so as well as staff we have a voluntary steering group of Disabled people with different impairments and backgrounds. Their guidance was vital when we were turning all the data we had into a plan that could work for everyone.

Putting it all together

Áine here again. While looking over the plan, and also the video and materials telling disabled people it was happening, the use of plain language and concrete examples in the messaging stood out to me. The organisers were clear about why disabled people need to get involved, now, and made a point of going to where disabled people were and providing lots of ways for people to share their views. They also had good buy-in from the city and specific funding for the project.

I know I've found this concrete example of how disabled people are getting organised to put a green and accessible future on the agenda very helpful in my own thinking and planning for local climate action. I hope it's a useful conversation-starter for you too.

I want to close with some final reflections from Emma on claiming our place in climate action as disabled people:

“I think a lot of people feel hopeless right now, about climate change and disability rights. I feel very afraid sometimes too. But we can turn this around. There are solutions to climate change and they can be made accessible, what's lacking is the political will, but that's where raising our voices can make a huge difference.

Disabled people are great at the imaginative problem solving that is needed to tackle climate change because we have to do this kind of thinking everyday to get around an ableist society. So our true place in the issue is not as victims but leaders. Look at the most famous of all climate change activists Greta Thunberg who is autistic.”

The people and companies out there who are trying to stop action on climate change want us to feel hopeless because that makes their work easy. The active hope of not giving up is a really important political act. We can do this if we all come together.


Many thanks to Dr Emma Geen for generously sharing her insights and learnings with Disability Debrief.

The newsletter is supported by reader contributions, which made this edition possible. Thanks to new support from Laurel and Simon. Thanks, as ever, to Tan Kuan Aw who drew the newsletter logo.

Disability Debrief is produced by Peter Torres Fremlin and this edition was written by me, Áine Kelly-Costello.