Nexus: Making the Environment, and Environmentalism, Accessible

by Alissa Norman, Community Advocate Tri-County Independent Living

One definition of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” In order to truly do this, we need to look at the needs of everyone in our community, especially the most vulnerable and those who have typically been left out of the conversation. People living with disabilities have often been a forgotten and ignored aspect of society… especially when planning for the future. 

Other than federally required accommodations on public services buildings, accessibility to the environment is largely ignored. Yet accessibility is what people living with disabilities want. When it comes to the natural environment, we don’t just want sustainability, we also want accessibility. 

To preserve what makes the earth functional and beautiful, while making it available to those who have the least amount of access to it, should be our goal as a society. The physical and psychological benefits of being in the natural world are well documented and we need to take steps to make sure those benefits are not just available to the privileged. 

An added bonus is that when we increase accessibility to natural spaces, we also increase the number and diversity of people advocating for and protecting those spaces, so increased accessibility can actually lead to increased sustainability. 

Social justice has long been used to create equally accessible, beautiful, environmentally healthy spaces for populations previously not allowed access to our natural world.

How we value our environment guides environmental policy, just as how we value disability guides accessibility. How about we start making beautiful spaces accessible to all? One in seven people globally have some form of disability, but much like Indigenous people, people of color and poor people, they are often left out of the conversation about how to address the environmental issues that impact them. To be truly just, the environmental justice movement needs to involve people with disabilities.  

If we include accessibility and sustainability into all the plans for development, then we create a natural progression towards inclusion in our environment. Many of the steps we could take as a community to reduce emissions, for example, could also benefit the disability community and people with lower incomes. More than half of our greenhouse gas emissions in Humboldt County come from transportation. 

Increasing transit lines and decreasing transit fares could encourage more people to opt for public transit while benefiting those who use it because they must. Now imagine if those increased transit lines stopped at accessible beaches and parks, facilitating not only the enjoyment of natural spaces, but also increased interaction between people from different backgrounds.

The mission of Tri-County Independent Living is to promote the philosophy of independent living, to connect individuals with services, and work to create an accessible community, so that people with disabilities can have control over their lives and full access to the communities in which they live. Full access doesn’t just mean access to natural spaces, but also access to the groups and movements that are working to protect them. When we are connected with one another and work collaboratively, regardless of disability, race, culture or class, everyone benefits.


Making Environmentalism More Accessible

By Caroline Griffith

Fifteen percent of the world’s population have some sort of disability, and many of these people are also living on the front lines of the environmental justice movement due to the intersections of disability and poverty. In order for the environmental justice movement to be successful, it needs to include and uplift the voices and talents of people with disabilities. Here are some concrete ways we can make our work and activism more accessible:

-Recognize that not all disabilities are visible. Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. There are hidden disabilities such as visual and auditory impairments, chronic pain and Asperger’s Syndrome that can impact how people interact with this work. So we need to regularly ask if people need accommodations and listen when they tell us what they need.

-Think about space. Don’t plan meetings for upper floors without elevators. Recognize that there are people, like those on the autism spectrum, who may have a hard time being packed in a small room with other people. If you are asking someone who uses a wheelchair to speak at a rally, make sure they can actually access the stage.

-Make sure your website is compatible with site reading technology, which converts text to speech for people who have limited vision. WordPress and Square sites generally come compatible with site readers. Google Docs are not, so when sharing documents convert them to Word. Graphics can also get in the way for people with vision impairments. Bigger fonts can be helpful.

-When having actions or events, give a physical description that is more than just the address. Describe location (across from park, up some steps, etc.). Have a rideshare system set up if the location is not on a bus line. Asking people who don’t drive to rely on paying for a cab or Uber or Lyft is exclusionary and also not an option in rural areas. Think of actions that aren’t visually oriented or social media based.

-If you are able to offer ASL (sign language) interpretation, make sure that is noted on any promotional materials. Often, people who use ASL interpretation (which we should think of as a tool for facilitating communication to help those of us who don’t know ASL) won’t go to an event if it doesn’t clearly and explicitly offer interpretation. If they need to request interpretation, make that clear.

-Venues must always be wheelchair accessible. Are the doors too heavy? Are they wide enough? Are the bathrooms accessible? Can speakers in wheelchairs access the stage? Are refreshment tables accessible? Can people who use wheelchairs easily mingle with those who don’t?

-In meetings, introduce yourself and use your name when speaking so people whose vision is limited (blindness is a spectrum) know who is speaking. 

These are only a few of the ways we can work to make the environmental movement more accessible. The important thing is to have open and honest conversations and listen when people tell us what they need. We need all hands on deck for this movement to be successful, so it’s time to make sure it’s accessible to everyone.