The student-organized symposium, “Loving Our Planet Like We Should Love Each Other: Disability in the time of climate crisis” took place on March 9. The symposium, which offered live captioning and American Sign Language-English interpreting for panelists and attendees, was organized and hosted by the students of the Linguistics 102 course, shedding light on the resources and passions that can be mobilized amongst the University of Michigan’s student body. Though the focus was on the climate crisis, the conversation was particularly special in that it was mindful of the intersectional effects of racism, classism and ableism, and the panelists were well-equipped to speak on each matter.
The event opened with a land acknowledgement, noting that the broadcast took place from unceded Anishinaabe territories of Osawa, Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi) and Meskwahki-asa-hina (Fox) peoples. Additionally, the event was in memoriam of the many disabled people, Black and Indigenous community members and people of color who have died preventable deaths in the disaster that has been the COVID-19 pandemic and in honor of the students’ class member Steven Halland.
The symposium featured four panelists: Rafi Darrow, Izzy Laderman, Teddy Dorsette III and Sarah Young Bear-Brown.
Rafi explained that their experience with chronic migraines while living in a fire-prone area, amid climate chaos and bad air quality, has limited their access to the outside world, and has forced them to be strategic about when and how to go outside and engage. Rafi has set an intention to nurture solidarity between the chronically ill, neurodivergent, mobility-disabled and sensory-disabled communities through the Bay Area Disabled Dance Collective, of which they are a founding member. As well, they facilitate informative dialogue about disability justice and dance through the Sins Invalid Podcast, “Into the Crip Universe.”
Izzy, who described her personality as one of fairy lights and potted plants, spoke to her relationship with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. She attested to the fact that many disabled or ill people deal with more than just one disability, and her experience with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is accompanied by over 10 additional diagnoses. Izzy has embraced this indubitable pain to mobilize a community and is now the founder and director of Disability Awareness Around the Climate Crisis at only 17 years old. Through this platform, she informs the public on the intersections of disability and the climate crisis, as well as sex education.
Teddy immediately acknowledged his being Black and deaf are two inseparable identities in his life, as they are inseparable for all disabled people of color who have been limited by society and political authority. Like Izzy and Rafi, Teddy has dedicated his work to uplifting people who have been provided similar limitations as he. He is a social justice advocate, an entrepreneur and a filmmaker. As co-founder of Teddyboy Entertainment and Def Lens Media, he helps provide resources for others to nurture their creative skills and realize their dreams. For hard of hearing and deaf youth, he established Reel Def Entertainment, which is a non-profit that helps the youth pursue their creative arts interests. He is also the communications manager and an organizer at Detroit Disability Power.
Sarah is a member of the Fox Tribe of the Meskwahki nation in Iowa. Sarah is a social justice advocate, a political figure and a businesswoman. She has been an activist for the Indigenous Deaf community since 2014 and advocated for the No Dakota Access Pipeline organization at Standing Rock alongside 20,000 other advocates. Sarah has taken her platform into the political realm as the Vice-Chair for the Native American Caucus for the Iowa Democratic Party, and she is the founder of Gathering of Deafatives, an organization for the Indigenous deaf community. And, as a businesswoman, she creates and sells beadwork through her small business SAYBB Creations Beadwork.
Each panelist is active in their respective communities, fostering awareness and creating resources for the issues enforced unto them and their environments. Community activism has long been an essential part of safety and survival amid lower-income and disabled populations. This is largely because political and authoritative figures have failed to address disparities across all aspects of life and have often been the root of the matter. Though the plights presented to the disabled community vary, climate chaos is a frequent inhibition for those with disabilities when it comes to having access to day-to-day pleasures or when it comes down to survival.
It has become apparent that the climate crisis serves both as a genesis for disability and as a worsening factor of pre-existing conditions. Rafi spoke to their friends’ experiences with tick-borne Lyme disease, which they note has been on the rise across the country and is a result of climate change. Ticks would normally be killed off in lower temperatures; however, because of global warming, ticks now thrive in certain areas they didn’t used to inhabit. Rafi further explained that this is not new information, but that disabled people are publicly responding to what is happening around us all. Similarly, though Izzy’s condition is genetic and was not caused by the climate crisis, she has many peers whose conditions do lead back to the climate. She reiterated the necessity of recognizing the intersections of environmental racism, ableism and classism, noting that the people most oppressed by such systems often reside in close proximity to toxic pipelines, plants and other damaging infrastructures and meanwhile have less access to medical care. To reiterate this, Izzy described her friend, who lived near a trash-burning plant and had highly active asthma. When this woman moved to a middle-class white neighborhood, her asthma went away. People facing ableist conditions deal with more dire impacts of the climate crisis because of their proximity to the infrastructures causing the climate crisis, and because disabled people are two times more likely to be in poverty, this cyclic proximity to environmental danger is inarguably biased against their livelihood.
When these environmental threats are compounded with racism and ableism, there is often a lack of information distributed to those living amid the consequences of such systems. Teddy addressed the Flint water crisis as an example. He reflected on his time as the president of Detroit Black Deaf Advocates — during which the advocates sought access to clean water and other scarcely provided resources — noting that the deaf and disabled communities in Flint had less access to information and were more drastically impacted. Teddy said that people did not even know where or how to access safe supplies. In this case, deafness and Black-ness are simultaneously weaponized against individuals, limiting access to survival necessities. Sarah added that Indigenous people were struggling similarly amid the Flint water crisis and that this is not new; Indigenous communities across the country, such as in the Navajo Nation, have been suffering from water scarcity for years. Within the reservation, Sarah said there are 100,000 people living in extreme poverty without access to clean water, which further perpetuates disabilities. People have to walk far distances to get water bottles, and there are no cars, so as illnesses increase, the lack of accessibility to medical attention factors into an exacerbating death toll.
Rafi affirmed that in their hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., communities are gravely affected by poor air and water quality and that this is an apparent trend amongst majority Black, Indigenous or otherwise systemically oppressed communities, including lower-income populations. They went on to reference multiple environmental determinants that have caused harm to their community such as old factories causing asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Teddy notes that the impact of this air pollution has caused particular harm to Black women when considered alongside the neglect of Black maternal, physical and mental well-being.
Those disproportionately subject to the effects of the climate crisis, such as deaf and disabled communities, as well as racially and economically oppressed communities, are afforded fewer job opportunities, often of lesser pay, which limits their mobility to relocate to cleaner, more resource-filled neighborhoods. This being said, higher-paying jobs should not be the only way to save oneself from the climate crisis. A political, cultural and societal shift is required to stop neglecting lower-income communities and aspire to a cleaner environment for the planet and ourselves.
Teddy best summarized this when he said, “We’re already trapped in this rigid system, and that’s compounded by what is called our disability.” Rafi puts this simply, making it clear that “innately, disability justice cannot exist without racial justice.”
One of the larger issues to be addressed is the communication barriers that exist and limit the knowledge disabled communities, particularly disabled Black and Indigenous communities and people of color, receive about their own conditions and environments. Panelists acknowledged this drastic lack of accessible communication provided to those with relevant disabilities, which has consequently threatened survival for many. Specifically, Sarah condemned the United States government for the lack of interpreters present at the height of reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah recalled having to push Iowa state officials to provide interpreters during broadcasts and said she has to find her own interpreters when advocating or being publicly active, which is an expensive request.
“When there is no interpreter I am 100% locked out of information,” Sarah said. “I am lost, I have no idea what is happening, I don’t know where to go, I don’t know where to get help, I don’t have the information I need to survive.”
Unfortunately, according to Sarah, officials handling the COVID-19 pandemic were inconsistent with providing interpreters, noting sometimes they would be present, and then after a couple of press conferences, they would seemingly disappear again, flowing in and out with societal pressure. As a result, Sarah and many others were unable to understand the pandemic’s implications in full detail. She said she relied on her tribe for communication and information access regarding COVID-19, as she has relied on them so many times in the past when authorities have failed to consider inclusive accessibility.
The poor communication between officials and the deaf community manifested to the point where it became a matter of life-or-death for some disabled individuals. Teddy reflected on a deaf woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, that had contracted COVID-19, but communication barriers kept the medical staff from diagnosing her with it, and she later passed away from this preventable event. A similar incident happened in Detroit, Mich., with 71-year-old Joyce Davis. Davis went to Henry Ford Hospital for breathing complications in March 2020, but according to a family friend, the hospital did not realize she had COVID-19 until six days later. Davis, who was also deaf, expressed her frustration over not having access to an interpreter during her hospital stay. With communication resources such as interpreters, these and many other deaths could have been easily preventable.
Amid all of these barriers and limitations, communities have been politically disregarded but communally embraced, which has reinforced the importance of community engagement and aid, because it is continuously the most reliable system of care. Panelists expressed the significance of community and the responsibilities able-bodied people can assume in their communities. Sarah stated that her tribe has been far more helpful than government officials, and this tribal and community support is prevalent at a national level. When Texas experienced their lowest temperatures of the year, a local group took to the streets, passing out water, formula, clothing and other basic necessities. By contrast, when her tribe requested COVID-19 tests from government authorities, Sarah said the government sent back body bags instead, perpetuating a communal distrust for those who are supposed to enforce safety around us. As a result, Sarah said her tribe sought out COVID-19 vaccines without the help of the government.
Izzy also emphasized the importance of help from the community, telling attendees of a time when her community came together to help a neighbor of hers. A neighbor’s car was stuck in unplowed snow and unable to reach the hospital for liver dialysis. Other community members were able to dig the car out of the snow so he could travel to the hospital and receive treatment.
Izzy concluded that the government is unreliable because implemented policies continuously oppress or neglect disabled people. This oppression is intersectionality systemic, enforcing limitations based on race, gender and socioeconomic means as well.
Acknowledging this, Izzy shared the four steps to ensuring change is implemented in your community. She noted this symposium has accomplished the first two steps, and that as individuals, it is our duty to continuously execute steps three and four:
- Educate yourself on the issue and how it affects others.
- Learn the actions that you can take to help resolve the conflict at hand.
- Apply what you learn in your community.
- Raise awareness in your community, so others can join you.
Along with promoting aid within your community, Teddy brought awareness to the significance of having representation in positions of power. He expressed a desire to see more elected officials that are Black, deaf, blind or hard of hearing. Teddy believes that in order to create viable solutions to issues the disabled community faces, society needs to stop controlling the narrative for disabled people, respect the platform that disabled people are deserving of and recognize the holistic societal benefit that comes from inclusive and accessible conversations. In order to reduce misconceptions or assumptions, the panelists encouraged able-bodied people to reach out to the disabled community and ask what people may need. However, able-bodied people should be mindful and consult the internet before reaching out to the disabled community.
The event ended with the panelists reflecting on their journey with self-love. Rafi stated that “joy is dance.” They have found joy in accepting their body, the way it moves and the things it needs. Izzy tells attendees that it is okay to be body neutral, meaning that one does not always have to love the body they are in — it is okay to just accept it. Sarah encouraged people to be mindful of the way they treat earth, declaring that self-love and love of the earth are one in the same.
“We need to be the voice for the earth, we need to be (her) messenger, we need to be (her) caretaker,” Sarah said. “he gives us life and she gives us water and she gives us everything.”
As a society, we often exclude ourselves from movements that address issues that do not affect us, but we have to understand that we must all fight for one another, against our oppressions, or none of these oppressive systems will be alleviated.
As Teddy put it, “There are so many barriers, but there are also so many opportunities. If you can’t find a way through that barrier, choose a different opportunity. That’s what I’ve learned.”
Some ways you can help create a healthier environment include:
- Purchase eco-friendly products.
- Recycle, compost and do not waste any products.
- Incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet.
- Be conscious when traveling — walking and cycling to locations or using a train when traveling far.
- Educate yourself on topics relating to climate change.
- Be active in your community.
- Call out brands for unethical and harmful methods of producing products.
- Advocate for radical systemic change.
Able-bodied individuals are responsible for amplifying opportunities and space for disabled people. This includes the actions listed above which can help reduce an individual’s carbon footprint, leading to a healthier environment and limiting the environmental effects those with disabilities experience. As a society, we must uplift the voices of communities that need help, and more importantly, create resources and accessible spaces for these voices to be heard. We also must cease the narrative that disabled communities are “voiceless,” and rather embrace that as a society, we have to listen with greater intention and educate ourselves. Teddy closed the conversation, saying “community always finds a way.” When it comes to improving our care for the planet and our peers, we must start by recognizing our responsibility to find a way.
Managing MiC Editor Gabrijela Skoko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. MiC Columnist Anchal Malh can be reached at email@example.com.