Individuals With Disabilities & Environmental Justice

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By: Sharon Franklin, Chief of Operations
In a recent article in Environmental Health News, Environmental injustice and disability: Where is the research?, it sites that one group remains largely ignored: disabled people, who make up more than 25% of the United States population. When descriptions of environmental justice are made, the EPA doesn’t even include a category for individuals with disabilities. While a recent study Unequal Proximity to Environmental Pollution: An Intersectional Analysis of People with Disabilities in Harris County, Texas suggests that disability status—especially in combination with race, ethnicity, and income—can determine the amount of environmental harm exposure, it doesn’t address the environmental harm and exposure for physically challenged individuals. When we compare similar other marginalized communities, these individuals are also forced to live in areas that disproportionately expose them to environmental hazards.
While environmental justice researchers have spent decades trying to document these inequalities, there are only a few studies focused on the disabled population. Jayajit Chakraborty, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, observed that in Houston, where “neighborhoods located near pollution sources—like Superfund sites and hazardous waste facilities—were home to a significantly higher proportion of disabled people compared to the rest of the city. In addition, race, ethnicity, and age all further amplified these inequalities—disabled people of color and those aged 75 years or older both lived in even closer proximity to polluted areas, likely decreasing their quality of life.” Conversely, expanding on this research will be difficult, as work like Professor Chakraborty’s is uncommon.
Professor Chakraborty concludes that the goal has always been to expand the scope of environmental justice research. He hopes that studies similar to his Houston study will “lead to a better inclusion of people with disabilities in environmental justice research and environmental policy.”
Daphne Frias, a disabled youth organizer, told EHN researchers that the lack of available data is just a symptom of a larger problem: “ableism.” “It’s the idea that disabled lives are unimportant and disabled lives are invisible. It doesn’t matter if where we live makes us even more unhealthy.” That’s why Frias believes this framing needs to change. “Our community is beautiful and powerful, and I think that needs to be embodied instead of this doom and gloom narrative of how we’re perceived.” She added that moving forward, it’s important that researchers begin reaching out directly to the community and listen to their lived experiences. “It’s the phrase that [disabled people] always say, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”
Photo credit: Environmental Health News

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