Yesterday I was in New York for a climate meeting hosted by the Jewish Funders Network. Given the horrific smoke from the climate-induced fires in Canada, the issue could not be more urgent or timely. We all need to help on climate issues. However, many of the ways to get involved are not yet accessible to people with disabilities.
True story — after climate activist Greta Thunberg, who is Autistic, sailed across the ocean, she came to Washington DC. While in town to reach out to leaders, she also went George Washington University (GWU) to accept a major award from Amnesty International. The event had the potential to be a super-motivator for a group of Autistic girls who care about climate issues and saw her as a role model. Thus, I got tickets and recruited a group to join me for the event.
Given that crowds can cause sensory overload for people on the Autism spectrum, our group got there early. However, the event managers played extremely loud music to “pump up” the audience before Greta spoke. This was physically and emotionally painful for people with Autism who had come to be inspired and informed by Greta.
I went to every event professional I could find with a simple request – can you please turn down the music so people with Autism in the audience can stay. Each of the event staffers had an excuse as to why this could not be done. The result was that talented young women with Autism had to leave the event before Greta spoke. They missed out on what could have been a wonderful experience. But worse still, these individuals have not come back to climate events ever since. The climate movement lost them.
Everyone is at risk from climate change and the movement needs as much help as it can get. Here are tips to enable the 1-in-5 people who live with disabilities to bring their talents to the climate movement.
1. Work WITH people with disabilities, not for them. People with disabilities want to be involved in decision-making that will protect people and our shared planet. Invite them in. Ensure that qualified people with disabilities are on your staff and board. Value their experiences and opinions. After all, evacuations during natural disasters are especially challenging for people who are deaf, blind, use wheelchairs and have other disabilities. Climate anxiety is worsening the mental health of millions of people. Additionally, many people got disabilities in the first place from the same environmental toxins that are harming our climate. The disability community has their lives and livelihoods on the line. They are highly motivated to help.
2. Ensure – and publicize – that all your events are in accessible facilities. People who use wheelchairs should be able to enter and access a bathroom or buffet table at your event. If you are doing an event in a venue that does not have an accessible bathroom, you can rent a portable accessible bathroom for as little as a few hundred dollars. Ensure that there are wide enough aisles and flat surfaces so wheelchair users can access key locations.
3. Turn the captions on every time you host an online meeting or event – and advertise you are doing so in advance so people who use captions sign up. People who are deaf or hard of hearing, English language learners, as well as many others rely on captions. Today artificial intelligence (AI) enables instant captioning for free on zoom, google, Microsoft and other platforms. However, you have to turn it on. At the end of your event, you can even download a transcript and post or circulate it for people who missed the meeting and/or want it as a way to reinforce their experience.
4. Ensure that program registrations and sign-up forms include questions about accommodations or dietary issues so all people can participate. Not all programs can meet every need, but often all we need to do is ask. If you have a question about what a person with a disability needs in order to participate in a program, the solution is easy: ask them! If, for some reason, you cannot meet their needs, let them know in advance so there are no unhappy surprises. Most disability accommodations are free. For example, refraining from playing loud music at an event that is particularly popular with an Autistic audience doesn’t cost extra money.
5. Trust is vital — and that means respecting people’s privacy. When people share their disability or dietary needs, respect their privacy by treating it confidentially, just as you would health information.
6. Spread the word in your marketing and social media that all people – with and without disabilities — are welcomed and appreciated. Showcase photos of people with disabilities enjoying your programs next to their non-disabled peers. This sends a message that all are welcomed and valued. Websites, Facebook, Twitter and media can be important tools for sharing your values and what you offer. Post your diversity and accessibility policies on your website and ensure it states that you are open to all, regardless of ability. Work to make your website and social media easy to navigate and accessible to people who are blind and deaf. Post all of your videos on YouTube, which helps people who are hearing-impaired by creating free and instant captions.
7. Have an access/inclusion coordinator to ensure your organization is ready to meet the needs of community members with disabilities. Trained professionals can be hired on a part-time basis and many people are willing to help as volunteers. Numerous special educators, therapists and social may be available to work, consult or volunteer part-time. But make sure that you have a specific person who is responsible to implementing accessibility so that it gets done.
8. Take the time to learn “people-first language,” which respects human beings and their rights to be appreciated for the strengths they have, rather than to be defined by their disabilities. An example of people-first language is referring to a child with Down syndrome by his or her name, not “the kid with Down syndrome.” Or, worse yet, the “Down-syndrome kid.” A person who uses a wheelchair is a person first. Their wheelchair is a tool of liberation, and he or she is not “wheelchair-bound.” People-first language puts the focus back on people by speaking of “people with disabilities” (PwDs), not “handicapped” or “the disabled.” It costs nothing to use different language and it goes a long way to making people feel respected and valued.
Bottom line, no one should be pushed away from helping on climate issues. From the Autistic girls who missed out on seeing Greta Thunberg to senior citizens, everyone can contribute to solving the crisis.