An instant porridge pot with a spoon on top. White text underneath reads, Using instant porridge pots allows me to eat a hot breakfast, something that makes a significant difference to my energy levels, and to make it myself.

Chronic Illness vs the Environment

Content warning: Ableism

This post is proving surprisingly painful to write. I’ve cared a lot about the environment and made a lot of progress in doing things in a more environmentally friendly way in the past. It’s been very hard to reconcile that with my drastically altered needs as a chronically ill person, and the way that some environmentalists talk, specifically, about disability and the environment makes it much, much harder.

The thing is, it’s not a case of chronic illness vs the environment. People just make it seem like it is.

The big trendy thing that’s been an issue for a while now is the frankly baffling fight against disposable straws. Of all the things to become the face of the anti-plastic movement, this is a really odd one. For one thing, straws make up only a miniscule amount of the plastic in the oceans, and for another, not having them can literally kill people. Why not try to tackle the immensely huger problem of abandoned fishing nets in the ocean, something which would actually make an enormous difference and not kill people? I won’t go into further details on this issue because it’s incredibly upsetting. If you want more information on disabled people and what straws are safe, you can google that. Just know that restaurants have already started refusing plastic straws because people don’t look disabled enough, and at least one person has been sent into anaphylactic shock because of being given an alternative straw without notification.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s expand the view. And I am going to talk about me specifically because I’m very tired today and I don’t have the energy to do a ton of research. And I’m sure you’re all thoughtful enough to take what I say about myself and apply it to other situations! Or at least to be understanding if the disabled people in your life talk about the things they can’t do for the environment.

There’s a lot of things I’ve had to give up. It started with the subtler things, often related to cooking. I wasn’t able to make my own stock any more from the meat bones, for example. It’s a particular shame because homemade stock is delicious and has none of the things in it that various members of the household can’t eat. Around the same time, I had to stop making my own bread and that was deeply painful because I really loved it. I’d make sourdough and every time I did it I felt like I was making a little bit of magic.

(If you want magic I can recommend it. Making delicious edibles out of nothing but flour, water and a pinch of salt is a never-ending delight!)

After that it was… the phrase ‘slippery slope’ comes to mind, but it’s rather negative. I’ll just say that my needs continued to change as I became more ill. We bought an extra fridge so that I could access my own food rather than having everything brought to me, as I became less and less able to use the stairs. I also started using a lot of convenience foods like ready made sandwich fillers, which meant I could make my own sandwiches rather than asking Mum to do it for me. Or chilled soups that I could just heat up in the microwave – luckily I’d brought a microwave with me when I moved back in with Mum, so at least we didn’t have to buy a new one.

As time’s gone on I’ve also found myself unable to shower on a regular basis, so now I use disposable wipes a lot. If I need to clean something up myself, I’ll use a disposable wipe. People often talk about how it’s practically the same thing to use a cloth and rinse it out, but when you’ve got so little energy it really really isn’t.

And, in common with a huge number of disabled people, I use pre-cut and pre-peeled fruit. Honestly, think twice before you mock pre-peeled bananas or oranges: there are thousands of disabled people who can only eat those fruits because such products are available. It’s not necessarily an energy issue. Lots of people have tremors or poor grip, or low dexterity. One member of my family can’t peel her own citrus fruits despite loving them, because the juices released trigger a migraine.

Even recycling can be a challenge as a disabled person. We can recycle cardboard, paper, glass, metal and plastic using our household recycling bin, but what if I have some old clothes to recycle or donate? And don’t suggest those charity bags; last time we tried one it was never collected, got rained on, and the clothes were completely ruined. Then there are batteries, electronics, aerosols and garden waste, not to mention old possessions which are in perfect working order but need to be transported if you want to get rid of them in an environmentally friendly way.

I do do what I can, of course. I’m able to use hankies instead of – or rather as well as, because sometimes you need a disposable! – tissues, so I do. And as I became more ill I had more problems with my hair and ended up getting it shaven and shorn. That means that using a shampoo bar is very easy for me, so I do that too. I use soap bars rather than liquid soap. And while recycling has its problems, I do as much as I can.

I also, when the difference in cost is relatively small, choose to purchase ethical and handmade brands. In food, sometimes, though repeated buying also has to be taken into account! I don’t use a ton of, say, face moisturiser, so I’ll buy a more expensive but more ethical brand for that. And when I was searching for a new dressing gown a few months ago I actually assumed I’d be buying something mass produced, but when it came to it by far the nicest one that wasn’t hideous or made of horrible (and big enough) was a handmade one. It still delights me every time I wear it!

As well as this, it’s worth considering that a lot of disabled and chronically ill, people have a much lower carbon footprint than abled people. Obviously we vary wildly. But to take me as an example, I’ve not been on an aeroplane for nearly a decade and many chronically ill and disabled people also haven’t. Then, we housebound and bedbound folks don’t tend to be big drivers, so that puts us ahead of most of Britain’s population straight away.

As I’ve mentioned above, I find showering incredibly difficult, draining, and painful, and I rarely do it. With water being an increasingly precious resource, I’m saving a huge amount of it. And again, this is a difficulty that a large number of disabled and chronically ill people have. There’s also the fact that we tend to be a lot poorer than abled people, so we buy fewer things and use them for longer. We don’t necessarily have the choice, you see.

The bottom line in all this is that we should all do our best and understand that nobody can do everything, and that the world makes it much harder for some people to be envionmentally friendly than others. Basically, don’t be a dick. And also try to avoid suggesting that if a few disabled people die to make the world a better place it’s worth the price. Because that’s not making the world a better place and you are a terrible person. If you’re not doing that and you’re not being a dick, you’re probably fine.

Obviously I’ve only tickled the surface of the issues here. Eco-ableism is a very real thing and makes me furious, because so many abled people have no understanding of the difficulties disabled people face, or simply don’t care. Inaccessibility makes being environmentally friendly much more difficult in far, far more ways than I’ve touched on here. There’s lots of information out there if you want to know more, and in the meantime keep us in mind in your environmentalism.

One comment

  1. Agree to all of this. One thing that might help when trying to solve the problem of clearing things out of the house that work fine but need to be transported – put it on an app called Olio. Take one photo, give a description and sure enough, someone will request it and they’ll come pick it up. I’ve done it with a lot of non food items and it’s worked a treat. It saves waste and time, and you’ll make a lot of people happy with what you give away!


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