Ableism and the Sierra Club

By Janet Carter

Ableism is defined by the Center for Disability Rights as “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other”. The attitudes that lead to ableism are often present in otherwise very well-meaning people; especially if they let their implicit biases affect their understanding of the abilities that the disabled DO possess. In the Sierra Club, ableism can affect both our programs (and in particular our Outings programs) as well as the environmental policies that we develop. In order to avoid this, we should attempt to include affected individuals with disabilities in our planning and programming so that we can understand how their needs and desires can best be met. In addition, we need to carefully choose our language when describing programs and policies to ensure that those with varied abilities feel included in our planning process.

Ableism can be particularly problematic when planning our Sierra Club Outings. Obviously, some outings may require activities that not all are capable of completing. Some people won’t be physically able to complete every hike that we lead, even if they do not consider themselves to be disabled. This is inevitable, and one of the better ways to allow as many outings participants as possible is simply to offer a variety of outings. Some might be long, tough hikes up steep and narrow trails, but we can also enjoy the outdoors by walking on a paved accessible trail. We should strive not to present only the most difficult alternatives, and also to avoid the implication that they are somehow “better” for being difficult. We can certainly make an effort to plan outings that are designed to specifically be
enjoyed by disabled individuals (i.e., a “wheelchair hike”), but we should plan outings that can be equally enjoyed by all regardless of ability. We must also consider that not all disabilities are visible to others. There is no excuse for ridiculing someone for wanting to remain safe and within their limits outdoors; it is possible that they will act as if they are fatigued or uninterested in walking further when in fact they are simply unable to do so. Always remember that there are many ways to explore and enjoy the wild places that we all love.

However, if we are to be truly inclusive, we also must understand that even the obviously disabled may have the ability to complete a variety of activities, especially if they receive assistance in doing so. I recently viewed a video of an individual who was paralyzed from the waist down, but was able to drag themselves from their wheelchair into the water and onto a SUP paddle board. No, of course they couldn’t stand up, but they were able to enjoy sitting and lying down on the board and paddling with others nearby. There is no reason why this individual couldn’t enjoy a paddling outing along with others with so-called “normal” abilities. We also should be careful to not let our implicit bias about a person’s ability affect our judgement as to whether they are capable of completing an activity. I have a nephew who is nonverbal and intellectually disabled. He lives in a group home with other disabled men. The home staff are very good about taking the kids on outings (my nephew loves to hike and often hikes five or six miles with his dad on weekends). My sister (his mom) tells a story of the caretakers being totally surprised when they took him on an outing to the local swimming pool. Apparently, my nephew got in the pool and rapidly swam an entire lap (when they expected him just to stay on the shallow side). His caretakers had assumed that someone with his disabilities could not learn to swim. They were wrong; thanks to private lessons and a very patient teacher my nephew had learned this important life skill.

Outings are a very important part of the Sierra Club’s program, and are obviously a place where ableism is very likely to manifest itself. But it is perhaps equally important to recognize ableism when it becomes part of our planning and policy implementation. One of the chief goals of the Sierra Club is to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. One excellent way to do this is design urban areas that are compact and easily accessible and thus produce fewer carbon emissions. This type of urban design also benefits the disabled. However, we need to be careful in how we describe and model these areas. Environmentalists often promote dedicated bicycle lanes as a way of mitigating climate change. I love bicycles, and totally agree that they can and should be utilized more in properly-designed cities. That being said, we need to recognize that they are not an option for everyone; riding a bicycle not only requires good knees but balance as well. I have a similar objection to using the term “walkable cities”;  what we really need are “accessible cities”. After all, if you can walk or ride a bicycle on a paved trail you can probably wheel a scooter or a wheelchair on it as well, so why not use more inclusive words to describe said trails? We want to avoid using terms that unnecessarily exclude individuals. We also must be careful not to glorify human-powered transport as a solution to our environmental problems. It is a great option, but it simply isn’t available to everyone, and no one should be made to feel guilty because they have to use a motor for transport (at least as long as it is an electric motor!).

It can be difficult to change, but if we are to be truly inclusive and equitable it is necessary. Ableism is often based on implicit bias, so it is important that we recognize that and strive not to make assumptions about a person’s ability to complete an outing. The best way to do that is to talk with them, and learn from them about their abilities and comfort levels in completing certain tasks. We also should be careful to include those of all abilities in our policy planning efforts. Being inclusive is an important element of equity and justice!

Janet Carter is a Sierra Club volunteer, member of the Equity, Inclusion and Justice team, involved with Outings and Las Vegas ICO. Thumbnail photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management (CC BY 2.0).