Embracing Disability Wisdom in a Climate-Changed World

What do you do when the air around you turns into an ominous orange haze, a toxic reminder of the climate change demon we’ve long chosen to ignore? We’re living in what we can call the summer of smoke. The West Coast wildfires are no longer a distant tragedy, but a palpable presence in our everyday lives, disrupting plans and worsening air quality across the country. Climate change isn’t a future concern—it’s today’s problem.

This scenario might be novel for some, but for people living with disabilities, like myself, the concept of limitation and change isn’t new. Disability teaches you to face the harsh realities of human limitations and still push back against the social barriers that try to hold us down. And in the face of climate change, these lessons are invaluable.

Society likes to peddle two narratives around limitations. One is that people with disabilities are limited and should therefore lower their aspirations. We are judged based on our apparent physical limitations. But let me tell you, we know how to push back against this ableism and prove the naysayers wrong.

The second narrative is more dangerous—it’s the age-old American mantra of “you can do anything if you work hard enough.” This belief makes us overlook the structural inequalities that limit success, pushing us into an “overcoming” mentality where we’re constantly trying to prove that pain and circumstance won’t stop us. Disability culture defies this narrative. Our lives are more than just a tally of achievements and success isn’t about ignoring your limits—it’s about acknowledging them and still finding joy and value in your existence.

Climate change is a byproduct of our collective choice to push past our limits. We’ve become a take-and-burn culture that prioritizes profit over care and doesn’t acknowledge the cost of our actions, both to our planet and our communities. Our disregard for human well-being is evident in our social fabric—no paid sick leave for a fifth of our workforce, people juggling multiple jobs to survive, and a care crisis that leaves disabled people and caregivers struggling with little support.

It’s high time we recalibrate our relationship with limits. And this is where we should listen to the wisdom of the disabled community.

People with disabilities are often the first to feel the impact of climate disruption. We’re the oracles of the climate crisis, the first to register the toxic effects of poor air quality or heat waves. It’s time for the world to take note of what we already know—uncertainty is inevitable and we need to be ready to adapt our plans.

As we embrace the future, let’s remember the mantra of disability justice: “We move together, with nobody left behind.” Let’s prioritize care, rest, and safe working environments. Let’s learn to listen to our bodies when they say no, and make sure everyone can breathe clean air.

But we also need to recognize the difference between personal limits and systemic ones. Adapting our days to cope with poor air quality is a survival tactic, but it doesn’t tackle the root causes of climate change. We need to place limits on industrial negligence, unchecked capitalism, and corporate greed to truly tackle the climate crisis.

The realities of long-term illness and chronic conditions show us that limits can be frustrating and isolating. COVID-19 laid bare the injustice in how our world treats those living with long-term illnesses. As we rush back to normal, those at higher risk are left to shoulder the burden alone. These are not the limits we should embrace.

But here’s the twist: disability teaches us that limits can be a source of creativity and resilience. We live with uncertainty every day, but we find joy, beauty, and a sense of fulfillment amidst it all. We adapt, we evolve, and we learn to live within our constraints, not in spite of them. That’s a lesson the world needs to learn in this era of climate disruption.