The (dis)ableisation of environmental governance: Lessons from Oslo

Urgent and ambitious climate mitigation and adaptation policies are needed to strengthen responses to climate change. What are the trade-offs between social and ecological objectives and outcomes of a green transformation for (dis)abled people?

Image may contain: Plant, Train, Daytime, Window, Building.

Oslo. Photo: Metro Centric, Flickr

The new IPCC report makes it irrevocably clear: urgent and ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation polices (CCMAPs) are needed to strengthen local, national and global responses to the threat of climate change. At the same time, a growing body of literature asserts that social justice implications of CCMAPs require greater attention. Indeed, current feminist scholarship stresses that climate change mitigation and adaptation policies have tended to ignore entrenched social injustices and intersectional livelihood struggles related to gender, race, disability and caste. This is alarming considering that a myriad of ‘socially blind’ climate policies are found guilty of (re)producing social inequalities and problematic social hierarchies. Poorly informed CCMAPs therefore risk diminishing different groups of people’s capacities and opportunities to benefit from ‘green transformations’ and to cope with and manage the impacts of climate change in their everyday lives.

In my thesis awarded University of Oslo´s sustainability prize, I brought the above discussion to Oslo and the city’s ongoing green transformation (learn more about the climate strategy for Oslo towards 2030 here). My overall aim was to explore how ten people that are blind or use wheelchairs experience Oslo’s climate interventions related to ‘Car-Free City Life’ and the use of public transportation. By bringing to light how the climate strategy intersects and entwines in the everyday lives of these people, I wanted to investigate if Oslo’s climate strategy produces or reinforces pre-existing social inequalities faced by (dis)abled people. Moreover, my aim was to bring to view whether the climate strategy ensures (or not) that blind people and wheelchair users can be ‘green citizens’ on an equal basis with other groups of people in the city.

Through this critical exploration I identified a problematic trend that I coined the ‘(dis)ableisation of environmental governance’. I mean two things by this. Firstly, Oslo’s climate strategy was found guilty of designing climate interventions favouring people with ‘norm-functioning bodies’*. In other words, while bodies are different, some types of bodies and some kinds of bodily differences and abilities have been the subject of (unintentional) preference in Oslo’s climate strategy. Indeed, several informants contended that they have been ‘massaged into’ an ableist climate strategy and that Oslo kommune has ‘added the disabled and stirred’ when they have planned for their green transformation. As a result of this, many informants feel that the climate strategy is not universally designed nor reflective of pre-existing inequalities faced by (dis)abled people in their everyday lives. This is the ‘ableisation’ of Oslo’s climate strategy.

I think disabled people are an afterthought in the climate strategy, and then it becomes a bit like ‘what are we going to do with them? (Informant)

Secondly, and resulting from the ‘ableisation’ just mentioned, OCS is found guilty of producing/reinforcing a myriad of ‘disabling barriers’. These barriers effectively turn bodily difference into disability and disadvantage. By (re)producing disabling barriers, OCS is found to discriminate people with bodies and bodily abilities that are defined in contrast to the constructed normal. This is the ‘disableisation’ of environmental governance. While the effects of these disabling barriers materialise in different ways in the everyday lives of my informants, I found that by (re)producing disabling barriers the OCS risks:

  • excluding people that are blind and wheelchair users from Oslo city centre;
  • draining (dis)abled people of time and energy when moving from A to B in Oslo; and
  • preventing (dis)abled people from accessing ‘climate friendly’ public transportation.
Box 1: Two types of disabling barriers (re)produced by Oslo’s climate strategy
A disabling barrier can be understood as a socially constructed circumstance or condition preventing (dis)abled people from fully participating in their societies. In my research, I analysed whether OCS produced/reinforced two types of disabling barriers, namely social and physical disabling barriers (see below). I further analysed how these barriers intersected in the everyday lives of my informants, and the extent to which these barriers prevented (dis)abled people from participating in, and enjoying, Oslo’s green transformation.
Social disabling barriers are attitudinal barriers created by norms and by people’s beliefs about what (dis)abled people can/cannot or should/shouldn’t do. Social disabling barriers might effectively discriminate against people with (dis)ability as these barriers are rooted in beliefs that able-bodied individuals are normal and superior to those with a (dis)ability.  These attitudinal barriers can be witnessed through bullying and discrimination. Examples of social disabling barriers identified in my thesis include:
  • Negative attitudes towards (dis)abled people using public transportation
  • The ‘freak curiosity’
Physical barriers are structural obstacles in natural or human-made environments that prevent or block mobility (i.e. using public transportation) or access to different spaces (including ‘green urban spaces’). Using a wheelchair, for example, does not itself constitute a ‘disability’, however the built environment, with its gaps and curbs, disables some bodies from moving freely (Hirschmann, 2012). Physical barriers are oftentimes the product of a lack of universal design. Examples of physical barriers (re)produced by Oslo’s climate strategy include:
  • Gaps between the bus and the platform.
  • Buses that are not able to accommodate wheelchair users
  • Urban spaces that are not accessible for people that are blind

By analysing the consequences of (dis)ableisation of environmental governance in the everyday lives of (dis)abled people, I have demonstrated the importance of interrogating and rendering visible the potential disabling effects of climate actions and green transformations. My analysis challenges Oslo kommune’s assertion that its climate strategy reduces both GHG emissions and social inequalities. My findings, briefly summarized here, clearly evidence that more research is needed to investigate and challenge how CCMAPs might produce/reinforce disabling barriers that further the exclusion and marginalisation of (dis)abled people. Indeed, these disabling barriers effectively bounds the possibilities for (dis)abled people’s inclusion in, and enjoyment of, Oslo’s ‘green transformation’.

Finally, my thesis illustrates that it is high time to add a ‘disability lens’ to critical discussions about the contested nature of environmental governance. This means acknowledging the everyday lived experiences and livelihood struggles of (dis)abled people when asking questions such as: who gains and who loses from the implementation of CCMAPs? What are the trade-offs between social and ecological objectives and outcomes of a green transformation?


* I use the terms norm functioning bodies, (dis)ability and (dis)abled people to account for the socially constructed hierarchies, norms and practices which categorize and value bodies based on dominant discourses of ability and disability (Schalk, 2017). 

By Yngve Bråten
Published Sep. 6, 2021 1:02 PM - Last modified Sep. 8, 2021 11:34 AM
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A blog by the Oslo SDG Initiative.