A group of “Disabled Rebels” who will take part in next week’s Extinction Rebellion protests in London are calling for other disabled people to join the action and take part in the worldwide attempts to highlight the impact of climate change.
Together with a group called Deaf Rebels, they hope to play a key part in the UK actions, which will include a “central focus” on Westminster and will last two weeks from Monday (7 October).
Bob Williams-Findlay, a leading figure in the Disabled Rebels group and a veteran of many non-violent direct action protests, has called for “new blood” to join the Extinction Rebellion (XR) Disabled Rebels and Deaf Rebels.
He hopes that as many as 100 or even 150 Deaf and disabled people will take part in non-violent direct action in London.
If that happens, the numbers taking part will be greater than those who took part in direct action in the campaign for accessible transport and in the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network in the 1980s and 1990s.
Williams-Findlay (pictured) said the Deaf and disabled people involved were of a “very different” composition than those who take part in disability rights protests.
He said the driving force was “primarily around saving the planet”, although the climate change actions in April and the worldwide publicity around Greta Thunberg had “triggered an increasing interest from traditional disability activists”.
He and other Disabled Rebels have been working to ensure there will be accessible toilets across the London protest sites, to provide disability equality training for stewards, and to organise a Disability Hub where disabled activists can secure information, advice and support.
Williams-Findlay said: “The plan is for the Disability Hub to have a multi-purpose area where disabled people can gather, build a sense of community, and help take disability culture right into the heart of Extinction Rebellion.”
They and Deaf Rebels have also been working to ensure Deaf people and Extinction Rebellion’s legal team can use British Sign Language signs to communicate with each other if there is a threat of arrest.
Williams-Findlay said that Extinction Rebellion and Disabled Rebels were both “on a steep learning curve” but he said he saw a “willingness to learn, be reflective and make changes” which was “not common among most social movements or campaign groups”.
He added: “There is a genuine commitment to be as inclusive as possible.
“However, as with any social movement, Extinction Rebellion is a product of a society that has kept disabled people excluded or marginalised, and as a result, there remains deeply ingrained forms of ignorance about disabled lives and how the inequality of power impacts.”
He said it had been a “hard slog” to ensure the essential access issues will be in place, and there were still “gaps”.
And he issued a call for allies who might not be willing to engage in non-violent direct action, but who could carry out “backroom activities” such as staffing the Disability Hub or playing other supporting roles.
He said: “We would welcome new blood within the Extinction Rebellion itself, but we recognise that isn’t possible for everyone, therefore we would welcome ‘eyes and ears’ willing to use various social media platforms to pass on information and counteract disinformation and possible news blackouts.”*
Williams-Findlay, a former chair of the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, said: “There is no point demanding rights if we don’t have a planet to exercise them on.
“By raising the profile of disabled people within XR, we can send out a clarion call to other disabled people – this is our fight too.”
He said his past experiences of non-violent direct action had shown that it requires “serious commitment” and “accepting you are part of a team”.
He said: “You need to decide how far you are willing to challenge the law.
“There’s always a risk of arrest, but we need to assess the implications of getting arrested and have plans to defuse the situation and move away.
“Another lesson has to be that non-violent direct action can be effective in getting the message across. So, direct action isn’t a game, but it can be fun and feel uplifting.”
He added: “Our future, not just that of disabled people, but humanity as a whole, is at a crossroads with time running out.
“Disabled people want a future. We understand that only a just and transformative society can be inclusive, and addressing sustainable environments has to be a vital part of the process.
“‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’ has to include taking steps to save our planet, helping to prevent disaster and protecting people from human suffering.”
He called on the government to “tell the truth” about climate change, “put its full weight behind ensuring everyone understands what’s at stake” and engage in dialogue.
Williams-Findlay warned that disabled people would be among the groups to pay “the highest price” if the Extinction Rebellion and other climate change campaigns failed.
He said: “In the global south we are already seeing ecological disasters where people are being displaced, crops failing and huge migrations taking place.
“Under these conditions, children and older and disabled people are going to struggle to survive.
“Without adequate infrastructures and facing hostile disabling environments, these conditions are going to be too much to deal with.
“Disabled people are less adaptable than non-disabled people, and if you add to that existing discriminatory attitudes, what will be the consequences?
“Disabled people will be seen as having less worth, so if resources are rationed, it is fairly obvious who will lose out.”