Cows, laundry and labels: on being a “disabled activist”

If you had to label yourself, what words would you use? To mark Disability History Month, Tamara Ullyart reflects on learning to accept the label "disabled activist".
  Published:  08 Dec 2023    |      4 minute read

Two things about me: I was born disabled. And I’ve been actively involved in the climate movement since I wandered around a carnival dressed as a cardboard cow, handing out leaflets addressing unsustainable meat consumption. I was 7 years old. And for the record, I made an excellent cow.

At the ripe old age of 22, being a “disabled activist” is one of the few things I can claim be experienced at. And yet, both of those words are labels I often wear uncomfortably and unconsciously.

“Disabled”. I dislike for the word itself. Actually read it, and you notice it’s “dis-abled”. Literally “negatively abled”. We don’t say “non-male” for female, or “un-straight” for gay, but we do say “dis-abled”. It’s the only official, politically correct label which explicitly defines as negative, defunct, and “less than the norm”. The only one that’s structured like a slur.

Which, for the record, is why I prefer the wording “a woman with a disability” over “a disabled woman”. I dislike feeling defined by my condition, by a word of such fundamental negativity. But others disagree. Notably, the Social Model of Disability – a framework that holds disability is something that's created by society – recommends the latter phrasing. Placing the identity first (“disabled person”) suggests those with impairments are dis-abled by the barriers they face within society, rather than by any specific conditions they have. This puts the onus for improvement and adaption on society at large, rather than the individual. In the end, it comes down to personal preference.’s not as if I can holiday in an abled body for comparison!

Moreover, I often don’t consciously consider myself disabled. Yes, I live with cerebral palsy – a physical motor disability that reduces my ability to walk and balance, among other things. Of course it deeply effects how I live. And I understand that’s not the "normal experience", but it is my normal. So often, I forget that I live with a disability. I simply live as I live. Besides, it’s not as if I can holiday in an abled body for comparison!

“Activist” is a similar label in my experience. Often I’m uncomfortable with the word itself, finding it too often summons images of rebellious teenagers, extreme and dangerous protests, damaged property and public relationships, and irrational eccentricity. While I understand that these are unhelpful stereotypes, I can still struggle with being seen as such.

A protest stand off - a person is looking directly at a line of police officers with batons and protective gear
Is this the image that comes to mind when you think of "activists"?
Credit: Jonathan Harrison via Unsplash

It also implies a greater level of conscious choice than I find helpful. Calling myself an “activist” suggests I chose to be one. Which is true, in a way – I choose sustainable lifestyle options where possible, I choose to attend protests, I choose to participate proudly in Young Friends of the Earth.

But, I'm 22. I'm staring the full reality of climate and ecological breakdown dead in the face, knowing that it's already happening, and currently, will become irreversible within my lifetime. Acting on it isn’t exactly a choice, just like trying to steer the Titanic away from that iceberg wasn’t really a choice.

To put it another way, often activism is like laundry.

Do I love doing it? No.

Do I often wish I didn’t have to do it? Yes.

Do I want and need the result? Yes.

Thus, activism and laundry get done. The only difference being that activism can’t wait until I’ve run short of clean underwear.

....activism at its core is solving problems with resilience

So, “disabled activist” is a label I often wear uncomfortably and unconsciously. Until recently, I didn’t even connect the two. In fact, I deliberately separated them. I was an activist, who also happened to have a disability. Already of the generation struggling to get their voice heard, the last thing I wanted was to be further dis-abled in my activism. All that mattered was my concern for the planet. My disability wasn’t, I thought, relevant.

Then, I became a Peer Mentor for Friends of the Earth, helping other young people from under-represented backgrounds take their first steps into activism. I was asked to teach, lead and inspire using my personal experience. Suddenly, I had to consider the two together, to realise what it meant to be a “disabled activist”.

Initially, it means striving for an inclusive climate movement is instinctive. So yes, I appreciate when there are wheelchair accessible march routes. Yes, I smile when there were quiet spaces for those who experience overstimulation. Yes, I prefer hybrid events, open to those who could not or chose not to attend in person. Yes, I love hearing people shift their language, and make space to listen to voices historically marginalised. Yes, I love every step made toward full inclusivity.

But being a “disabled activist” means more than instinctive inclusivity. See, activism at its core is solving problems with resilience. It’s the process of identifying something wrong with the world, trying to make it better, and not giving up till you do.

Disability is, in my experience, an enforced masterclass in problem-solving, wherein giving up is literally not an option: “how do I manage my pain today? How do I get my wheelchair up three floors? How do I explain cerebral palsy to my boyfriend? How do I tell someone that I can’t do that thing? How do I make this impossible thing, possible?”

Disability is, in my experience, an enforced masterclass in problem-solving

On top of this, there are the specific talents my disability has forced me to hone. I’ve been having difficult conversations with doctors since I could hold a conversation. This means talking to people a lot more powerful than me, about challenging subjects, using complex terminology. It means being honest. It means being clear. It means speaking through fear, and embarrassment. To use activist language, it means speaking truth to power.

Now, my favourite form of activism is public speaking. Turns out talking to doctors makes talking to everyone else easier. And, added bonus – when you’ve got to spend half your focus on not falling off the stage, there’s simply less room for stage-fright!

Anything that makes you a resilient problem-solver makes you a better activist. And therefore, inclusivity makes for a better, more effective climate movement. So yes, the words themselves often remain uncomfortable and unconscious, but “disabled activist” is a label I'm beginning to wear with pride.

Tamara Ullyart is a founding member of Young Friends of the Earth Darlington and joined the pilot year of our Climate. Youth. Society. programme in 2020. After successfully graduating from the programme, Tamara was appointed Peer Mentor, where she supported the second year of mentees with advice, training and coaching.

Climate. Youth. Society. is a leadership programme for working class, racialised and/or disabled young climate activists who receive mentoring and training to develop their own campaigns and projects. The programme is currently on pause whilst we explore funding opportunities to enable more young people who require funding for access or income related reasons. If you're interested in learning more about the programme or are interested in funding our work, please email [email protected]