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About the Archive

by Julia Watts Belser

July 1, 2022

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Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project bears witness to the harms disabled people face amidst climate disruption—and it documents the wisdom disabled people bring to navigating this crisis.  The stories in the archive are fresh conversations with disability-identified activists, advocates, artists, first responders, policymakers, and other communal leaders.  

The archive makes a deliberate choice to prioritize conversations with disabled people of color and other multiply-marginalized disabled folks, because we recognize the urgency of centering the voices of those who are most impacted by crisis. 

We strive to reflect the tremendous breadth of disability experience, including insights from people with physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities, the wisdom of sick and Mad communities, those living with chronic illness and chronic pain, chemical sensitivity, depression, mental/emotional disabilities, and more. 

We’re always in the process of adding more conversations, and we’re keen to collaborate with other partners. If you are interested in this work, you’re warmly welcomed to reach out.

Creating the Archive

The archive was born out of a desire to share disability wisdom.  To lift up the ways disabled people are working to support each other in and through crisis.  To make tangible the expertise and insights that we bring to disaster response.  To bear witness to the ways we’re envisioning climate resilience.  To celebrate the power of our art, our protest, and our environmental activism.  To lay plain why disabled people’s leadership is crucial for collective survival.

In 2019, I received a transformative Laudato Si’ Grant from Georgetown’s Office of Sustainability to support collaborative research on Disability and Climate Change.  I had originally planned to convene a summit of disability activists, disabled first responders, and disability studies scholars for a groundbreaking gathering.  But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic upended all those plans. 

I turned for advice to Germán Parodi and Shaylin Sluzalis, co-executive directors of The Partnership for Disaster Strategies, a disability-led organization that works to ensure equity and access for people with disabilities during and after disasters.  We talked about the urgent need for deeper collaboration between academics and activists, about the kinds of research that might help advance and support the work they were doing in the field. 

With generous grant support from Georgetown’s Humanities Center, I began to gather stories.  I reached out to conversation partners across the disability community, both through my own activist circles and through the Partnership’s extraordinary network.  While I came to those sessions with some initial questions in mind, my guiding principle has always been to follow the lead of grassroots activists, artists, and practitioners on the front lines of this work.

Shaping the Stories

I wanted the archive to capture the energy of those initial conversations, to lift up the distinctive voices and experiences of my conversation partners.  I wanted to make sure the stories would speak to a broad audience, that they’d lay plain the political stakes and the extraordinary power of disability activism around climate change and disaster response.  I also wanted to bring Georgetown students into the heart of this project, offering them a hands-on opportunity to work with and learn from the testimony of disabled experts in the field. 

Some of the most dedicated and passionate undergrads in my Disability, Ethics, and EcoJustice classes have opted to take special research ethics training and join a spring or summer research team, working with me to hone and craft a specific story.  Several students now work one-on-one with me as core research assistants, and their creativity and insights have been instrumental in building the archive. 

Working collaboratively, my research students and I go through the initial transcripts, drawing out the most compelling moments and significant ideas.  The stories stay true to the original words and voice of my conversation partner.  But we tighten, polish, and shape the dialogue to make for more compelling reading.  After we draft a piece, I ask my conversation partner to read the story and offer their own edits.  No piece moves forward without their full approval.  To be offered a story is an act of immense trust, one that comes with profound responsibility.

Ensuring Access

In building the archive, we strive to ensure access at every step of the process.  While most of the stories were sparked by an initial Zoom conversation, we’ve worked out other modes of dialogue in collaboration with non-speaking partners.  While most conversations unfold in spoken English, we’re exploring ways to work effectively across spoken and signed languages.  We’re committed to flexibility, to figuring out how to engage in ways that affirm and support diverse access needs.

We strive to make our digital materials accessible and engaging.  We work with a consultant who uses a screen reader, in order to make sure our platform is intuitive and easy to navigate.  We’re launching Plain Language versions and Spanish-language versions of the stories, as part of our commitment to communication access. 

We’d also love to hear from you.  Full access is a vital aspiration, but never a final, finished accomplishment.  So please consider this an open invitation:  What do you need, in order to make meaningful use of this archive?  What would help you better engage these pieces, or be a part of this conversation?  Feel free to contact us.  We’ll do our best to make it happen.