On The Frontline, From the Sidelines

by Daphne Frias

“It smells like the Fourth of July!” my brother exclaimed, standing briefly with the door ajar, waiting for our 2 AM iced coffee delivery. Memories of block party barbecues and illegal fireworks filled my mind, reminiscent of a time when our neighborhood sky was filled with haze, often burning my eyes, only to be burned away by the morning sun.

However, today, a different fire burned. Wildfires raged through Canada, decimating Indigenous lands 500 miles away. These fires burned hotter, faster, and earlier than ever before, a consequence of the climate crisis. The thought of all that had been and will continue to be lost due to these wildfires formed a lump in my throat. Alongside this sorrow, I felt anxiety about possibly having to reschedule my PET scan, which was scheduled to happen in just 24 hours. Three months ago, I became a survivor after beating stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Now, it was time to ensure that the cancer had not returned.

As my mom and I reviewed the projected air quality levels for the day ahead, it became clear that I would not make my appointment. Opening my phone to check the air quality levels, the map glowed an ominous red. The number “151” was unmistakably labeled as “unhealthy.” The thought of undergoing a PET scan, which involved injecting a radioactive dye into my veins, while these pollutants filled the air made me question its safety. It was a question I never thought I would have to ask. My mom and I exchanged a brief glance, both acknowledging the truth. There would be no appointment tomorrow. Another thing that the climate crisis had stolen from us. The anxiety of whether I was still cancer free would have to steep in my bones for three more weeks.

Stories like mine are all too familiar to my Disabled community. The climate crisis has always been our story too, experienced on the frontline yet from the sidelines. This circumstance is not by choice, of course. Disabled people exist at every intersection of social justice. Our battle is always twofold. Not only must we fight for the cause at hand, but we must also fight for our existence to be recognized while doing so.

The proliferation of extreme weather events has profoundly impacted Disabled people. A few months ago, during catastrophic flooding in Los Angeles, many Disabled individuals lost vital equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, and ventilators. Our cities are ill-prepared to handle this level of devastation, and the needs of Disabled people are often overlooked in any plans that may exist.

The current air quality crisis in New York City is no different. Another hazy morning had arrived on June 8th, the day I was supposed to have my PET scan. Instead, I watched the news, hoping for a reprieve. The anchor interviewed a middle-aged blonde woman walking her small dog. She laughed about how she had thrown away all her masks now that the pandemic was over. She went on to explain how the wrinkled mask haphazardly looped around her ears was miraculously found in her pants pocket. I laughed along with her, but it was a sardonic chuckle. What a privilege to think of masks as a past necessity. I remembered the box of KN95 masks sitting in our storage room, ready to replenish our entry table mask pile for easy access. It had become our ritual.

The climate crisis is not a nostalgic memory; it is a present reality. As the air suffocates our iconic skyline, I contemplate how many people realize that this is the climate crisis unfolding before our eyes. It is a moment for those who never considered themselves on the frontline of this emergency to reassess their reality.

During my contemplation, a press conference by city officials grabs my attention. The city’s doctor emotionally defines this moment as a public health crisis. I feel a sense of validation, as this is a message I have been advocating for in my own activism. However, my triumph is short-lived. The doctor goes on to urge New Yorkers to use air purifiers and reschedule their doctor’s appointments. At that moment, my thoughts turn to my Disabled siblings. While I am fortunate to have been able to reschedule my appointment within a few weeks, I am aware that many others cannot do the same. They would have to risk their immunocompromised state because of the fear of not being able to see their specialist for months.

Disabled people are disproportionately affected by poverty. Access to air purifiers is likely beyond our reach. The systemic failures that led to this crisis are glaringly evident. Environmental racism and discriminatory urban planning dominate the conversation. Disabled people, along with many minority communities, are unwilling experts in both areas. However, we also possess many of the solutions.

Our ongoing journey out of the shadows has equipped us with the ability to adapt and be resilient. More importantly, we are rooted in community. These are the foundations of equitable and just climate solutions. We deserve to be active participants in the better world we aspire to build because without us, it will not come to fruition.

As the smoke dissipates, let us not allow this to become a mere memory but a pivotal turning point. May we transform our fear into action and recognize that all justice is Disability justice.