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The disability rights and environmental justice movements are linked in critical and timely ways, but these links are not immediately apparent and they currently lie unexplored by both movements. If anything is obvious, it is that the traditionally underserved communities of color and poverty that have been affected by such environmental injustices as the siting of industrial waste and hazard sites are the same communities in which there is a high prevalence of disability. The links we are concerned with, however, are not dependent upon mere factual coincidence. They are functional and person-oriented.
Communities that have organized around environmental issues, and even the few that have brought and won environmental law and tort cases and achieved some level of environmental cleanup, invariably have to deal with the myriad consequences raised by years of hazardous exposure. DREDF has found that adults and the families of children with disabilities who remain in these communities are profoundly unaware of federal and state laws designed to protect them from disability discrimination and ensure reasonable accommodations that will help achieve access to equal educational, employment and social opportunities. Furthermore, these same laws provide private causes of action to people with disabilities that may potentially be wielded in schools and workplaces in ways that ultimately could reduce environmental hazards for the entire community. For instance, children with respiratory disabilities in a public school using chemical pesticides could potentially bring a cause of action that will reduce pesticide exposure for all their classmates as well as the surrounding community. These litigation ideas have been largely unexplored, both theoretically and in practice.
For the past few years, DREDF has been reaching out to Bay area grassroots community organizations that have organized in response to environmental injustice in their neighborhoods. In particular, we have sought dialogue with our own neighboring communities of Richmond and West Oakland in California. Richmond has traditionally mobilized around toxic industrial employment, and continues to be deeply concerned with air quality issues and the health impact on residents of trucking, bus and train routes. Environmental organizations in West Oakland have been mobilizing around community education, and advocating the use of "heath impact assessments" as a conceptual tool that will facilitate the integration of planning and economic development with the wide range of health and living concerns that are critical to the neighborhood's current and future residents. Our intention is to focus on these communities where we can demonstrate long-term commitment and offer disability anti-discrimination education, training and, if necessary, litigation in conjunction with self-advocacy and community education on environmental justice. Our mid-range goals are to establish a partnership with the community, determined the legal and policy needs that individuals with disabilities in these communities have, and advocate for the physical access and programmatic accommodation needs of residents with disabilities to be taken into account during a neighborhood ?s planning process and not only as an afterthought. A longer-range goal is to refine a working model of a disability rights-environmental justice relationship that could be replicated and further refined in any community that has been affected by environmental injustice.
1 See A. Rajotte, Asthma and Pesticides in Public Schools: Does the ADA Provide a Remedy Where FIFRA Fails to Protect, 31 B.C. ENVTL. AFF. L. REV. 149 (2004).