We all know that littering is bad for the environment, often having a negative impact on wildlife in particular (to this day, I refuse to throw away the plastic used to hold cans and bottles together without cutting open all of the loops first), but many people do not seem to realise that littering is also a disability justice issue. Litter can block pathways, interfere with the movement of or even damage accessibility aids such as white canes and wheelchairs, presents a general trip hazard for those of us less steady on our feet, and obscures steps and road markings designed to help disabled people. After over a decade of wheelchair use, I have several choice examples that highlight exactly how significant a problem litter can be if you are disabled.
Shortly before heading to university, I had scraped together enough pennies to afford a second-hand powered wheelchair, my first ever. It gave me the independence I needed to live away from home and continue my education, as well as re-invigorating my social life, which had been lacklustre since falling ill a few years before. Even after three years of use on top of its previous life, it was still going strong, carrying me all over campus to lectures and seminars, lab sessions and library visits. It was derailed by a discarded pin.
I collapsed into my wheelchair after writing up my notes from that day’s lectures, ready to head over to the canteen to grab some food, and found myself sat at an odd angle. I initially thought something was trapped beneath the cushion, but soon discovered that the entire wheelchair was slanting heavily to one side. I got out, and that was when I noticed a brass drawing pin dangling from a large hole in my tyre, which was punctured beyond repair. The pins I used in my room were coloured plastic to make them easy to spot should they fall out of the board, to prevent this very scenario.
It would transpire that a single pin wrote off a powered wheelchair, and had a significant impact on my mobility and independence for over a month until a replacement could be procured.
I have lost count of the number of scrapes and scratches my wheelchairs have suffered when litter interfered with my movement, with broken glass in particular often causing me problems, but fortunately nothing quite so problematic occurred until recently.
I was out in town on a rainy day, traversing down the high street which has a grate-covered drain running along the shopfronts. A discarded plastic bottle had landed on this drain and caused water to pool over the grate, disguising the fact that under the weight of the water the grate was completely displaced. The first I knew about any of this was being flung forwards as a small front wheel disappeared down the gap, and I landed hard on my ankle which twisted inwards sharply. Fortunately, the resulting sprain only required the use of a compression bandage for a few days, but the injury needn’t have occurred at all had someone simply had the presence of mind to use one of the multiple bins on the street.
I am far from the only disabled person to have had expensive equipment damaged or even suffer an injury because someone refused to responsibly dispose of waste, but I also know that the sort of person not to care about damaging the environment probably doesn’t care about harming disabled people either. That said, if you ever find yourself tempted to litter “just this once” because there’s not a convenient receptacle nearby, remember that you could easily be costing someone hundreds of pounds, stripping them of independence, or even physically hurting them. What may seem trivial to you could be life-changing for someone else.