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This author lived near a contaminated Tucson aquifer. How it shaped radical thoughts on disability

"Disabled Ecologies: Lessons from a Wounded Desert," by Sunaura Taylor.
University of California Press
"Disabled Ecologies: Lessons from a Wounded Desert," by Sunaura Taylor.

Sunaura Taylor grew up in Tucson near an aquifer that was contaminated by a postwar Superfund site. It is what likely caused her own rare disability.

Now a writer, scholar and artist, Taylor is exploring a radical rethinking of disability — and its connection to our injured planet — in her new book, "Disabled Ecologies: Lessons from a Wounded Desert. "

The Show spoke with her more about it — and her memories of Tucson.

Conversation highlights

SUNAURA TAYLOR: We left when I was very young, when I was about 6 years old. And so, my memories of it actually are mostly just of the environment, the landscape being hot, you know, those kinds of those kinds of things. But I grew up with the story of what happened in Tucson — the pollution from Hughes Aircraft and the contamination, the groundwater really being part of my family's story. So we lived nearby the contamination, and that was the the story that I always grew up with was that this contamination was likely what led to my disability. And so I always knew that I wanted to return to this story. And you know, understand better what happened.

And on some level, it wasn't because you know, I knew I wanted to write a book about my own disability in life. That's actually not what I, you know, ever really wanted to write a book about. But ... what this story gave me was an understanding of two issues that would become really sort of obsessions of mine. And that is a way of thinking about disability and a way of thinking about nature. You know, as, as a kid, I think I had this understanding that disability wasn't just my sort of own medical problem or individual issue, but was this collective political issue that can emerge from environmental harm or that could emerge from injustice.

So that gave me a particular kind of understanding of disability that led to, you know, my understanding of disability activism and stuff later on in life. And then I think in terms of my understanding of nature, I had this, growing up, I had this understanding that, you know, nature isn't something separate from us, right? When we inujure nature, we injure ourselves. And so those are the things that I really actually knew that I wanted to write a book about.

In this book, you tell stories of some of the other people impacted by the Tucson aquifer by this contamination in the same way that you were. What was it like to talk to those people to discover you're part of a community?

TAYLOR: It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life. You know, I think as a researcher, we can spend a lot of time just alone in archives or alone writing and, and doing this kind of work was so meaningful. Meeting people was so meaningful. Also, I had no idea because I had lived away that Tucson was really home of one of the very earliest environmental justice movements. So not only did I meet people who had been impacted, but I met people who had been just incredible organizers.

You know, the world is, is a challenging place. You know, there's a lot of structural ableism, and growing up in that is challenging. And I feel very grateful that I had this understanding of disability, my own disability, as being connected to the broader issues. Because then when I found disability movements, disability rights and justice movements later on in my 20s, or when I discovered, sort of, disability scholarship, it was easy for me to kind of move into that. Because I already had an understanding of how the sort of challenges that I was facing growing up weren't just, you know, because of my limitations ... because of my body. It's because of the way that our society is structurally shaped for certain bodies and not other bodies.

In this book, you're helping us all rethink disability and its connection — not just to these political and societal systemic issues, but also to environmental justice. Which makes sense coming from where you're coming from. You're looking at them as linked, as creating networks.

TAYLOR: Absolutely. I think one of the sort of misconceptions about disability is that ... it's not an issue that impacts most people, that it's just those people over there in wheelchairs or blind people. Disability is something that impacts everyone. ... If we live long enough, we all sort of age into disability. We all experience sickness. We all experience moments of and periods of injury, right? But also we all experience the pressure of having to be sort of physically at our best, right? Efficient and productive and all of these things. So, disability is not sort of something that just impacts a few people.

But what I'm really interested in, too, is when we think about what's happening to our environments right now, as akin to disability or other kinds of ... related ideas. Whether we're thinking, you know, using words such as sickness or injury or disability, right? That we are to some extent, disabling our environments through climate change, through these, you know, contaminated sites that are just continuous with us and new ones. And so that is the sort of connections that I'm trying to think through is what happens if we can think about our, our harmed environments as also part of this broader disability community and maybe what kind of different responses than to environmental harm could we learn from disability activists and movements?

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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