Why Disabled People Mustn’t Be Excluded From Combatting The Climate Crisis

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VINCENNES BAY, ANTARTICA - JANUARY 11: Giant tabular icebergs are surrounded by ice floe drift in ... [+] Vincennes Bay on January 11, 2008 in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Australia's CSIRO's atmospheric research unit has found the world is warming faster than predicted by the United Nations' top climate change body, with harmful emissions exceeding worst-case estimates. (Photo by Torsten Blackwood - Pool/Getty Images)

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When it comes to the threats posed by the ongoing climate crisis, people with disabilities find themselves in a uniquely vulnerable position.

First and foremost, let’s be clear – climate change affects everyone on the planet regardless of age, gender and economic status.

However, people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of climate change due to a combination of different factors including ill-health and reduced physical capacity, being overlooked by policymakers and an increased likelihood of forming part of a low socio-economic stratum.

This may ultimately manifest in several different ways. Those with heat-sensitive medical conditions will increasingly struggle to cope with soaring summer temperatures due to global warming, such as those experienced in the Pacific Northwest this past June.

People with respiratory difficulties are amongst those worst impacted by air pollution, while those with mobility impairments will struggle greatly if they have to evacuate due to flash flooding and the spread of wildfires.

In the case of power outages, some disabled people will find themselves unable to charge electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters. For those reliant on medical equipment such as powered respirators, it could become a matter of life and death.

These impacts are likely to be even more acute in third world or developing countries where saline intrusion caused by rising sea levels can affect freshwater supplies and overall food security.

Locked out of sustainability

Comprising 15-20% of the global population, people with disabilities are major stakeholders in combatting the challenges of climate change.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to learn that disabled people, as a result of inaccessible practices, are often prevented from carrying out their duties as global citizens to help tackle the crisis.

These issues were recently neatly encapsulated in research carried out by the U.K.-based charity RIDC (Research Institute for Disabled Consumers), which supports government and businesses to gain insights based on quantitative and qualitative data on the day-to-day experiences of disabled people across the country.

RIDC’s survey incorporated the views of 485 disabled respondents and found that, while 97% of disabled and older people are concerned about the environment, they continue to experience barriers to making sustainable choices concerning transport, shopping, recycling and energy use. 

One of the major issues identified was a lack of reliable, accessible public transport to reduce private vehicle use.

As many as 6 in 10 (57%) of respondents said that a lack of accessible public transport such as step-free railway stations, the presence of assistance staff, or buses using audio announcements prevented them from using it more often.

In addition, when it comes to driving more environmentally-friendly electric vehicles, a lack of accessible charging points was cited as a major barrier to participation.

Within the home, 17% of respondents said that they were unable to contribute as much as they would like to environmentally-friendly practices. 

Some of the reasons given were a lack of recycling information on packaging for visually impaired people, a reliance on pre-prepared ingredients because of difficulties chopping food and the presence of single-use plastics in medical equipment and medication. 

The need for more affordable, green alternatives for home energy, which may have a particular impact on people on low incomes was also referenced - along with a desire for clearer recycling schemes using braille labels for containers.

Commenting on the research, RIDC’s CEO Gordon McCullough said, “We know that disabled people want to contribute in the fight against the climate crisis, but instead they are being further marginalized by barriers to sustainable practices, infrastructure and products. 

“Even at COP26, we’ve seen a disabled person being excluded from entering due to a lack of consideration of their needs. If the U.K. government is really serious about reducing our impact on the environment, we need to make sure all our citizens are able to engage in sustainable practices.” 

“Nothing About Us, Without Us”

In the case of people with disabilities joining in with the global effort to fight the climate crisis, the age-old disability rights mantra of “Nothing About us, Without Us” appears most apt.

Governments around the world need to do more to ensure that the needs of disabled people are specifically accounted for both in terms of promoting sustainable practices and in evacuation and disaster planning.

It remains equally important that the so-called “green jobs” of the future remain open and accessible to the disability community. The fact these might represent something of a clean slate in relation to planning and design should help make this a reality.

Equally, one would hope that the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic have been learnt and all types of people, including those with disabilities, will enjoy increased opportunities to work from home moving forwards.

This should reduce the pressure on urban transportation infrastructure.

When one thinks about it, people with disabilities are a most natural fit for being at the vanguard of battling climate change.

Accessible public transport and the right to work from home are what this community has been campaigning on for decades.

In an interview conducted for the latest edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Daphne Frias, a disabled youth activist working at the intersection of disability justice and climate change explained this natural overlap rather eloquently:

“Disability justice and the climate crisis are connected because people with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable members of society and often the most impacted. The climate crisis can seem like a somewhat invisible issue, and disabled people can also feel invisible. We’re tackling two issues, in trying to get people to notice and believe both the climate crisis and the need for disability justice,” said Frias.

She later continued, “Disabled folks live with the anticipation of unknown challenges and difficulties around the corner, and with that prescience comes the ability to find silver linings and joy in the work. It’s exciting to find innovative solutions to the climate crisis because it means we have agency, we’re taking the problem into our own hands, and doing something about it.”

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