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Excluding the disabled in climate disaster response is an embarrassment

‘The global community must include differently abled persons in all conversations, especially those in which they are most impacted.’

Sign for wheelchair and handicapped access in Perpignan, France. REUTERS
Sign for wheelchair and handicapped access in Perpignan, France.

Today, on the International Day of Persons With Disabilities, the world has an opportunity to reflect on how to create a more inclusive and accessible world for people with disabilities. This begins with leaders setting a better example for the rest of the world. 

Just this month, Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar was unable to attend the COP26 climate conference in the United Kingdom because there was no wheelchair access. According to an official travelling with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's delegation to Scotland, officials spent two hours trying to get Elharrar into the COP venue in Glasgow. After multiple unsuccessful attempts, and a shuttle that was also not accessible, she left the conference. Inaccessibility at the climate conference is a critical oversight given the disproportionate impact of climate change on people with disabilities. 

Organisers explained the incident as “a genuine mistake”. But the mistake happened while Scotland was working in partnership with McGill University, in Canada, the International Disability Alliance based in New York, and other international partners to ensure that disabled people have a platform at COP26. 

There are 14.1 million people with disabilities in the United Kingdom. Yet this instance demonstrates that a community that comprises nearly 20 percent of the UK population continues to face accessibility challenges.

Preparations for disasters and emergencies invariably have not adequately considered disabled people.

It begs the question: How will Scotland, the United Kingdom, and the global community at-large work to achieve inclusivity for disabled people, especially as it relates to the disproportionate impacts of crises like climate change?

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Among the challenges they face are: limited access to the knowledge, resources, and services they need to effectively respond to environmental change; and greater vulnerability to extreme climate events, ecosystem services loss, and infectious diseases due to compromised health and difficulties during required evacuations or migrations.

In the best of times, humanitarian and health system responses are not inclusive. Preparations for disasters and emergencies invariably have not adequately considered disabled people, leading to further marginalisation, isolation, neglect, and abandonment. 

In July this year, flooding in Germany killed 12 residents of a group home for disabled people; the year before, flooding killed 14 nursing home residents in Japan. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people with disabilities are less likely to have consistent electricity or air conditioning during periods of extreme temperatures. Even basic communication about crises creates barriers in information access. For example, how often do we see sign language interpretation on television? 

According to a survey by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 85 percent of people with disabilities from 137 countries reported that they had not participated or been consulted in community disaster management processes. This indicates that the measures put in place to manage disaster and risks, such as early warning or evacuation systems, may not reflect the ideas and needs of people with disabilities. This level of exclusion in decision-making and planning processes increases the risk of loss of life, and intensifies harm to people with disabilities during climate and disaster events. This is a risk that we cannot continue to ignore in view of the increasingly frequent disasters related to climate change.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in 2006, and intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. The protocol was met with overwhelming enthusiasm – the highest number of signatories to a UN Convention on its opening day ever. It seemed to signal a global commitment to change the attitudes and approaches to disabled people.

How we correct those inequities says a lot about the kind of society we want to create.

However, mistakes such as the one at COP26, underscore how little we have accomplished in the past 15 years. If we are going to seriously address the inequities faced by people with disabilities, the global community must include differently abled persons in all conversations, especially those in which they are most impacted. 

And they must begin doing that now. 

Some ways in which the global community might stop excluding disabled people include: looking to best practices such as ADA Guidelines, which can help support events with their accessibility requirements (access, ramps, parking, routes, setting, toilets, etc); hiring people with disabilities as stakeholders in planning both in-person and virtual events; and earmarking disability-inclusive data and funding to appropriately plan for events. 

As the world navigates the climate crisis and its many social, economic, and humanitarian angles, the focus on disabled people should be sharpened to address all the different inequities they face. How we correct those inequities says a lot about the kind of society we want to create. If we can acknowledge the urgent importance of resolving climate change for the benefit of future generations, we can also acknowledge the urgent need to create a society where people with disabilities are able to fully participate. 

Otherwise, it’s no longer a genuine mistake.

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