My daughter is 15, a wheelchair user, and a fierce Disability rights campaigner. I proudly stood next to her as we took part in the extinction rebellion protests in London. She was asked by many bystanders why did she feel the need to campaign on something like climate change when it is not a disability rights issue? She calmly explained that to her and her community it is in fact very much a disability rights issue. Let me explain.
Disability is always the last community thought of in any political, national, and indeed, global crisis. This fact has become a proven reality this week at the COP26 climate conference. The conference itself is branded as humanity’s last chance to save the world, but sadly humanity seems to be non-disabled in its conference representation.
This is not just a parent with a hidden disability ranting and shouting at the clouds, you only have to look at the facts and the conference itself for instance. Greta Thunberg, probably the greatest and most informed climate campaigner we have was not invited to the conference this week. In my mind her being there should have been obvious, not just because of her vast knowledge, but because she represents disability through her autism. Another stark and shocking piece of climate ableism was the fact that Karine Elharr, a disabled Israeli minister could not even get into the event because of a lack of disability access. Indeed as South African disability campaigner Eddie Ndopu (a rare voice for the community actually inside) called on leaders to commit to “concrete actions to stop the destruction of this planet” for both disabled and non-disabled people, President Biden fell asleep.
The facts about Climate change and its potential impact on a community are already ignored and stereotyped. There are between 110 and 190 million people with significant disabilities around the world who are already experiencing adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates. It should come as no shock to the reader, to realize that where the environment has been degraded the most, such as industrial zones and oil-contaminated areas, rates of disability are remarkably high, and not unsurprisingly, so is poverty. This global community of disabled people will be impacted disproportionately by climate change because already through this social deprivation they lack the resources to adapt to a changing environment.
Education is key to understanding the impacts of climate change, and here in the UK disabled children and young people are facing enormous issues just accessing education through local council cuts to SEN education (special educational needs and disabilities) Indeed a lack of access for disabled children is a worldwide problem. Climate education can only reach everyone if education is completely accessible. We need to educate ALL children, regardless of ability on what to do if a climactic event happens. When you have the knowledge you make decisions faster, better, and more easily.
Another aspect of the effect of global warming on the disabled community is that as the planet warms, areas of land (especially those in the poorest areas of our global society) will become uninhabitable forcing the mass migration of communities to cooler climates. However, marginalized populations – such as people with disabilities – might be unable to travel due to inadequate and inaccessible transportation and so forced to remain in degraded environments without housing, employment, support networks, or health care services. Too many disabled people already live in poor and inaccessible housing, too many are already isolated and alone, meaning no one is looking out for them if an emergency arises.
There was a great deal of talk during Covid about the need to protect those with underlying health conditions. The pandemic has taught us that viruses are indiscriminate, and if the climate remains on course to increase, the possibility of new and indeed old viruses arriving is tragically obvious. As communities start to move to northern hemispheres away from flooded or arid environments, there is an increased risk of viruses jumping from species to species as we grow closer in proximity, and as this happens, local health services, already short of manpower, will be teetering on the edge of collapse. Who then will get the priority treatment? We have already seen the dark shadow of DNRs fall across many disabled patients in ICU with Covid.
Air pollution is another increasing factor for disabled people with underlying health conditions. Respiratory issues, that see children on oxygen and ventilators used to treat chronic conditions that support breathing will see an increase in demand and use as the air, especially in city centers gets worse and harder to breathe. There was already an oxygen shortage in covid and the stark reality is that society is seemingly not prepared to plan for a world-encompassing change of environment, it is not willing it seems to plan and support disabled adults and children.
We can see that Governments are developing adaptation strategies to respond to the risks that a changing climate will bring, but we see that there is little consideration or inclusion of the disabled in their plans. The disabled community is being left out of possibly the most important conversations even undertaken by the human race, and what do you think that tells us?
So then what’s the answer? Well, an invitation to participate, to show that there is no prejudice in these talks. Everything from politics, to the climate, affects the disabled community. If 190 million disabled people are to become climate refugees, they will require different kinds of support, so let us help develop the plans, stop the exclusivity of climate talks.
From a personal perspective, I already worry about the future for my daughter in a society already designed to exclude her. How can I sleep at night, how can I possibly stop her from campaigning for her future If disabled people are to be left in the dark? If they, we, are an afterthought to humanity’s survival? It is our collective future after all.