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Disability advocates are urging governments to ensure accessibility in climate action and climate resilience plans after a summer of natural disasters highlighted the disproportionate impact climate change has on disabled people worldwide. The push comes as environmental groups raise concerns about the safety and equity of the upcoming COP26 conference and the International Panel on Climate Change reports a tightening deadline to halt global temperature rise.
Why This Matters: Ten to fifteen percent of the population is disabled in some way, and our current climate and disaster infrastructure is not sufficiently accessible. A 2020 paper found that disabled people are among the five most vulnerable groups to climate change. Additionally, they are less likely to have access to reliable resources like electricity and air conditioning due to disproportionate unemployment rates. “People have to travel further for clean and safe water or pay more for food. Climate change is a major driver of conflict, which leads to migration and refugee situations — and disability makes all of these situations harder and riskier,”Julia Watts Belser, a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, told The Hill.
A Seat at the Table
Advocates point out that many countries’ climate plans have been made without the input of disabled people, and even climate science has often left the disabled community behind. “I also see fellow scientists trying to provide information about climate change or sustainability, but their digital communication efforts are rarely accessible,” said Gabi Serrato Marks, a geochemist and science writer who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. “We can’t be publishing podcasts without transcripts, videos without captions, and images without image descriptions, then say that we want everyone’s help to address the climate crisis.”
Experts say that the infrastructure meant to save lives before and during natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, intensifying each year due to climate change, is also inaccessible. As explained by Mary Keogh, the Disability Inclusive Development Director at CBM Global:
For slow onset events which allow time for relocation, persons with disabilities are very often left out of planning and not able to access vital information because of accessibility barriers – for example, public warning methods such as TV broadcasts not including sign language interpretation.
As the government moves to upgrade climate-resilient infrastructure, disabled people must have a voice in decision-making and policy-making, or daily barriers could become deadly.
Ultimately, advocates say improving accessibility in climate infrastructure will require governments and the public to stop viewing disabled people as expendable and infrastructure as unchangeable. “Too often, the way we think about [climate change] is, ‘people are going to die, and disabled people are vulnerable, and they’re the most likely to die, and that’s just it, and that’s too bad,” explains Anna Landre, a wheelchair user and fellow at the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies. “But the reality is that these deaths are avoidable, that they’re the result of structural barriers that disabled people face every day.”
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