What do climate-focus agencies need to be doing to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their work, and what should disability organisations need to be doing to ensure a focus on climate in their work?

Author: Dr Maria Kett

Thank you to all of you who contributed to the discussion around what climate-focus agencies need to be doing to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their work, and what disability organisations need to be doing to ensure a focus on climate in their work. This issue has already been highlighted at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow this week, when the Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources, Karine Elharrar-Hartstein, was unable to enter the building in her wheelchair.[1] To make matters worse, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson issued a formal apology on ‘Purple Tuesday’, a day set up to raise awareness of how organisations need to improve the experiences of their disabled customers.[2] The Israeli minister (graciously) noted that at least it might ensure that the venue is fully accessible next time, but unfortunately for many people with disabilities, this is not always the case and they remain on the side lines. What will it take to ensure that this does not happen again?

Asha Hans, an academic based in India who has worked from many years on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), and Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction (DiDRR) drew our attention to the need to link DRR and climate change. Asha gave us a comprehensive set of recommendations, including the need for effective interaction between stakeholders – something we hope will be happening in Glasgow over the next few weeks. Linked to this, she called for the formation of a stakeholder group to be a conduit to states parties, and the need for a UNFCCC-led meeting specifically on disability-inclusive climate change actions, as well as more research and evidence around the impacts on persons with disability. Asha reminds us how effective these strategies were at the Sendai Conference in 2015, and subsequent focus on disability in DRR.

Daniel Mont asked what indicators might be feasible to support these endeavours and made some helpful suggestions himself for ‘preparation’ indicators, such as whether plans are made inclusively, and whether organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) are involved in planning. Dan noted that such indicators are probably easier to identify than indicators to measure outcomes for persons with disabilities during and after a disaster. However, we know governments are setting targets to address climate change – including providing support for those most impacted by it, so we need to ensure these targets, and the means to achieve them, are inclusive of persons with disabilities. As I noted in the forum, we need more examples of ‘good practice’, and more discussions about what we mean by ‘good practice’.

Lucy Nkatha reminded us that organisations focusing on climate change need to ensure that interventions and actions are not just inclusive but also led by persons with disabilities themselves, from the beginning. This was reiterated by Vaishnavi Jayakumar, who argued that there needs to be genuine understanding and inclusion, not just tokenistic representation. Vaishnavi also highlighted how despite the many guidelines around disability inclusive disaster relief, there are still many people with disabilities losing their assistive devices, being left out of shelters because they are inaccessible, or not getting to them in the first place, and not being able to find out information. Vaishnavi also made the hugely important point that this is an emergency, and the time for change is now.

Esma Gumberidze also made a number of suggestions, including that climate focused NGOs and government organisations should proactively reach out to OPDs and ask what about needs, and ensure they are included in consultative councils and other participation mechanisms. Esma also made the key point that these organisations should aim to hire persons with disabilities as members of their team in climate related organizations. Esma also gave us a salutary example of a disaster risk reduction project in Georgia that started off with good intentions but faded out after the grant was finished. We often hear this. Esme noted that the Prime Minister’s Office did not try to reach out to OPDs to consult with them on the new disaster risk reduction strategy; but neither did the OPDs reach out to the government with a request to participate. An Esma notes, OPDs are under resourced, lacking staff and reliant on volunteers and project specific grants, often from international donors. This makes it a challenge for OPDs to follow up on all the different policy processes in a country. This is a point shared by Pradeep Bagival, who also argues for the capacity of OPDs to be enhanced so they can meaningfully participate in national and international climate change events.

Pradeep also reminded me how long we have been working in this field, sharing his memories about the impact of climate change on health and other aspects of the lives of persons with disabilities in Asia. In coastal area of Banda Aceh, while persons with disabilities had survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2006, many had increased health problems and loss of homes and property as a result. This was compounded by a gradual loss of livelihoods – fishing – to increasing tides, as well.  As Pradeep notes, at that time, there was very little mention of persons with disabilities in climate change discussions. Similarly, in India, extreme heat events were leading people to move, requiring transfers from their jobs.

Like Asha, Pradeep also puts the responsibility on the UN, as it is leading the response to climate crisis as well as committing to disability inclusion across national and international platforms. However, as Pradeep notes, only 16% of UN entities meet the requirements of indicators for disability inclusion within the UN system. This brings us back to our earlier point – we need indicators of inclusion, as well as more research around what those will look like, to ensure disability-inclusive response to climate change.

Before it started, COP26 was heralded as being one of the ‘most inclusive’[3]. While this promise has not started well,[4]  it is not too late to make the commitments needed. There will be representation from the disability caucus in Glasgow, and several disability-focused side event sessions in Glasgow. But disability needs to be brought fully onto the agenda – not just a side event. Disability issues need to be considered as a key intersectional issue throughout the COP negotiations and commitments must be explicitly disability-inclusive – merely focusing on ‘vulnerability’ is not enough. Finally, people with disabilities need to be active participants in climate action, not just passive recipients – and the time is now.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59128618

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59132811

[3] https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/07/05/delivering-inclusive-cop26-age-covid-19-requires-vaccines/; See also https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/30/cop26-will-be-whitest-and-most-privileged-ever-warn-campaigners

[4] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2296144-cop26-news-toothless-net-zero-plans-and-lack-of-disability-inclusion/