Environment

Disabled people are being left out of the climate conversation

Disabled people make up one billion of the world's population.

two wheelchair users on a subway platform in Taiwan

(Image: Lisanto/Unsplash)

As experts warn of how the climate crisis will further impact everyone in the near future, there are certain groups who may be hit harder when it comes to climate change.

This includes marginalised groups, such as indigenous people, people of colour, people living in the global south, and disabled people.

“Climate change is going to disproportionately affect the global population of 1 billion disabled people more than any other because effectively we’re already excluded from some areas of society that are inaccessible,” Dan White, policy and campaigns officer at Disability Rights UK said.

“Thanks to pollution, extreme weather events, and other climate-related impacts, such as Covid-19, the number of disabled people in the world is only going to grow so these conversations need to be had now,” he told the Big Issue.

In the UK, people are already being cut out. The push towards electric cars and measures to reduce the number of petrol cars on the road are also causing difficulties for disabled people who cannot afford the former but are unable to use the latter due to traffic enforcement policies that do not take disabled people into account, White said.

“Cars are being banned from streets which, in some cases, is the only form of transport disabled people have because travelling on public transport can be awful if you’re disabled. How are we supposed to get around if we can’t drive or be driven on certain roads?”

This was made clear recently when a disabled woman living in Brighton lodged a formal complaint to Brighton and Hove council after the street she lived in prevented vehicles from driving through it between 11am and 5pm each day. 

Ann Ingle said she had been left imprisoned in her home and unable to attend vital health appointments as a result of the policy.

She told the Disability News Service (DNS): “I’ve been left stranded. I just don’t know what I am going to do about this. It’s not about bikes versus cars or active travel. I feel absolutely battered by the whole thing. It’s a disability issue, it’s about how disabled people can be mobile and get to where we need to.”

Ingle is the “latest example of pedestrian-friendly policies that are failing to take access needs into account,” DNS wrote. 

Similarly, the expansion of London’s Ulez, a measure designed to reduce the number of older, more polluting cars from driving in and around London, has raised concerns over the impact on disabled people who may have older, accessible vehicles that will not comply with the Ulez regulations.

The Ulez currently has exemptions for disabled people until at least 2025.

“There needs to be a trade off between Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the Ulez, which I am largely in favour of, and the disabled people who are living in London and need to use cars to get around,” White said.

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White said he applauds any government or politician who makes net zero emissions and climate change a key policy but that those policies don’t mean anything if “they are not being inclusive”.

“There’s no dialogue with us to include our needs in mapping out the future of climate change,” White said. “It’s really quite appalling that we’re more likely to be affected and yet we’re not being involved in the solutions to help when we’re more than willing to do so.”

Research released in June 2022 showed that disabled people are often “systematically ignored” by governments around the world when it comes to the impacts of climate change, despite being particularly at risk of being affected by it.

The paper, titled Disability Inclusion in National Climate Commitments and Policies, found only 35 of the 192 countries signed up to the 2015 Paris agreement included provisions for disabled people. The UK was not one of them.

electric vehicle charging point, which is placed on a pavement and may mean less space for wheelchair users and disabled people
Electric vehicle charging points are often placed on pavements, which could pose accessibility issues for disabled people.
(Image: Ernest Ojeg/Unsplash)

Áine Kelly-Costello, a Paralympian and climate justice and disability rights campaigner, said: “We live in an ableist society, where a predominant and often subconscious mindset sees disabled people as lesser and devalues bodies and minds which stray from a perceived sense of ‘normal’.”

They told the Big Issue that the “likelihood of overlooking disabled people” within the climate conversation is high if people are not “subverting that problematic bias”.

White said that disaster planning is a clear area where disabled people are not being considered: “Disabled people are frequently unable to evacuate their homes and reach safety in the event of evacuation due to extreme weather.”

“Disabled people are twice as likely as any other group to die in natural disasters because support networks may not be able to reach us, shelters may be inaccessible, and early warning systems may not alert disabled people if those communications are inaccessible,” he continued.

a house in New Orleans ruined by hurricane katrina, and would likely have killed the people inside if they weren't evacuated, which they may not have been if they were disabled
Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage to hundreds of thousands of people, and disabled people were particularly left without support. (Image: Library of Congress/Unsplash)

White pointed to events like Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East coast of the US in 2012, both of which left many wheelchair users stranded as there was no plan for their evacuation.

Disabled New Yorkers took the city to court for neglecting them in emergency situations like Hurricane Sandy, which forced changes to policy so that in future, wheelchair-accessible public shelters must be provided.

“When it comes to evacuating disabled people, emergency services may not have the right knowledge and equipment to get them out. Houses that disabled people are in are often already inaccessible to the user so it’s even more difficult to get them out,” White said.

Kelly-Costello believes the lack of consideration for disabled people in disaster planning “boils down to what Professor Julia Watts Belser calls ‘expected losses’, which is the idea that some disabled people just won’t make it in a disaster”.

A jeep driving through a flood, induced by climate change
Disaster planning should include evacuation measures for disabled people, campaigners say. (Image: Dibakar Roy/Unsplash)

“​​If our lives aren’t seen as of equal value, we can literally get left for dead,” she added.

It’s not just in the event of extreme weather, which is becoming more and more common across the world, that disabled people will be negatively affected by climate change and the lack of preparedness surrounding it.

On a day-to-day basis, disabled people are being “excluded” in favour of building infrastructure, particularly for electric vehicles, to reduce air pollution and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, White said.

“Electric cars are increasingly becoming the choice of car for many people but for disabled people, it raises the issue of affordability and accessibility,” he explained, as electric cars often have a higher price point than a petrol car, which could increase even more if it has to be retrofitted for wheelchair accessibility.

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Charging points for electric cars can also be inaccessible for disabled people, according to a survey conducted by the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers, which found the majority of respondents view these charging points to be difficult to manoeuvre as a disabled person and that the bays aren’t designed with enough space for wheelchair users.

It’s another example of people with disabilities not being considered, said Kelly-Costello.

“As with all marginalised communities, disabled people know our own realities best. We spend our lives adapting so are well-accustomed to coming up with creative solutions.”

“Every policy or law which doesn’t proactively take our needs into account will end up negatively impacting us,” they said.

Both White and Kelly-Costello said that consultation and discussion with disabled people in all aspects of society is needed, but particularly if the world, or at least the UK, is aiming to tackle the climate crisis in the next decade and achieve net zero by 2050

Accessibility and disability inclusion benefits everyone, White said: “If you make something accessible for a disabled person, you make it accessible for anyone.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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