Today, on International Day of Disabled Persons, I am reflecting on the systemic health and social inequities as well as the deeply entrenched racism of this country, which have put disabled people, Black people and people of color, Indigenous peoples and other underrepresented communities at higher risk of getting sick and dying from the coronavirus, environmental injustice and toxic pollution.
We cannot allow the same level of incompetence, inaction, and lack of planning that we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic to occur with climate change, which is already causing loss of human life and economic damage. We must do better and prioritize communities most impacted in order to ensure their resilience.
Disabled people are some of the most resilient people in the world. There is much to learn from how we navigate a world not built for us.
While governments, cities, and companies are developing mitigation and adaptation strategies to respond to varied climate risks, there is little consideration or inclusion of the disabled in their plans. This must change.
Nearly 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, are disabled, according to the World Bank. Many people affected by the intensifying impacts of climate change will be disabled — and climate change could also result in disabilities (for example, causing someone to lose a limb, their vision, or causing PTSD). A recent UN resolution calls on governments to “promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations.” The resolution encourages governments to formulate disability-inclusive approaches to address climate change.
Climate change impacts disproportionately affect people with disabilities. Disabled people* may lack the resources to adapt to climate change. They may have various levels of mobility, use mobility devices, have chronic pain, need medical technology such as a stoma bag or medication, and may have mental illness. Disabled people regularly face structural barriers that threaten their lives during disasters, including inaccessible infrastructure and public transportation systems, endemic poverty, limited voice in civic governance, and rigid communications mechanisms. These barriers are inextricably tied to ableism, racism, sexism, and socioeconomic inequity.
Women, Indigenous peoples, and youth have been important participants in climate action discussions. It is just as vital to include disabled perspectives when creating and implementing climate action. A variety of people with disabilities should participate in environmental decision-making.
Governments must think carefully about how people with disabilities will be able to access health services, medicine, life-saving technology, electricity, and more during natural disasters and climate change impacts. They must assess the accessibility of current plans and early warning systems; for instance, can people with disabilities access the warnings in multiple formats (for example, people with low-vision or who are D/deaf), do they provide enough time for them to evacuate from impending natural disasters, such as floods or wildfires?
Disability is vast and varied. Even my own bone disorder, spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, affects people completely differently. It is important for governments to recognize that there are many types of disabilities, that the same disability may not affect everyone similarly, and that all disabilities and illnesses must be considered when creating and implementing climate action. Someone who is D/deaf* will require different accessibility than someone who uses a wheelchair, someone who can walk unassisted but has chronic pain when standing or walking for long periods will likely have other needs than someone who is blind, and someone who uses medical devices that require electricity will likely have different needs than someone with multiple sclerosis.
For more on climate change and disability, I encourage you to listen to this amazing episode on climate change from the Disability Visibility Project, founded by Alice Wong. It highlights the New Earth Disability Initiative from the World Institute on Disability, which analyzes connections between climate change and disability and works to ensure climate adaptation recognizes the needs of people with disabilities.
As someone with a disability, I am personally invested in governments including me and my fellow disabled peers in their climate action plans. Otherwise, we risk being left out to die as the seas rise.
This essay was originally published in Entropy Inherited, an intersectional climate newsletter, in January 2020. Marlena Chertock has two books of poetry, Crumb-sized: Poems (Unnamed Press) and On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press). She uses her skeletal dysplasia as a bridge to scientific poetry. She is queer, disabled, and a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee. Marlena serves as Co-Chair of OutWrite, Washington, D.C.’s annual LGBTQ literary festival, and on the Board of Split This Rock, a nonprofit that cultivates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. Her poetry and prose has appeared in AWP’s The Writer’s Notebook, Breath & Shadow, The Deaf Poets Society, Lambda Literary Review, Little Patuxent Review, Noble/Gas Quarterly, Paper Darts, Paranoid Tree, Plants & Poetry, Washington Independent Review of Books, WMN Zine, Wordgathering, and more. Find her at marlenachertock.com and @mchertock.
*D/deaf: This term is used by many D/deaf or hard of hearing people. “Deaf” signifies those who use sign language and identify as culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community, while “deaf” signifies those who are hard of hearing but may use spoken language as their first language, may lipread, or may use hearing aids. Read more.
*Disabled versus people with disabilities: Among the disability community, there is an ongoing conversation about identity-first versus people-first language. Some view people-first language (for example, person with a disability, person with autism) to be the most appropriate way to refer to disabilities, while others view identity-first language (for example, disabled person, autistic person) as the most appropriate since disability is such an integral part of people’s experiences. Disabled people should be identified how they want. Read more.