The intersections of disability in the face of disaster and climate activism

People | Human Health

By Andrei Mihail, Freelance Writer

Published March 14th, 2022

Past and present catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina and the current COVID-19 pandemic, have shown how disabled people are often forgotten by society. The threat of climate change, flooding, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires will undoubtedly heighten their state of vulnerability. What will it take for society to value disabled lives?

According to the social model of disability, mental or physical impairments are not necessarily disabling by themselves. In most cases, they are turned into disabilities due to a society that fails to account for differences from the normative.

We live in a deeply inaccessible society, where many are cut off from jobs, town halls, art galleries, educational institutions, restaurants, cinemas and other physical locations needed for personal development, socialisation and entertainment. This is because their bodies and mind, outside of their control, do not conform to how society thinks a human should function. Therefore, it is of little surprise when climate change threatens them disproportionately.

Disabled people are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change and natural disasters. | Jon Tyson / Unsplash

Whenever a catastrophe occurs, a disproportionate number of the victims who have a disability are left behind during evacuations. Ignored in times of distress, many are often left to die during triage when resources are low.

According to the National Council on Disability in 2006, during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, few attempts were made to communicate the disaster to people with sensory disabilities. The lack of closed captions or on-screen interpreters made it very hard for deaf people without family to realise the danger, while the lack of audio descriptions of visual displays of critical information, such as maps of affected areas, endangered visually impaired people.

Additionally, distress followed as people in care homes and hospitals were left without assistance, the blind could not navigate their way around flooded neighbourhoods and people with service animals were not able to rely on them. Within the temporary shelters, there were significant issues affecting all displaced people, but disabled ones were the most affected.

The infamous Superdome shelter is a textbook example of a failed government response. Unbearable heat during the day and freezing temperatures during the night, extreme humidity trapped by the stadium’s architecture, overcrowding, excessive noise, lack of ventilation, no permission for support animals—this hell would overwhelm any of us.

The attempt to separate healthy and disabled or injured people also backfired by cutting their access to sanitary facilities, and creating the vision of favouritism since reasons for the separation were not clearly communicated. And while eventually 700 ill and elderly people were evacuated, people with less visible disabilities were left behind.

‘Whenever a catastrophe occurs, a disproportionate number of the victims will have a disability.’

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic response made it clear that it is not just a lack of preparation for natural disasters that can affect the most vulnerable. The UK government’s strategy at the beginning of the pandemic to allow the coronavirus to spread through the population to achieve herd immunity was seen as a public health failure. This decision was also seen as a complete disregard for the safety of the vulnerable population, the disabled, immunocompromised and those with pre-existing conditions.

Strictly medically speaking, the life of a person with diabetes—one of the highest COVID-19 risk factors in young people—already has more barriers compared to that of an abled person. They already have to take more precautions during their daily life. Yet, we notice a particular disregard for vulnerable people during protests to end lockdowns. For a significant section of the public and even some fringe politicians, minor needs and trivial pleasures like haircuts and massages are more important than eradicating COVID-19 and keeping everyone safe.

People with pre-existing conditions are more likely to suffer complications from a COVID-19 infection. | Mufid Majnun / Unsplash

During the first wave of the pandemic, a third of patients with suspected COVID-19 were given a DNACPR, or ‘do not resuscitate’, the decision upon or before admission. These types of decisions may be made for people too frail to benefit from the intensity of CPR, which frequently breaks bones and can cause damage even in healthy people. Despite being a triage procedure, it was mishandled due to unprecedented pressure and lack of preparedness by UK providers. The public cannot help but worry about the impacts disability had on the decisions.

Again, during the second wave of the pandemic, it seems these practices were not improved. A report from 2021 showed people with learning disabilities were also given ‘do not resuscitate’ orders, without consulting the patients or their families.

This disregard for the lives of disabled people by the government and healthcare system gives the impression that authorities and even our fellow citizens devalue disabled lives.

‘A report from 2021 showed people with learning disabilities were also given ‘do not resuscitate’ orders.’

A recent systematic review confirms these points: people with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable not just because of their impairments, but also due to the inequality they face in their daily lives and their exclusion from evacuation and relief efforts.

When it comes to lack of access, there is an obvious parallel to be drawn with climate change. Indeed the increase of frequency and severity of extreme weather will impact and risk direct and indirect human health and livelihoods. Unfortunately, it will risk the disabled and disadvantage them more than the others. It is clear now that better policies are needed to accommodate those with a disability during times of crisis.

Unfortunately, simple economic pragmatism and institutional inertia generally get in the way of action, and business continues as usual. This leaves it up to activists and NGOs to help with the lack of representation of the ones most affected and the lack of resources available.

Climate change will—and is already—disproportionately affecting those with lower income, as well as racialised and marginalised groups, the disabled and the people living in the Global South.

Climate change will affect us all, but with connection and compassion, we realise that the only solution is absolute, unwavering solidarity with all struggles, since none of us can hope to resist climate change alone.

There are NGOs all over the world whose work, directly and indirectly, helps people with disabilities. Legs4Africa provides donated prosthetics to amputees in sub-Saharan African countries, and many of their key workers are disabled themselves. These mobility aids will provide them with an improved quality of life and a better chance to adapt to the changing climatic conditions.

‘Climate change will—and is already—disproportionately affecting those with lower-income, those racialized and marginalised groups, the disabled.’

The Global Disability Innovation Hub has campaigned for climate-resilient inclusive design at the COP26 on the basis that there is no climate justice without disability justice—the world we build must be resilient, in harmony with nature and accessible. The need to rethink and rebuild our energy, transport and industrial systems in sustainable ways is also an opportunity to make them more accessible than ever before. This is an unprecedented chance to ensure a green and just future for all.

If our climate activism is genuinely radical, if it wishes to transform society on the fundamental level and ensure a better future for all, then it must recognize how societal dynamics, climate change and disability interact. It must recognize the many disabled leaders and fight eco-ableist approaches.

Aid needed by disabled people is shipped with huge amounts of cardboard and plastic, thus barring them from fully committing to zero waste movements. | آرمین / Wikimedia Commons

Eco-ableism is when our approaches to environmental activism end up hurting disabled people. This most often happens unwillingly, out of ignorance rather than malice, and for this reason, there is a need for constructive dialogue. Eco-ableism is not a form of individual sin, but one way in which we can unintentionally reproduce the social devaluing of disabled lives.

A good example is represented by the implementation of bike lanes; these car-free routes have barriers designed to stop motorbikes, Yet they also stop people with non-conventional vehicles from manoeuvering through. People who depend on wheelchairs, reclining bikes for people with back problems, trikes or other non-standard bikes struggle with these types of changes. Plastic straws were the main target of many campaigns. Unfortunately, these can be necessities—disabled people can choke on paper ones and find metal ones unusable.

Another example is the focus on individual, small-scale action and zero waste. A lot of medication, mobility aids, various monitors and other items which are necessary for the survival and thriving of disabled people are shipped with huge amounts of cardboard and plastic, thus barring them from fully committing to zero waste movements.

‘Eco-ableism is when our approaches to environmental activism end up hurting disabled people.’

Climate change threatens to wipe out the last 50 years of gains in public health. It threatens to destroy the moderate successes of the disability rights movement, as the needs of disabled people are targeted by corporate greenwashing initiatives focusing on individual impact.

There is increasing recognition for the unique ways in which climate change affects disabled people and the wonderful possibilities of adaptations that both mitigate climate change and advance human rights and socio-political equity.

Yet we must remember that disability does not equate to incompetence. Often the reason for unemployment amongst those with a disability is due to a simple lack of accessible jobs. As the climate crisis worsens, many have found ways to put their talents to clever use.

Now, at the forefront of many grassroots environmental activist groups, we find disabled leaders. The most popular by far is Greta Thunberg, leader and speaker of the Fridays for Future movement who is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Despite the stigma surrounding it and the stereotype of social awkwardness, she is an incredible public speaker and organiser who has remained loud and radical despite the establishment's attempt to pacify her.

Greta Thunberg, a young climate change activist who is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, has been labelled unfairly as socially awkward by the media. She has responded to critics: ‘It’s a superpower!’| Anders Hellberg / Wikimedia Commons

Activists use many methods to get past the way society disables them. The internet is a powerful tool for those unable to physically protest. We need to understand that there is strength in the diversity of tactics and approaches, and disabled activists are exceptional when we do not make our spaces inaccessible to them.

There is no one way for the human body to function. And there is no one way to fight against climate change. But to ensure a future where we can all thrive, we need to ensure that the dignity of our fellow humans is respected, their contribution encouraged and their lives valued.

The disabled people must be loud and clear: ‘we are here, our needs are real, and we will not be treated as dead weight.’

Featured Image: Infrogmation | Wikimedia Commons

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