To build a sustainable future, all people, regardless of their race, class, gender, sexuality and ability, must be part of the conversation. In fact, without an equal voice in the conversation about climate change, representation is lost. Many times, the lost voice is that of the disability community.
The information in this article comes from organizations and people who have done significant research into issues faced by people in the disability community as well as by people who identify as having a disability. This article intends to make a connection between disability and climate change that should shape conversations about the future of our planet in terms of sustainability.
Ability is defined as the “possession of the means or skill to do something.” Disability, as defined by the Northwest ADA Center, means “an individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such impairment.”
According to the World Health Organization, a disability is not just a health problem, but is a complex phenomenon reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society where they live. This means that the difficulties faced by people with disabilities require interventions to remove environmental and social barriers.
Included among the many issues faced daily by the disability community are discrimination, access to adequate healthcare, unemployment, accessibility and poverty.
Tiffany Yu of Diversability, a social enterprise to rebrand disability through the power of community, says that those concerns are top priorities of the disability community. As such, climate change becomes an afterthought, making the ability to fight for climate justice a privilege.
“When it comes down to it,” said Yu, “climate justice is about people and climate change is a human rights issue. Climate change impacts vulnerable communities like mine, the most. Opportunity and justice cannot be an afterthought.”
With climate change comes increases in temperatures, hurricanes, droughts, fires, and displacement. People in the disability community are more vulnerable to the effects of these things for a plethora of reasons.
Those reasons include vulnerability to extreme heat, reliance on electricity to power medical equipment vulnerable to shut off during extreme storms, affordability of clean water during droughts – a disproportionate number of people with disabilities are caught in a seemingly endless poverty cycle –, and inaccessibility to adequate healthcare if displaced.
Pulling all of this into perspective: Climate change is happening and affects all of us. The Washington State Department of Ecology notes that “Washington faces serious impacts to its snowpack, infrastructure, and water supplies as the climate changes and temperatures climb.”
With increased temperatures comes less snowfall, which means Washington residents, who rely on the snow-fed water supply for safe drinking water, will see a decrease in water supplies as the effects of climate change increase. The potential lack of water may can have an adverse effect on the disability community, as previously mentioned, in large part because of the poverty cycle they face.
It’s a fact that people in the disability community are vulnerable to environmental issues and climate change, which makes this a disability rights issue. Therefore, the disability community need to be fully represented in order to build a sustainable future. Actions taken to mitigate climate change must consider that those actions not only help the environment but also help the people who could be most affected by changing environmental conditions.