Among the many issues that COP28 in Dubai left on the table that still need to be thought about is certainly the issue of disability. People with disabilities represent about 16% of the world’s population according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the largest minority group to date. That social group, along with women, children and indigenous peoples, is among those most disproportionately impacted by climate change according to reports from OHCHR and the IPCC. In fact, mortality rates among people with disabilities related to the effects of climate change are estimated to be up to 4 times higher than among able-bodied people.

However, this minority has not yet found adequate inclusion and space within the climate negotiations. A small delegation of people with disabilities showed up at COP28, but at the UNFCCC level there is no relevant constituency, although at COP27, Pratima Gurung, a representative of the National Association of Indigenous Disabled Women of Nepal, called for the need for its creation and formal recognition. In general, people with disabilities are always mentioned through some other civil society group and are hardly present to make their voices and demands heard, or to enrich the debate with their opinions and experiences.

This has concrete repercussions in terms of negotiation and subsequent climate action. The texts, in fact, mention people with disabilities in a sporadic and occasional way, but mostly in an abstract way, that is, without lowering climate action into the concrete experience and reality of that social group in fact producing climate actions that are not accompanied by any significant results. Think, for example, of so-called warning systems (early warnings). The implementation of sirens that warn the population in case of a natural disaster does not take into account deaf people, effectively excluding them from evacuation plans. 

Why is there such a struggle to treat disability with due consideration?

A simple and complex answer at the same time, because this lack is nothing more than a reflection of the systemic marginalization that society at large operates towards people with disabilities. At COP we struggle to include and make room for people with disabilities because the climate negotiations embody and perpetuate the same abilist worldview. Even starting with the logistics: from getting to the COP venue to moving within it, nothing seems designed to accommodate people with disabilities.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) definition of disability includes a wide range of long-term mental, physical, intellectual or sensory impairments. However, it is not these that generate the marginalization of people with disabilities. Rather, it is the interaction of these impairments with the social-attitudinal barriers built around them (stereotypes, stigma and prejudice) that make people disabled. Believed to be more ‘objects’ than ‘subjects’ of society, people with disabilities have experienced centuries of exclusion that have taken the form of constant denial of access to physical space – infrastructure, goods and services – and civic space, all exclusively designed by and for able-bodied people. 

From this perspective, the CRDP incorporates a paradigm shift: from a conception of people with disabilities as mere objects of compassionate attention, medical treatment or social protection, to subjects of rights. The bonds introduced by the CRDP reflect this new conception, recognizing the status of persons with disabilities as active bearers of rights just like everyone else.

Why is it crucial to include people with disabilities?

As with other social groups, people with disabilities are not only disproportionately impacted victims of climate change, they are agents of change. First, because they remind us how vulnerable we are. Disability is not, in fact, something unique, but is an intrinsic part of human life. This means that we are all exposed to disability, and this is especially true in the context of climate change capable of resetting centuries of development to zero in the blink of an eye. 

In this new paradigm, people with disabilities are carriers of unique knowledge and experiences that open us up to new understandings of the relationships between us and between us and the environment. Simply put, they shine a light on ways of imagining the world-at the state limited by our abilist vision-that benefit everyone not just people with disabilities. For example, the Universal Design social movement, which began in the 1960s and initially developed primarily in the United States of America, aims to integrate the disabled perspective by proposing the design of infrastructure, products, communication systems, and the surrounding spaces such that they fit the widest possible spectrum of users. A ramp to a building instead of stairs benefits not only people with physical disabilities, but also parents with wheelchairs, pregnant women, and the elderly.

This is why it is necessary for climate policies to include the perspective of people with disabilities. Disability-inclusive climate action would promote sustainable development without leaving anyone behind. This requires the recognition and participation of people with disabilities in relevant decision-making processes, starting with climate negotiations. COPs, therefore, must be organized in such a way as to ensure their full and effective participation. This would also ensure internal consistency, given that the climate negotiations are under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, which is the same house that hosts the CRPD, the convention that provides the legal framework for re-empowering people with disabilities. 

Article by Erika Moranduzzo, Human Rights Expert and Coordinator of the Rights and Climate Section, Italian Climate Network

Immagine di copertina: IDA

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