The U.N. Is Calling for the Inclusion of People With Disabilities in the Climate Change Debate

In a new resolution, the organization urges governments to listen to those who are affected the most by natural disasters.
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Bug Mohani steers his wheelchair along a part of a highway washed out by Hurricane Matthew in Flagler Beach, Florida, on October 9th, 2016.

Bug Mohani steers his wheelchair along a part of a highway washed out by Hurricane Matthew in Flagler Beach, Florida, on October 9th, 2016.

A line of elderly citizens unable to board a bus to evacuate a senior home. People with limited mobility sitting helpless by the side of the road. Wheelchairs buried in mud after a flood. Scenes and accounts like these became the norm in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the deadliest natural disasters in United States history.

Ten years later, a documentary called The Right to Be Rescued showed, through the perspective of survivors, what official reports would also confirm: People with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the disaster.

Over the last few years, stories about people with disabilities being left behind have continued to surface after tropical storms and wildfires in Puerto Rico, Texas, and California. Recently, the United Nations warned that climate crisis disasters are happening at the rate of one per week, urging developing countries to prepare for impact and to develop strategies to protect the most vulnerable populations, such as the poor, the elderly, children, and disabled people.

Last Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced a resolution addressing for the first time the rights of people with disabilities in connection with climate change. The document urges governments to listen to those who are affected the most by environmental changes, by adopting a "comprehensive, integrated, gender-responsive and disability-inclusive approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation policies."

In 2017, while reporting for Pacific Standard on the Houston community's disaster response to Hurricane Harvey, David M. Perry wrote:

The consequences of a natural disaster for any individual will be intensified not only by specifics of the disability, but also by other forms of inequality and marginalization such as race, class, gender or sexual identity, and legal status. Disabilities can also be temporary or changing, especially when disasters bring injury or new health risks. Disability disaster response therefore requires understanding all the varieties of disabilities and the inequities of our society—and too often requires fighting against governmental structures built without disability in mind.

In our hot new world, where extreme weather has become increasingly routine, the stakes of building resilient and fully inclusive systems couldn't be higher.

A recent survey as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development found that 72 percent of people with disabilities have no personal preparedness plan for disasters and almost 80 percent wouldn't be able to evacuate immediately without difficulty following a disaster. "The needs of persons with disabilities are often overlooked in the early phases of response to humanitarian emergencies and difficulties are often faced in accessing services and assistance, including rehabilitation and assistive products which are critical for recovery," the report states.

The U.N resolution, which aims to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and the conversations around climate resilience, follows an earlier push by the organization to also foster the inclusion of women in the decision-making process.

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