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How important is it to include disabled people in discussions around the climate crisis?

With COP26 coming to Glasgow in November, the Scottish Government has announced the creation of the First Minister’s Environmental Council, a group of world-leading scientists and climate professionals established to advise the government on environmental issues. As was noted by Nicola Sturgeon, “Scotland has a unique opportunity to show leadership [on environmental issues] on the world stage” - to have a hand in guiding how other countries approach the climate crisis. With such a platform comes great responsibility. Used correctly, the Scottish government could spur on a significant change in attitude towards what we ought to be prioritising when attempting to tackle such an immense crisis. However, there appears to be someone missing from the group’s membership list, a gap that, if not filled, will be felt by many. Maybe it was an oversight, but there is no one to advise on how environmental issues (and responses to them) impact disabled people. 

More often than not, disabled people are the last group to be considered in the decision-making process. The lack of preventative measures put in place for disabled people during the pandemic meant that six out of 10 Covid-19 related deaths were of disabled people. As Labour MSP Pam Duncan-Glacy expressed on Twitter: “We’ve just seen what happened when disabled people weren’t involved in responding to one crisis [...] let’s not make the same mistake when responding to this one”. The UN Environment programme has highlighted that disabled people are disproportionately affected by the consequences of the climate crisis. Compromised health makes disabled people more vulnerable to infectious diseases. When power gives out, they lose access to their equipment. When bushfires raze down villages, it’s far more difficult for disabled people to evacuate safely.  We cannot address the climate crisis without accounting for the needs of the world’s largest minority group. 

The notion of eco-ableism is often overlooked, but it is so crucial to be mindful of when attempting to tackle the climate crisis. Essentially, this is when environmental policies and activists fail to explicitly take the needs of disabled people into account when planning their response to the crisis or formulating sustainable solutions to environmental issues. Take, for example, the seemingly minor issue of banning single-use plastic straws. People decried this idea when it was originally brought up back in 2019, disgusted by the idea of having to use a mushy, paper straw for their McDonald’s milkshake. But for many disabled people, it was genuinely difficult to imagine a world where these could be banned. Alternatives like paper or metal straws just don’t work, and requiring disabled people to specifically request a plastic straw when they enter an establishment forces them to disclose their disability, and puts them at risk of discrimination. Or, consider the notion of car-free zones. In Glasgow, there are several car-free zones in place around schools across the city, to reduce traffic and encourage people to use other, more sustainable modes of transport. Whilst there are exceptions made for blue badge holders, disabled people who have not procured a blue badge from their local council will be charged £50 for entering these zones. 

The climate crisis is already here, and she’s not going to slow down any time soon. We have to act with urgency. But we also have to act with care, compassion, and consideration, for both our environment and for those people who will be disproportionately affected by the crisis.


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