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Commentary: Climate change efforts won’t work if they exclude people with disabilities

At the recent United Nations climate negotiations in Egypt, disability activists urged governments to include people with disabilities in their plans to address climate change. In response, the member states adopted an “overarching decision” and a climate action plan that reference the disability community. But those steps still fall short of the needs and demands of people with disabilities.

Recent reports show people with disabilities have been systematically neglected in U.N. climate negotiations and domestic climate policies worldwide. Amid unprecedented efforts to tackle the climate crisis, the United States has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that climate action at home and globally doesn’t leave people with disabilities behind.

Worldwide, more than 1 billion people with disabilities face the risks of rising sea levels, reduced access to clean water and food, and death as a result of climate change. People with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die or be critically injured during disasters such as hurricanes, heatwaves and floods. Hot weather poses grave health dangers, including for those with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries. Research suggests that people with psychosocial disabilities have three times greater of a risk of death during heatwaves.

Poverty and other forms of discrimination compound the problem. A study following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 reported that people with cognitive and physical disabilities were more likely to live in flooded neighborhoods, many in public housing.

This elevated risk is preventable, not inevitable. It reflects a lack of inclusive planning, lifesaving medical equipment in power outages, accessible emergency information and accessible transportation – reinforcing patterns of social and economic marginalization.

Organizations of persons with disabilities have had to fill the gaps, leading efforts in response to disasters, including wildfires in California and hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, governments continue to flout disability law as illustrated by a successful federal lawsuit in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. A federal judge ruled in 2013 that New York City’s emergency plans violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, clearly affirming that governments are legally responsible for protecting people with disabilities in climate-related disasters.

The Biden administration has taken promising steps. One of President Biden’s first executive orders established a working group that focuses on climate change risk specifically to children, the elderly, people with disabilities and the vulnerable, and the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges people with disabilities as a “vulnerable group” in its Climate Adaptation Action Plan. But it’s unclear whether these moves will lead to concrete measures or ensure compliance with the ADA.

Climate solutions developed without input from people with disabilities, their representative organizations and allies run the risk of being exclusionary and inaccessible. Consider some seemingly straightforward strategies to cut emissions, the world’s top climate goal. Protected and continuous lanes for bicycling, for example, make it faster and safer to bike though city streets, a greener alternative to cars. However, redesigning streets to add bike lanes can make bus stops inaccessible by separating them from the sidewalk, and it can introduce other obstacles for wheelchair users as well as pedestrians with visual and hearing disabilities, thus violating the ADA.

Bike lanes must be designed to avoid those barriers while enabling accessible cycling (which includes making room for adaptive bikes used by people with disabilities, some of which have tricycle and other wider shapes). This will help lower carbon emissions and enable universal access.

Indeed, all measures to reduce carbon emissions must account for the one in four American adults with disabilities. New EV charging stations built through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program have to comply with the ADA and be physically accessible for people who use a mobility device, little people and those with limited hand dexterity.

On the local level, San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan calls for designing transportation systems with input from the city’s diverse disability community. Current measures include an adaptive bike sharing program. San Francisco’s Hazards and Climate Resilience Plan was also, crucially, developed with a team that included disability planners and includes establishing an accessible evacuation strategy. Boston’s heat resilience plan recognizes residents with disabilities who live in public housing as being at elevated risk of medical emergency during heat waves; air conditioners and fans have been distributed to those residents as part of a pilot program. Other cities should emulate these practices.

Ultimately, disability-inclusive approaches to climate action increase the safety, flexibility and accessibility of climate solutions for society as a whole. Advocacy from the National Federation of the Blind, for example, led to Congress mandating that electric vehicles emit sound, a change that will save the lives of people with visual disabilities, children and distracted pedestrians. Accessible EVs and charging stations, along with accessible public transit stations and car and bike sharing programs, expand transportation options for the growing number of older Americans.

The Biden administration, Congress and state and local governments have an opportunity to leverage green economic funding – boosted by the Inflation Reduction Act – to make the U.S. more sustainable and inclusive. Improving its domestic policies will additionally give the U.S. greater moral authority to push other countries toward inclusive climate policies, plus greater capacity to offer support and guidance.

Thirty-two years after the ADA’s passage, the U.S. can once again lead the global movement for disability rights. Disability-inclusive climate action will save lives and lead to a more equitable, effective transition to a low-carbon world.

Sébastien Jodoin is a law professor at McGill University, where he directs the Disability-Inclusive Climate Action Research Programme. Penelope J.S. Stein is a senior research associate of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Michael Ashley Stein is the executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

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