Op-Ed: Ableism at COP26 Shows Disabled People Are Still an Afterthought

Israel's Energy Minister Karine Elharrar waits for the start of a meeting on day three of COP26

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Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is a journalist specializing in health and disability. Her work is featured in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider. Charlton-Dailey often uses their platform to spotlight issues that affect disabled people. Here, they explain how something like activism can be exclusionary.

Last week, the world’s attention has turned toward the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Leaders, representatives, and climate activists from 120 countries are in Glasgow, Scotland, for the annual summit. However, members of the disabled community felt like they were left out of the discussion.

The conference was plagued with allegations of ableism after Israel’s Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, who has muscular dystrophy, was unable to enter the events compound in her wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The distance from the vehicle to the building was too far for her to travel in her wheelchair. She waited for two hours until she was eventually offered a shuttle to the site. However, the shuttle wasn’t wheelchair accessible, she said.

“I came to COP26 to meet my counterparts in the world and advance our joint struggle against the climate crisis,” Elharrar wrote on Twitter, according to a translation from The New York Times. “It’s sad that the United Nations, which promotes accessibility for people with disabilities, in 2021 doesn’t worry about accessibility at its own events.”

While it’s angering enough that a disabled government official couldn’t access a climate change event, disabled people aren’t surprised. Least shocking all is the response of the nondisabled organizers who, while appearing to apologize, actually placed the blame on the disabled person.

George Eustice, Britain’s Environment Secretary, told BBC Radio 4 that “most of the other entrances” had wheelchair access, but the particular entrance Elharrar arrived at on Monday was not prepared for her. He also said that a “miscommunication” had meant organizers had not been aware of Elharrar’s requirements in advance. 

The problem with this form of “apology” is that it puts emotional labor on the disabled person. This is something every person with a disability is all too familiar with. We can never assume that a location is going to be accessible, since this could put our safety at risk. Instead, disabled people have to spend hours trying to arrange accessibility accommodations, and even then, they may not be taken into consideration. 

This wasn't the only access problem with COP26. The main speeches at the summit don’t have sign language interpreters, so deaf participants can't take part. 

The biggest sticking point so far, however, is that the event is still only available to attend in person, making it inaccessible for many disabled people who are more comfortable working from home. Due to the pandemic, in-person events also continue to be a risk for many who are immunosuppressed.

Since online meetings have proved so successful and opened up so many avenues for disabled people, it’s disheartening to see everything return to strictly in-person. This is especially true of large-scale events, which disabled people were able to be part of—for the first time—during the pandemic.

Why did the conference have to be held in-person at all? Surely a climate change summit would benefit from fewer people traveling. It appears the only justifiable reason is that it will ensure negotiations don’t reach a standstill. 

Richard Smith, unpaid chair of the U.K. Health Alliance on Climate Change, wrote in the British Medical Journal that “all those who have experience of tough negotiations are, however, sure that success at the meeting is much more likely if it can be held in-person.”

The Impact of Climate Change on the Disabled

A summit on something as major as climate change should be keen to hear from more disabled people, especially considering we are disproportionately affected by climate change.

A survey published by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction found that 85.7% of disabled people in 137 countries reported that they had not been consulted in their community disaster management processes. This was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; as a result of evacuation procedures and transport being inaccessible, many disabled people died. The National Council on Disability estimated that 155,000 disabled people were living in three of the cities hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.

Disabled people want to be involved in environmentalism, but it’s hard to feel welcome in spaces that we literally can’t access.

Disabled people want to be involved in environmentalism, but it’s hard to feel welcome in spaces that we literally can’t access.

Disabled people are often the ones who suffer the most when changes are made to policies in order to offset climate change. This happens when single-use plastics are banned in restaurants, meaning disabled people can no longer use the plastic straws they need in order to safely drink. To environmentalists, the obvious answer is to use metal or paper straws, but these aren’t safe for disabled people who could risk hurting themselves on metal and could choke on paper. This is known as eco-ableism.

What Is Eco-Ableism?

Eco-ableism occurs when nondisabled environmental activists fail to recognize that certain climate actions are ableist, and proceed to demonize people who continue to use the less eco-friendly versions.

One example of eco-ableism is promoting car-free city centers or travel without acknowledging that many disabled people need to travel by car as they cannot walk or cycle. Disabled people also typically require parking close to their destinations.

In July of 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council called on governments to adopt a disability-inclusive approach “to strengthen and implement policies aimed at increasing the participation of persons with disabilities in climate change responses”, however, this is yet to be seen.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, disabled people are “often among those most adversely affected in an emergency, sustaining disproportionately higher rates of morbidity and mortality, and at the same time being among those least able to have access to emergency support.”

So my question is: Why aren’t they using COP26 as an opportunity to pledge to make the climate crisis fight more disability-inclusive?

2 Sources
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  1. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Living with disability and disasters. UNISDR 2013 survey on living with disabilities and disasters - key findings.

  2. National Council on Disability. The impact of hurricanes katrina and rita on people with disabilities: a look back and remaining challenges.

By Rachel Charlton-Dailey
Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is a health and disability journalist. They serve as editor-in-chief of The Unwritten, a platform for the stories of disabled people. Their work features in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider.