We need to start looking after our most vulnerable
There is increasing evidence that even minor changes in global temperatures can have disabling health-related consequences. These include diseases from contaminated flood water, heat, or malnutrition. However, despite this focus, to date there has been little interest or discussion of the impacts of climate change on people who are already disabled.
A recent project undertaken by a team of researchers from the UK, Kenya, and Bangladesh, funded by the UK Government, aims to change this. This research looks at the extent to which persons with disabilities are affected by the changing climate, looking beyond health to examine impacts on a range of aspects, including livelihoods and the resilience of persons with disabilities to these impacts.
The risk factor
Many of the persons with disabilities interviewed for the research in both Bangladesh and Kenya pointed out that they are at as much risk, if not more, to the effects of climate change as everyone else in the communities, in part because they have less capacity to adapt. As one woman with disabilities in Barisal explained, their households experienced extensive damage because they could not adapt to the environmental changes:
“Due to river erosion [households]… lost all their assets including their land and agricultural assets like paddy land and vegetable lands. They had to get involved in micro-credit programs and in many cases they could not get themselves out of the complex micro-credit cycle; they ended up losing property in the process. They had to bear the loan for the whole year and face its consequences.”
It is increasingly clear that the impacts of climate change are affecting us all, and it is all of our responsibility to lessen these impacts, in particular on those who have the least capacity to withstand them
Other challenges that were highlighted by persons with disabilities was how they did not receive any training on alternative livelihood options, leaving them over-reliant on micro-credit loans. On the other hand, they also reported that they often face exclusion from formal finance structures, being refused loans and other financial support.
Another challenge is the extent to which they are included — or can access — the social protection and finance schemes set up to help people affected by disasters. They can become trapped in a cycle of dependency, as one man with disabilities in Kenya reported:
“Nobody has come forward to prepare us on what we should do to face the effects of climate change. Generally, it is an individual effort even for those with no disability. Floods are not new in this country; there are places that are always the worst hit year in year out. And in these places, people are depending on relief supplies.”
In many communities in Bangladesh, persons with disability are often neglected or ignored within their communities. This in turn reduces the possibility that they will try to move away from disaster-prone or climate change-affected areas to seek alternative employment or improve their livelihoods.
While in both Kenya and Bangladesh there are policies in place to ensure inclusion and an increased focus on ensuring persons with disabilities are included in disaster preparedness and response, as well as funds to support people after a disaster — these have not always been successfully put into practice, and there has been much less focus on the climatic aspects.
But providing support after a disaster is only one aspect. Given the increasing global environmental changes, communities and individuals need to increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change.
Resilience is key
So what can be done about this?
Though only a pilot project, our research has shown that merely having policies in place is not enough; they must be implemented effectively – otherwise, they will just remain on paper. It is also not enough to leave it to persons with disabilities themselves to ensure they are fully informed about the mitigation and adaptation work taking place, or about compensatory or insurance mechanisms on offer.
In many cases, they are excluded from these services or have no way of accessing information about them. More effort needs to be made to ensure that persons with disabilities are informed about programs and that they are accessible and available to them. To ensure that this is most effective, persons with disabilities should be consulted from the planning stages of the programs.
Nor is it enough to leave it to NGOs to ensure persons with disabilities are included.
Again, while the research identified pockets of good practice, these are by no means widespread, and it cannot be assumed that programs are including persons with disabilities effectively. Individuals and communities need to be informed and actively involved; they need to work with persons with disabilities and their organisations as well as other advocacy groups. This work needs to ensure that it focuses on persons with disabilities specifically, rather than just subsuming them within a list of “vulnerable groups.”
Doing this runs the risk of rendering them invisible, and eventually neglected. Policymakers need to work across the range of sectors involved — environment, agriculture, health, education, and social welfare, etc — to ensure effective communication and information-sharing on disability-inclusive programming.
None of this is new, but from the research undertaken in Kenya and Bangladesh, many of the policies and programs designed to enhance resilience to-date have not effectively included persons with disabilities. This has to change.
There is currently much debate in Bangladesh about the extent to which communities should be recompensed for environmental-related loss and damage. To date, persons with disabilities have rarely been included in these discussions. It is important that policy makers, practitioners, advocates, and persons with disabilities themselves need to ask themselves why they are not at the table, and what needs to be done to ensure that they are in future.
It is increasingly clear that the impacts of climate change are affecting us all, and it is all of our responsibility to lessen these impacts, in particular on those who have the least capacity to withstand them. It is essential that persons with disabilities add their — potentially powerful — voices to the growing number of those speaking out about the impacts of climate change on the lives of people across the world.
Dr Maria Kett is the head of research and Ellie Cole is a research coordinator, both at the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre in University College, London.