Climate change and people with disabilities: societal obligations for an inclusive world

Climate change and people with disabilities: societal obligations for an inclusive world

By Komlan Julien Kpedji and Abdoul Boukari, as part of the AVOUALI project  »Inclusion in time of climate crisis » initiated by MeineWelt e.V. with financial support from Aktion MENSCH

In all societies, people with disabilities remain among the most marginalized. While the international human rights framework has led to dramatic improvements in living conditions around the world, the same cannot be said for people with disabilities. Whatever the human rights situation in a country or its economic situation, they are generally the last to see their rights respected. Denied the opportunities that would enable them to be self-sufficient, most disabled people are dependent on the generosity or charity of others. In recent years, people around the world have begun to realize that this denial of human rights, suffered by a billion people – 15% of the world’s population – was no longer tolerable. The time had come to act.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the international community’s response to the centuries of discrimination, exclusion and dehumanization they have suffered. It is a landmark document in many ways, not least because no human rights treaty has ever been negotiated so quickly, and it is the first of the 21st century. Following the adoption of the Convention by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, an unprecedented number of countries demonstrated their firm commitment to respecting the rights of people with disabilities by ratifying the Convention and Optional Protocol as soon as they were opened for signature in March 2007.

According to the World Disasters Report 2020, produced by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, « climate and weather-related disasters have massive humanitarian consequences worldwide, directly affecting 1.7 billion people in the decade 2010-2020 alone ». The climate must now be seen as a risk multiplier that can affect human existence in one way or another, exposing people to extreme vulnerability. Global warming is at the root of a number of increasingly frequent disasters. These include


  • the heat wave, with temperatures spiking up to 50°C
  • a wave of category 4 or 5 storms, causing casualties (deaths and displaced persons)

             floods that threaten populations.

  • The loss of natural resources, food insecurity, the direct and indirect effects on health
  • And the displacement of populations is also on the rise.

Many other extremes directly or indirectly affect the world’s population.

The people most at risk in these communities could be left behind if their needs and abilities are not identified and their voices not heard. One of the most vulnerable populations at risk is undoubtedly people with disabilities.

The aim of this paper is to provide a summary analysis of the vulnerability of people with disabilities to the risks associated with climate change, and to propose possible solutions for inclusive disaster risk governance adapted to the climate. The first step is to consider the issue of disability from the perspective of the Disability Creation Process, to highlight the various risks to which people with disabilities are directly or indirectly exposed, and then to look at possible solutions aimed at minimizing these risks or reducing the vulnerability to which they are exposed.

I- 1- Description of disability based on the Disability Creation Process (DCP)

      Disability lies in society, not in the individual.

We can justify this concept on the basis of the etymology of the term « HAND CAP ». The term is identified from a speed competition (especially with horses) that often took place among the English, during which an extra load and irregular obstacles were imposed on the competing athletes to test their resilience and endurance. Disability in general is the result of a diachronic interaction of three factors:

  1. Personal factors, which can be summed up as the organic system (materialized by the body, i.e. the impairment and its organic consequences), functional abilities to perform a physical or mental activity (e.g. walking or understanding), as well as identity factors of a social, economic and cultural nature (age, sex, gender, family situation, income, legal capacity, etc.) and those of a personal nature (the person’s intimate history, experience and the meaning given to their life project).
  2. Environmental factors, which reflect the quality of the person’s physical and social environment, either as facilitators or as obstacles to achieving lifestyle habits. Environmental factors describe the context and organization at three levels: macro (societal), meso (community) and micro (personal). Physical nature (flora and fauna, relief, climate, etc.) is associated with these different levels of influence on the individual.
  3. Lifestyle habits represent a person’s day-to-day activities and social role, depending on their age, sex and socio-cultural identity. It is a question of whether or not they are able, for example, to exercise the skills of everyday life.

Two main concepts influence social perceptions of disability. These are

Capacitism, which is defined as « a system of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a typical citizen capable of working and contributing to society in a uniform and standardized way », in the words of Fiona K. Campbell, professor of disability science at Griffith University in Australia. A disabled woman’s ability to be a mother or cook, for example. It can take the form of outright rejection (insults, mistreatment, stigmatization, refusal of inclusion, etc.), but is also often disguised as benevolence (infantilization, pity, unsolicited help, etc.).

The validist ideology which postulates that non-matching bodies, judged to be « invalid » according to social norms of morphology and biology, or even health, have less value. They are naturally considered inferior, and therefore discriminatory. This ideology explains the various terms used to describe disabled people: cripple, invalid, sick, crippled, etc.

I-2 – Description of the disabled person in the CRPD

Based on the work carried out by the DPP, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities describes a disabled person as « any person who has long-term impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder his or her full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others ». It is important to remember this definition:

  • Impairment that can lead to lasting disability.
  • Social barriers resulting from social interpretations and perceptions of the impairment and the disabilities it generates.

A disability exists when the deficiency is misperceived (as the result of a curse, or when incapacities are interpreted as complete or entirely defining of the individual who bears them). This now implies the need for care. The way disability is dealt with has evolved over time, with different models of analysis and perception.

Depending on the social perception of disability, several models of care are possible. There are three popular models.

  1. The biomedical model, which postulates that the impairment must be treated in order to resolve the disability.
  2. The charitable model is based on charity. The disabled person cannot live on the pity of others or be cared for in a closed center. The disabled person’s wishes are not taken into account.
  3. The model is based on human rights, which promotes the CRPD. It demands inclusive practices, inclusive policies, etc…

II- The pillars of an inclusive society

The inclusive society advocated by the CRPD aims to break down the « co-constructed social corridor » into which people with disabilities have often been placed, thereby promoting their economic, political, social and cultural participation. An inclusive society must be analyzed in terms of five fundamental axes or pillars, according to sociologist Charles Gardou. These are :

  1. The clear distinction between « living » and « existing »: Living, which we share with all living organisms, refers to our biological needs. Existing’ manifests itself through our relationships with ourselves, with others, with time and with our destiny; through the need for recognition by family, friends, professional or social networks; through dependence on human solidarity; through the possibility of becoming a member of a group and getting involved in the society to which we belong ». Victor Hugo put it this way: « It is through reality that we live; it is through the ideal that we exist. Animals live, man exists ». So it’s important at this stage to take the other person’s opinion on board, even if it’s to make them happy.
  2. Challenging the principle of the hierarchy of lives. As the famous French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal pointed out in a collective work published in 1999 entitled ”EQUALITY AND EQUITY” :ANTAGONISTIC OR COMPLEMENTARY ? « There are not several humanities: one strong, the other weak; one right-side up, the other upside down; one eminent, the other insignificant, infra-humanized. But only one, the repository of a universal condition, between a plus and a minus, a better and a worse. Between fortune and setback, resistance and flagging ». The challenge of an inclusive society is to reunite hierarchical social universes to forge a « we », a common repertoire. So there should be no prioritization in systems of governance.
  3. A human society is nothing without conditions of equity and freedom. Human beings are not carbon copies of a single model, reproduced in millions of interchangeable copies. The fact that they are qualitatively equal does not mean that what they are and what they experience are the same. Whether they have a disability or not, each and every one of them has the unconditional right to be unique and to realize their uniqueness. This pillar requires the definition and implementation of equity measures to achieve the goal of equality for all.
  4. The exclusivity of the norm is nobody, diversity is everybody. Beyond the normative political, material or symbolic institutions from which every society naturally springs, it rises up against the excessive hold of a norm that prescribes, proscribes and suffocates the singular. This is, moreover, the whole point and purpose of the revolutions, however bloody, that have punctuated human history. Disabled people are most often considered to be in the minority, and the culture of the majority is imposed on them, without their knowing it. Hence the notions of integration, which often oblige disabled people to adapt to the norm, instead of the norm adapting to their situation.
  5. No one has exclusive rights to human and social heritage. As we know, it is not enough to live in the same area to belong to the same community; we must also be able to share and take responsibility for its educational, professional, cultural, natural, artistic and communication heritage. Disabled people should be considered both as victims of climate change and as fully responsible players in this situation, if this heritage is to be shared by all.

III- The impact of climate change on people with disabilities

Disabled people are directly affected by the various disasters resulting from global warming. They will be just as many victims of natural disasters as the rest of the world, which, according to the 2022 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will increase as a result of global warming. It is predicted that temperatures will rise by 1.5 to 1.8°C in the case of low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, by 2.1°C to 3.5°C in the intermediate scenario and by 3.3°C to 5.7°C in the extreme scenario of very high levels of emissions, by 2100. Each scenario is followed by an extinction of biodiversity and ecosystems: between three and fourteen per cent for the lowest scenario, between three and twenty-nine per cent of species in the terrestrial ecosystem for the intermediate scenario, and between three and forty-eight per cent extinction in the terrestrial ecosystem for the catastrophic scenario by 2100.

Rising temperatures mean more melting ice, higher sea levels, more heat waves and other types of extreme weather phenomena, not to mention worsening impacts on food security, health, the environment and sustainable development, to paraphrase the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organisation. The specific influences linked to people with disabilities on two levels:

  • In terms of health: the heatwave could increase the risk of skin cancer in people with albinism. The hypothesis that the heatwave increases eye strain in visually impaired people with glaucoma is still being studied.
  • On a social level: the disasters will seriously compromise the mobility of people with motor and visual disabilities. Precariousness and efforts to participate in society will be compromised. The environmental context will influence the emergence or spread of new forms of discrimination linked above all to capacitism.

Challenges and solutions for disabled people

 Given the climate crisis, the first challenge remains access to information in times of natural disaster. Warning systems are often not easy for disabled people to understand. The information transmitted by these systems is not easy to interpret for these people, which often does not facilitate their evacuation. Information on climate change and good practice is not produced in a format that is accessible to disabled people. This population is just considered as the final victim. The difficulties are compounded by factors such as age, standard of living, relational system, etc. In response to these challenges, a number of recommendations need to be made to leaders and populations, particularly people with disabilities.

To those who govern :

  • Mainstreaming the inclusion of people with disabilities in climate policies: Governments must ensure that all climate change adaptation and mitigation policies and measures take into account the specific needs of people with disabilities. This includes putting in place mechanisms for consultation and active participation of people with disabilities in the formulation of these policies.
  • Investing in inclusive infrastructure: Governments should promote the construction of climate-resilient infrastructure that takes into account the mobility and accessibility needs of people with disabilities. This includes accessible public transport, adapted public buildings and leisure facilities.
  • Awareness-raising and training: Governments must set up awareness-raising programmes to inform the public about the impacts of climate change on people with disabilities and how to support them. Training for public and private sector professionals on the inclusion of people with disabilities in climate action is also essential.
  • Encouraging renewable energy and energy efficiency: Governments should actively promote the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, while ensuring that these solutions are accessible and affordable for people with disabilities.

For disabled people:

  • Participation and advocacy: People with disabilities need to be actively involved in decision-making and advocacy processes related to climate change. It is essential that their voices and concerns are heard to ensure that their needs are taken into account.
  • Education and training: People with disabilities can engage in education and training programmes on climate change issues. This will enable them to better understand the challenges they may face and develop skills to adapt to climate change.
  • Networking and collaboration: People with disabilities can join forces with disabled people’s organizations and environmental groups to increase their influence and impact in climate change actions.
  • Adopting sustainable lifestyles: adopting more sustainable lifestyles by reducing their ecological footprint, recycling, using eco-friendly transport and consuming responsibly.

By combining these approaches to solutions, governments and people with disabilities can work together to tackle the challenges of climate change in an inclusive and equitable way.