Disaster is always “elsewhere” or “later”. Until it isn’t.

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This text was written by Chavia Ali. Human rights advocate, currently working as Regional Focal Point for Persons with Disability, Regional Hub for Arab States (RBAS), UNDP.

May 22nd, 2023

I have been sad to read about the loss of lives in the recent Italian flooding, how desperate older or disabled people were trapped in their homes, while volunteers managed to carry others to safety. I am sad, but not surprised. In the Siberian wildfires earlier this month, victims were also mainly elderly people, who were unable to escape. This pattern can be seen again and again, and is no mere coincidence. It is true that the floods in Italy were exceptional – they are said to be the worst in a hundred years. But records of extreme weather events are now being broken almost daily. In fact, a rise in disasters is one of the most immediate and tangible effects of climate change (1). With the planet on course to imminently break the 1.5 C limit to global heating that states had committed to prevent, this rise disasters will accelerate, and persons with disabilities will be disproportionately affected. Those who are already left furthest behind, are also the first to pay the price of our collective failure to set the planet on a more sustainable path.

There are multiple reasons why persons with disabilities are hit much harder in any disaster (2), and often these reasons combine to increase the dangers. Among the more obvious are reduced mobility and lack of information. Even without a disaster, persons with disabilities struggle daily with the barriers caused by inaccessible homes, buildings, streets, public spaces, and lack of adapted transport options. To navigate barriers, familiarity with the environment and predictability are essential. In disasters, the situation is likely to require rapid evacuation, infrastructure may be damaged, barriers multiply, confusion reigns, and neighbours who could assist are themselves battling to save their lives. Warnings and information on where to find help are rarely designed to meet the various communication needs that persons with disabilities may have, as well as lacking the education or background knowledge to correctly interpret what emergency instructions signify for their particular situation and requirements.

Another issue is that crisis response is not adequately organised to serve the needs of persons with disabilities. Responders do not have information about where to find people in need of help, and lack both appropriate equipment and sufficient training concerning different disabilities. Persons with disabilities face more challenges in obtaining information on where emergency supplies are distributed, in reaching these places and having to queue or fight their way through desperate crowds, while emergency shelters are not designed to be accessible, and are frequently unsafe (3). After an initial surge of solidarity and humanitarian relief, conditions in disaster-stricken areas often remain dire for years, leaving damaged and inaccessible infrastructure, shortages, and loss of livelihoods. With very few exceptions – such as Kerala state after the 2018 flooding (4) – persons with disabilities are not consulted and involved in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts, to indeed “build back better”.

Although the disasters that we see in daily headlines are merely the tip of the iceberg, they can nevertheless draw attention to some of the underlying reasons why persons with disabilities are more likely to be exposed to disasters in the first place. Worldwide, persons with disabilities are much more likely to live in situations of poverty and precarity (5). This forces them to live in unsafe buildings in disaster-prone locations, and in areas where fewer investments are made in disaster risk reduction or climate adaptation. Poverty will also disproportionately expose persons with disabilities to the effects of slow-onset disasters, such as drought, and to the effects of economic crises and rise in cost of living caused or aggravated by climate change. For the millions driven into forced displacement, poverty and limited employment options will increase hardships and reduce their capacity to successfully settle elsewhere.

As the impacts of climate change become more severe, urban settlements will have to invest heavily to adapt to new risks and extreme weather events, with heatwaves that claim lives of those who cannot find shade, cooling spaces or afford air-conditioning. Entire coastal towns exposed to flooding, coastal erosion and storm surges are planning to relocate and move to higher ground. But the necessary efforts to slow and reverse global heating by cutting greenhouse gas emissions carry with them the risk of adverse impacts and increased hardships for those who already live in precarity, including persons with disabilities. To honour the pledges of the Paris Agreement, economies will experience rapid restructuring. The Green Transition will create many new jobs, at the same time that entire sectors will become obsolete and other jobs will be lost. For persons with disabilities these changes could bring hope, provided that this unique opportunity to create disability-inclusive workplaces in emerging green sectors is seized. The Green Transition must be a Just Green Transition (6). If insufficient attention is devoted to equity and distributive effects, it is more than likely that policies in the name of climate mitigation will only bring additional disruption and hardships.

Although there is no doubt that climate change is today the single issue with the most serious consequences for the lives and existence of persons with disabilities, disability voices and concerns are almost entirely lacking in current negotiations and policy processes. Disability is mentioned in international agreements, but generally only as part of a long list of vulnerable, marginalised or potentially disadvantaged groups. Thus, the Preamble to the Paris Agreement (7) states that:

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”.

Article 12 of the Paris Agreement further obliges states parties to “public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement”. The need for engagement of different groups, including persons with disabilities, is reaffirmed in various decisions of the Conference of the Parties (8). However, the modality and mechanisms for such participation is not specified. The UNFCCC process requires parties to regularly submit updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on their mitigation strategies, while adaptation efforts are outlined in National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).  Here, again, although consultations are held in the drafting process of such documents, there is no mechanism to guarantee that persons with disabilities will be part of them.

Climate change fundamentally impacts the ability to enjoy human rights (9), and disability-inclusive climate action is therefore already an obligation within existing human rights frameworks. Nevertheless, there is clearly a need for more explicit guidance and accountability in implementing commitments and obligations, including for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Beyond work on legal wording and procedural aspects, greater attention is required to conditions that will allow the intentions expressed in international law to be implemented in practice. These conditions could be summarised as capacity and representation, knowledge, access, and awareness.

Participation, consultation, and engagement of persons with disabilities in policy processes is mediated through organisations of persons with disabilities. But these organisations typically have little experience with the technicalities of climate science and climate change negotiations, and generally do not have the means to employ experts in the countless fields that climate change and climate action involves. Nor do they have the capacity to generate broad discussions on these issues among persons with disabilities in various countries, or to organise and cooperate in strong networks among civil society organisations. There are major imbalances in resources available to organisations of the global south, and to those operating in the high-income countries of the global north. Consequently, when organisations of persons with disabilities are involved in policy negotiations, the full breadth of perspectives and experiences of persons with disabilities is rarely represented. Similar considerations apply to the international organisations and national authorities engaging in these talks, who have insufficient expertise and understanding of disability concerns.

Relevant knowledge is lacking, and existing knowledge underpinning discussions on climate action is biased through the systematic underrepresentation of persons with disabilities in science and technical professions. Studies are sporadically produced by organisations or in academia, but these are rarely followed up, and do not benefit from regular funding. Reliable data is not routinely collected and compiled by authorities.

Access to the numerous tables where decisions on climate are taken is not only limited by the number of seats that are offered. It is also prevented by the same structural barriers that persons with disabilities face in every other area of their lives. Venues are not physically accessible, communication modes are not disability-inclusive, costs of reasonable accommodation are not covered. Delegations do not have the income, time, and resources to be well-prepared and well-informed ahead of negotiations, and crucial preparatory meetings are equally inaccessible.

All these factors that contribute to excluding disability perspectives from participation in climate processes are underpinned by perceptions that disability inclusion is an optional “luxury”, that only needs to be considered when surplus funding is available. It seems to be implicitly understood that since we have placed persons with disabilities in situations of extreme vulnerability, they cannot at the same time be recognised as leaders with an equal right to a place at the table. It is too late to change the past, and we are paying the price of past omissions, but the future lies in our hands. To achieve this, strong, cross-cutting collaborations will be necessary. Raising awareness is a good place to start.

  1. Pörtner, et al. (2022). Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/
  2. A useful introduction to climate and disability is provided by Stein & Stein (2022). Their article summarises the main treaties and texts relevant to the area, with comprehensive arguments, both for the obligation of state parties to respect their commitment to considering impacts on persons with disabilities in climate policy, and to involve persons with disabilities and their representative organisations in policymaking.

    Stein, P. J., & Stein, M. A. (2022). Disability, human rights, and climate justice. Human Rights Quarterly44(1), 81-110. https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/1/article/847246

    See also: A/HRC/44/30. Analytical study on the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change. Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Human Rights Council, Forty-fourth session,

    15 June–3 July 2020. https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3865080?ln=en

    3. Malpass, A., West, C., Quaill, J., & Barker, R. (2019). Experiences of individuals with disabilities sheltering during natural disasters: an integrative review. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, The34(2), 60-65. https://search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/ielapa.379764292029961

    4. Andharia, J., Puri, A., & Namboothiripad, A. (2023). Transforming Post-disaster Recovery: Participatory Mechanisms for Community Feedback and Responding to Government’s Real-time Data Needs with a Focus on Persons with Disability. The International Journal of Community and Social Development5(1), 47-70.


    5. See for instance: Banks L.M., Kuper, H., & Polack, S. (2017). Poverty and disability in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189996. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0189996

    Mitra, S., & Yap, J. (2021). The Disability Data Report. Disability Data Initiative. Fordham Research Consortium on Disability: New York.


    Lewis, E., Mitra, S., & Yap, J. (2022). Do Disability Inequalities Grow with Development? Evidence from 40 Countries. Sustainability14(9), 5110. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su14095110

    6. ILO. (2015). Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all. International Labour Organisation. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_emp/@emp_ent/documents/publication/wcms_432859.pdf

    ILO (2019). Persons with disabilities in a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Policy brief. International Labour Organisation. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—ifp_skills/documents/publication/wcms_727084.pdf

    7. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). (2016). Decision 1/CP.21: Adoption of the Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1. 12 Dec. Paris: UNFCCC. https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pd

    8. Eisen, N., Duyck, S. & Jodoin, S. (Eds.) (2019). The Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the Context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Relevant International Frameworks and Compilation of Decisions adopted by the Parties to the UNFCCC. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Inclusiva, and the Center for International Environmental Law. https://www.ciel.org/reports/the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-in-the-context-of-the-un-framework-convention-on-climate-change-dec-2019/

    9. OHCHR (2021). Frequently Asked Questions on Human Rights and Climate Change. Fact Sheet No. 38.

    FSheet38_FAQ_HR_CC_EN.pdf (ohchr.org)

    Savaresi, A. (2022). Background Paper. 21st Informal ASEM Seminar on Human Rights (ASEMHRS21): Human Rights and Climate Change, 16-18 March 2022, Luxembourg / Online.




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