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The invisibility of disabled people in climate action

What happens when a person’s health condition gets worst because of extreme weather? Most of the time, this person unfortunately dies. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by climate change and yet very little is done to help them survive. I talked to Sébastien Jodoin – a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec – to understand what can be done in order to change this narrative.



In July 2018, a heat wave in Montreal killed 66 people. Of these victims three-quarters were disabled. “Certain health conditions are affected by heat and, thus, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by severe weather change”, explains Sébastien Jodoin, the co-founder and director of the Disability-Inclusive Climate action research program at McGill University. He created the program in 2020 when his perspective changed as he got diagnose with multiple sclerosis. “I realized that not much was done to include people with disabilities in climate action even though these people were excessively affected by it” he adds.


The program emerged from the intersection of his work experience on human rights and climate change and the goal was to co-generate knowledge with disabled people. “We organise events with other organisations to amplify the voices of disabled people. We also launch reports where we analyse policies across the globe”, Jodoin describes. And the reports are crucial to understand how disabilities and environmental issues intersect because data on the topic is deficient.


So how many people are we talking about?


In 2017, one in five of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over – or about 6.2 million individuals – had one or more disabilities, according to a government report. The prevalence of disability also increased with age; the report stated that 47% of the population aged 75 years and over had a disability. Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that 1.3 billion people – about 16% of the global population – currently experience significant disability. “There is also an overrepresentation of disabilities in indigenous communities due to trauma and toxic chemicals and in racialized people”, adds the professor.




“What people don’t realise is that it’s not only disabilities that make people more vulnerable. There are underlying conditions that people don’t think about such as having an air conditioner at home, having family members or a community checking on them, having a government that has a plan to help them during these times. If these things are in place, then people with disabilities can survive but what reports have shown is that many disabled people – for example in Montreal and Vancouver – live in low-income neighbourhoods, or in poverty”, analyses Jodoin.


The Canadian government, indeed, reports that disabled people are less likely to be employed than people without disabilities and are more likely to be living in poverty which is also the case in the rest of the world. The United Nations (UN) explains this phenomenon “due to barriers in society such as discrimination, limited access to education and employment and lack of inclusion in livelihood and other social programmes”. Even if the data remain scarce on the topic, the available data show that, overall, the proportion of disabled people living under the national or international poverty line is higher, and in some countries double, than that of people without disabilities.


In 2006, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) specifically obliged its State parties to fulfil a broad range of human rights held by disabled people. In addition, the UNCRPD required that State parties ensured the participation of these people in the development and implementation of legislation, policies and other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to them, as well as their protection and safety in situations of risk, including situations of humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters.


"Many disabled people – for example in Montreal and Vancouver – live in low-income neighbourhoods, or in poverty"

If so many people are affected by a health condition and there are now policies to ensure their rights, why are they still left behind?


“It’s really about ableism. What the general research shows is that there is the assumption that everyone has the same ability across the globe”, sighs Sébastien Jodoin. For him, the countries who signed the UN convention are not living up to their obligations. In Canada, for example, the government mainly focuses on children and the elderly when it comes to severe weather crisis, which is unfortunate considering that studies from 2021 and 2022 suggest that including people with disabilities in the policy making process can help “rethink sustainable development”, build “climate-resilient development pathways” and create a “more sustainable future” overall.


For Sébastien Jodoin, including and considering disabled people is the only way to change the narrative and, as long as society keeps ignoring them, climate action cannot lead to sustainable future for everyone.

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