This guest blog post was written by Poppy Ellis Logan (she/her) in celebration of the UK Disability History Month running between 18 November and 18 December 2021. Poppy is researching population preparedness for power outages for her PhD with the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emergency Preparedness and Response, based in the IoPPN. In her spare time, she is Co-President of the KCL Neurodiversity and Mental Health Society. For more information on either, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or president.NDMH@gmail.com.
Why are disabled voices needed in climate change discussion, and how does this link to the disability history month theme of hidden impairments?
The climate change discussion is not just about prevention, but also about the response. The climate emergency is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather and environmental hazards around the world. The term typically used for the consequent events is ‘natural disaster’, however, there is a growing argument that this terminology fails to reflect the fact that these disasters are governed by human decision-making. This decision-making includes the planning, preparation and response to such events, and influences how extensively the local community are affected.
Disabled people experience marginalisation, inequality, and discrimination in many settings, including during disasters. Around the world, disaster planning and response are often not inclusive, failing to accommodate access and functional needs and thereby placing disabled individuals at a greater risk than others. Although policy progress is being made, with the Sendai Framework calling for disability inclusion in disaster management, we continue to see access and functional needs being overlooked. This applies to the climate emergency; local government associations are often unclear on the impacts of climate events on disabled members of the community and rely on local disability groups to advise them about how to even communicate with disabled people (despite 15% of people living with a disability). Consequently, timely warnings, evacuation routes, public shelters and relief or recovery efforts are often inaccessible.
This is a problem. In a disaster context, information is vital – both in terms of providing a warning for an event, and for ensuring that the public is well-informed about what is happening and what they can do to protect themselves. If this information is not accessible or if accessible formats are disrupted due to an event, people who require alternative forms of communication are left behind. On another level, social support typically plays a vital role in disasters, with mutual aid and altruism as a common theme across a range of events. However, disabled people are more likely to be marginalised, and thus may be less likely to receive social support from neighbours. Moreover, simply a practical level, people with alternative communication needs or hidden impairments are less likely to receive the right support from both their neighbours and emergency responders. The consequence is that disabled people may rely substantially on each other, on assistive technology, or on close personal networks for accessible disaster information.
These issues around communication and accessibility have perhaps been less visible during the ongoing COVID-19 disaster, possibly because we have been locked down in our own spaces, with continued access to online networks and digital devices. However, there is a risk that wider conceptions of disability and of ‘vulnerability’ in a disaster now become shaped by COVID-19, despite widespread criticism of their formulation and usage from disabled communities. The likelihood of this could be decreased by centring disabled voices in planning and decision-making for a range of events. Better representation of the diversity of disability in planning and decision-making could reduce the tendency to categorise disabled people into one homogenous ‘vulnerable’ group. Such makeshift categorisation is both ‘Othering’ and leads to assumptions around presumed vulnerability in a disaster context that fails to recognise the diversity of disability, the role of the environment in ‘disabling’ an individual, and the strengths and resources that disabled people may be able to bring to disaster settings.
One crucial point underlying this is the understanding that vulnerability is not static. Access and functional needs are very much context-dependent, and the needs (and members) of Priority Groups will vary from one disaster to another. Those deemed ‘clinically vulnerable’ during a pandemic may be very well prepared to cope during a blizzard. The people who may be affected by severe weather events are therefore not the same as those in our current conception of disability and vulnerability during the pandemic.
As an example, people around the UK are currently managing the effects of both Storm Arwen and Storm Barra. Both storms have resulted in power outages. During Storm Arwen, the access and functional needs of people with disabilities that are clearly reliant on electricity for their management were overlooked, despite media attention. The literature on power outages has previously identified that people who use electronic medical devices will be placed at risk by such events. However, there is a gap in the literature about how best to accommodate these needs. Moreover, it is less widely understood that power outages could remove all social support, crisis alert and information sources available to a person with alternative communication needs common to many hidden impairments.
Accommodating for a range of access and functional needs (including needs that are unrelated to disability) in disaster settings is something that has seen improvements, but still has a long way to go. To speak frankly, involving more disabled voices could cut out a lot of steps – there is nobody better to provide knowledge, experience and insight into access and functional needs during an event than the people who actually experience these needs each day. Universal inclusion may be a pipedream, but it might be easier to trust that the response for the next climate-induced disaster will consider the needs of people who use sign language, have unpaid carers, or require controlled medications, if people with a range of disabilities were prominently represented throughout the planning.
Check out Access King’s and the events they have lined up for the UK Disability History Month. This is the Staff Disability Inclusion Network at King’s College London.