With COP 26 taking place in Glasgow this week, I was planning to write a blog on the importance of remembering disability in the conversation around climate change.
In this ever-changing world we live in, we need to make sure that disability remains firmly on the agenda. There is a lot (to put it mildly!) going on – from the legacy of COVID-19 and living with the pandemic, its lasting effects on the health service and all of us to the effects of climate change. But these things affect disabled people too; it isn’t a question of either/or. Arguably, disabled people are more affected by these issues, not less, whether it is the disproportionate and devastating effect of the pandemic or the increased need for heating in our homes in the face of escalating energy prices.
The need for this blog though has been escalated by the news that wheelchair user Karine Elharrar – an Israeli Minister – was not able to attend the COP26 summit due to the lack of wheelchair access. This is not just an injustice, it is a waste of talent, skills and experience which literally didn’t make it into the room, let alone the conversation. And it isn’t new.
Back in July 2018, the UK government hosted a disability summit. It was held at Here East – a shiny new build in the Olympic Park, created for the Olympics (and Paralympics) in 2012. For those who can remember life pre-Covid, summer 2018 was a heatwave. Blazing hot to match and even exceed the heady heights of 1976. Among many familiar faces, I was very pleased to bump into a good friend and we decided to go outside for our coffee. This friend is a wheelchair user and has a large electric wheelchair. All the doors (or almost all it turns out) had a lip or sill at the bottom. He duly bumped his wheelchair over the sill and in the process, disconnected its power cable. His chair ground to a halt. The manufacturers of the wheelchair were unable to come out and it was only thanks to some judicious manoeuvres involving the torch on a mobile phone and a lot of jiggling that his colleague managed to reconnect the cable (I held the bags!). When we went inside, one of the event staff told us that we “should” have used the accessible exit/entrance further down the corridor and directed us to it to come back in! There were no signs to indicate an accessible exit (bear in mind that this event was a global disability summit) which was bad enough – but also bear in mind that this was a new build. Surely all the exits should have been accessible by design? It wouldn’t have cost more and would have been better not just for wheelchair users but avoided a trip hazard for everyone.
This is what happens when the right voices and right lived experiences are not in the room. By simply involving disabled people from the start, we design out road bumps (literally in this case) and create a better experience for everyone. Surely in 2021, inclusive and accessible design should be something that happens by default?
We have a duty post-Covid to literally build back better – and as many businesses consider downsizing office space to move to a hybrid or remote working model there is perhaps a unique opportunity to make premises not just sustainable for the climate but accessible and inclusive too. Hybrid and remote working is also not an excuse for inaction or to be inaccessible because disabled people “can work from home/attend remotely”. Disabled people deserve the right to choose where and how they experience events and how and where they work, just like their non-disabled peers. Otherwise, what message do we send about who and what we value?
The irony of this happening at an event hosted by the UN is summed up by one of its own Sustainable Development Goals for 2030: “No-one Left Behind”. We need to make sure that goal becomes a reality – and sooner rather than later.