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Disabled People Cannot Be “Expected Losses” in the Climate Crisis

To tell the story of disability and climate change, we need to focus on structural violence — not vulnerability.

American Sign Language interpreters sign to two Deaf evacuees on September 20, 2008, at a FEMA processing center where Hurricane Ike survivors were brought, in San Antonio, Texas.

Part of the Series

Disabled people face disproportionate risks from climate change. Consider the impact of floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that are intensified by the climate crisis. The structural barriers that disability communities face every day — inaccessible infrastructure, subpar public transportation systems, refusals to provide communication access, endemic poverty and a limited voice in civic governance — become a matter of life or death during disaster.

Public failures to address disability during disaster are getting more attention, thanks to the work of leaders like Marcie Roth at the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, who has built a coalition of disability leaders, emergency management professionals and public health experts committed to disability inclusive disaster response. Among them? Germán Parodi, a disability activist, regional representative to the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, and the first person with a significant spinal cord injury to deploy to an area directly impacted by disaster. Shortly after Hurricane Maria, Parodi led a team to Puerto Rico to provide support and aid for disabled and elderly residents, many of whom were without power, supplies or essential medical equipment.

Meanwhile recent media accounts have laid bare the risks: stories of New Yorkers who were trapped in high-rise apartment buildings for days after Hurricane Sandy; nursing home residents in Florida who died from extreme heat after their institution failed to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Irma; or disaster warnings that are inaccessible to Deaf communities. Such stories call attention to the ways in which Deaf and disabled people are especially vulnerable to climate disruption.

But vulnerability is a dangerous business.

After a recent discussion of disability and disaster, a colleague of mine threw up his hands. “It’s terrible,” he told me. “But what can you do? Some people just aren’t going to make it.” Once I got over my outrage, I realized my colleague had unwittingly named a core problem facing those of us organizing for climate justice: the assumption that some folks simply aren’t cut out to survive.

How we tell this story matters.

If we persist in framing disability and climate change as a problem of physical vulnerability, we miss the underlying realities of structural violence: how ableism, racism, class inequality and other forms of oppression work together to compound and intensify risk.

Patty Berne, a disability justice activist and artistic director of Sins Invalid, the Bay Area disability performance collective, lays out the stakes: “From homeless encampments to local jail cells, the social, political, and economic disparities among disabled queer and trans people of color put our communities at the frontlines of ecological disaster.”

Take the case of disability communities in Puerto Rico, who faced catastrophic harm in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2018. To call the hurricane a “natural disaster” is to obscure the way United States colonialism laid the groundwork for the devastation. U.S. economic austerity policies left the island subject to poor infrastructure, a shaky electrical grid, patchy medical systems and inadequate public services — all of which were stressed to breaking point when the hurricane hit. And when it comes to disability, eligible Puerto Ricans receive an average of $74 a month, a fraction of the disability benefits provided to U.S. citizens on the mainland.

Social inequality can be a death sentence. Consider Benilda Caixeta, a wheelchair user living in New Orleans who relied upon the city’s paratransit system for accessible transportation, a service notorious for its unreliability in the best of circumstances. As Hurricane Katrina advanced, she worked for days to arrange transportation to evacuate. But despite repeated promises, her driver never arrived. When floodwaters rushed into her apartment, Caixeta drowned — waiting for transit that never came.

When we tell Caixeta’s story, we face a choice: We could use her story to illustrate the essential vulnerability of people with disabilities; or we could use it to tell a political story about disability discrimination, about transportation systems that are inequitable and unreliable even in fair weather — and that fail, utterly, in the face of a storm. The political story makes plain that Caixeta’s inability to evacuate isn’t a personal tragedy caused by disability, but a public failure: a devastating indictment of the deadly cost of ableism and inequality.

That kind of political story is a powerful tool for organizing. Those political recognitions led disabled filmmakers at Rooted in Rights to document and organize for collective action — and spurred policy analyst Adrien A. Weibgen to lay out “the right to be rescued,” building upon a class action lawsuit that found the City of New York’s inadequate disaster plan discriminated against people with disabilities after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

But the political story often gets overshadowed by other stories — stories that don’t ask us to grapple with power and privilege.

Popular accounts of disability and disaster usually follow one of two scripts. Disabled people are either used to sell a story of triumph over adversity, to showcase the possibility of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds; or we serve as icons of disaster, as visible embodiments of tragedy and vulnerability. All too often, that tragic story makes disabled people seem like natural victims — “expected losses” of climate crisis.

While these two stories feel like opposites, the political work they perform is strikingly similar: They focus our attention on the individual, rather than the political. They veil the effects of structural inequality and injustice. They turn our gaze away from the problem of power.

Working for climate justice requires challenging the root causes of vulnerability, rather than treating disabled people as the inevitable casualties of climate change. It also means interrogating the realities that keep some of us farther from the storm.

Whiteness and wealth are two powerful protectors that work together to blunt the harshest effects of climate change. Access to wealth makes it easier to evacuate, and long-standing patterns of white supremacy translate into the political clout and communal resources that make climate disruptions more survivable in the first place — better infrastructure, less exposure to environmental hazards and more robust public assistance during and after crisis.

Take one concrete example: Alex Ghenis, a World Institute of Disability policy specialist, calls attention to the critical links between climate change, migration and disability. Climate change is accelerating forced migration at a time when disabled people find it increasingly difficult to cross borders — not simply because of the physical demands, but also because of political opposition. In the United States, a new Trump administration rule will go into effect on October 15, allowing officials to deny green cards or citizenship to disabled people on the principle that we are (or might become) a public burden.If we don’t name and resist those dynamics, and if we don’t challenge the unequal distribution of resources they inspire, then those of us who are white and relatively well-off perpetuate a system that sacrifices other bodies to climate change.

When it comes to resistance, I draw strength from the fierce activism emerging out of the disability justice movement, intersectional justice organizing by queer and trans disabled activists of color. In August 2019, Bay Area activists Stacey Milburn and Max Airborne gathered disability justice activists, fat activists and anyone who has been “separated, shut away, controlled, disposed of, [or] incarcerated” to unite in solidarity with migrants. Their call? No body is disposable.

That ethical call pulses at the heart of climate justice and disability justice movements. To truly build that world, we must to tell disability stories as political stories. We must tell stories that expose inequality and injustice, that call us to challenge the root causes of disability risk.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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