The UK government’s National Disability Strategy has failed to address the “urgent challenges” posed by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to disabled academics and campaigners.
In a new report, published by the Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project, they say the government has failed to include any kind of action plan that would empower disabled people’s “full and effective participation in climate action and climate governance”.
But they also say that the strategy fails to offer a cross-governmental plan to ensure an inclusive recovery from the pandemic.
The report, Up To The Challenge, was published just days after the high court confirmed that the UK government’s National Disability Strategy was unlawful, because a consultation it held was also unlawful.
The UN and disabled climate change activists have repeatedly warned of the disproportionate impact that climate change is having on disabled people around the world.
Inclusion Scotland’s Susie Fitton told a COP26 event last November that disabled people are hit hardest by extreme weather, wild fires, droughts, storms and floods, and are “less likely to be evacuated safely, more prone to health risks, and less likely to have insurance that protects their assets and homes”.
Dr Marie Tidball, co-ordinator of the Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project, a research associate at the university, and editor of the report, says that the “twin crises we now face require active and meaningful participation of disabled people and our diverse representative organisations, at all levels of decision-making”.
This, she says, “will enable innovation and inclusion which benefits all of us”.
But she says the strategy fails to “integrate any kind of action plan to implement disability-inclusive climate policies which empower disabled people’s full and effective participation in climate action and climate governance.
“Nor does it produce a cross-governmental plan to ensure an inclusive response to and recovery from the pandemic.”
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, says in his contribution to the report that the disability strategy “does not address the disproportionate impact on disabled people of either of these crises.
“Nor does it address the role that disabled people can play in shaping our response to these crises as a community or as a significant portion of the population within our nation.
“The strategy has not put disabled people at its heart, because we were not involved in it.”
Professor Peter Beresford, visiting professor at the University of East Anglia, and co-chair of the disabled people’s and service-user organisation Shaping Our Lives, says he could find in the strategy no mention of plans to tackle climate change or proposals to “ensure that disabled people are not, yet again, the main victims of another pandemic, or the ones who continue to bear the brunt of the present one”.
And, he says, the strategy “ignores the views of disabled people” in taking forward some of the government’s most high-profile policies, such as on health and social care reform.
Beresford says the government’s disability strategy should be underpinned by the “philosophy of independent living based on the social model of disability”, with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) as its “centrepiece”.
Another disabled researcher, Dr Sasha Kosanic, a climate change researcher and lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, says in the report that solutions to the climate crisis, and its “dual emergencies of rising global temperature and precipitation and the unprecedented biodiversity loss, must involve the active inclusion of disabled populations around the world”.
She says that this involvement would allow scientists, policymakers and politicians to develop inclusive policies.
Jumoke Abdullahi, co-founder of The Triple Cripples and Inclusion London’s media and communications officer, points out that official figures show that six in every 10 people who lost their lives due to COVID-19 in England and Wales were disabled; that there was a disproportionate death rate among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds; and that disabled, working-age women with higher support needs were 11.3 times more likely to die than non-disabled women of the same age.
She says this means it has never been more important for the government “to address the multiple inequalities we face and to understand and celebrate our intersectional identities in meeting our needs and aspirations.
“But, on intersectionality and on tackling the multiple exclusion we face, the [strategy] contains no strategy at all. Indeed, the issue is not mentioned anywhere in the document.”
Dr Sarah Bell, a lecturer in health geography at the University of Exeter, says disabled people have experienced a “triple jeopardy” since the start of the pandemic, with an increased risk of severe illness, barriers to health care and rehabilitation, and the negative impact of strategies devised to deal with the pandemic.
But, she says, “the pathways towards a disability-inclusive green recovery [from the pandemic] remain under-researched and underacknowledged”, while climate change is “barely recognised in the National Disability Strategy”.
Jane Hatton, the disabled founder and director of social enterprise Evenbreak, said that ways of working had changed through the pandemic “and will continue to change”.
She says in the report: “The ideal people to work in these new kinds of ways are disabled people, because we have always been doing things differently.
“Disabled people need to be leading on this because we are the experts. It is something we have been doing every day of our lives.”
She adds: “Disability still comes too far down the Government’s list of priorities and needs to be given more prominence in their agenda.”
Dr Kay Inckle, campaigns and policy manager at Wheels for Wellbeing, which campaigns for improved access to cycling for disabled people, says in her contribution to the report that the government’s strategy has done “nothing” to promote health, sustainability and active travel for disabled people.
She adds: “In the context of climate breakdown and post-pandemic recovery, it is especially disappointing that the NDS offers nothing in regard to active travel for disabled people.”
Author and policy analyst Phillip Wilcox calls in his contribution for policy-makers to recognise the potential of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles, which have the potential “to deliver transformative changes to the lives of disabled people and reduce vehicle emissions”.
The report emerged from a webinar held last November to mark the COP26 climate change conference and Disability History Month.
Among its 21 recommendations is to ensure that UNCRPD is “directly enforceable” in UK law; to introduce a new statutory duty to pay due regard to the rights of disabled people in environmental and climate change law, policy and climate action; and to take the necessary measures to ensure the “inclusive involvement of disabled people and their own organisations in the development of policy and practice at all levels”.
It also calls for a new Future Accessibility Impact Board (whose members would be disabled people) to investigate the impact of policies and decisions on current and future generations of disabled people; and for the government to ensure that disability benefits are high enough to enable a “decent quality of life”.
Picture: (From left to right) Jumoke Abdullahi, Kamran Mallick and Marie Tidball
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