Disability Inclusion in Climate-Related Disaster Preparation

In recognition of National Preparedness Month, this post is written by Marcie Roth, CEO of The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies and an industry expert in global disability inclusive emergency management and community inclusion. Marcie has most recently been working with Handicap International, where she researched the impact of climate change on persons with disabilities.

Disability Inclusion in Climate-Related Disaster Preparation
By Marcie Roth

Since April 2017, with the support of the Hilton Prize Coalition, I’ve had the great opportunity to work with Handicap International (HI), and immerse myself in researching the global efforts to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on children and adults with disabilities. HI has been working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster for 35 years with a focus on responding to essential needs, improving living conditions, and promoting respect for dignity and basic rights. It is one of six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines; the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997; and the winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2011. HI takes action and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.

I share the organization’s very strong commitment to the rights of persons with disabilities and the imperative for equal access and full inclusion in all aspects of home and community living, before, during and after disasters. On September 13, 2001, while working for the National Council on Independent Living, I was asked by New York disability leaders to help New Yorkers with disabilities living in the “frozen zone” around Ground Zero. They weren’t getting their usual in-home services, due to an emergency operations decision to limit entry by non-residents. I reached out to government and non-governmental organizations to find someone who was leading an effort to address the emergency and disaster related rights and accommodations of children and adults with disabilities. I couldn’t find anyone leading the charge, so I worked with the White House and organized community groups to address the immediate unmet needs of these survivors.

This experience led to my work over the past 16 years transforming the nation’s approach to addressing the civil rights of children and adults with disabilities before, during, and after disasters. Half of this time has been spent in leadership roles in non-governmental and disabled persons organizations. The other half was spent establishing and leading the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) throughout President Obama’s Administration. Through this work, real progress has been made on not only reducing the disproportionate impact of disasters on people with disabilities, but also older adults, people who are very poor, experience homelessness, have limited English proficiency, low literacy, and others who also have access and functional needs.

My work with HI consisted of an extensive review of climate change adaptation initiatives underway across the globe. As the CEO of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a membership organization bringing together local, state, national and global organizations with a shared commitment to disability inclusive emergency management, I organize and lead initiatives to help communities prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate disasters. My focus is on the increased frequency and intensity of disasters, including disasters associated with climate change.

There is a vast disconnect between the well-documented impact of climate change on the needs, rights and contributions of children and adults with disabilities and the organizational work being funded and implemented to prepare for and adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change across the globe. Almost all efforts to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on people with disabilities view the problem and solution as a health and medical “problem,” not a human rights imperative. This is a recipe for failure. There is an urgent and immediate need for a wholesale shift toward human rights, social justice, inclusion, and universal accessibility.

Climate change is causing immense and devastating hydrometeorological and other severe impacts across both developing and developed countries. Immediate and sustained climate change adaptation must involve everyone. This means planning with, not for, people with disabilities. This can only be achieved by including in all planning efforts the voices and accessibility needs of people with disabilities, older adults, women, indigenous people, and individuals who experience poverty at the center of every effort. Inclusion and accessibility will benefit impacted communities, allowing them to optimize limited resources and maximize whole community engagement.

Disability inclusion experts have a great role to play in guiding and leading climate change adaptation investments by governments, non-governmental entities, private sector, scientists, and civil society. HI has a track record of success in climate change-specific and related initiatives in communities across the globe. Their experience is needed more than ever, as it is ideally suited to address the immediate and ongoing need for the expertise of disability leaders in guiding whole community inclusion in preparing for, adapting to and surviving the devastating effects of global climate change.

The disability rights adage, “nothing about us, without us,” places persons with disabilities and their representative organizations firmly into the decision-making process. This has never been more vital to the future of the citizens of our planet. Although my time with Handicap International is drawing to a close, the work I did with them will be extremely valuable as I continue moving from words into action to reduce the disproportionate impact of disasters on children and adults with disabilities and communities impacted by extreme weather and other hazards facing the citizens of our planet.

September is National Preparedness Month in the US. It’s a good time to review your personal and family preparedness plan. Go to www.ready.gov for preparedness tips.

(Photos: Marcie Roth speaking at meetings of the UN Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, in 2015, and Cancun, Mexico, in 2017. All photos courtesy of the author.)

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