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Truth Be Told: The Impact of Climate Change on Persons with Disabilities Cannot be Ignored

By: Gabrielle McKenzie

Activists have argued, proposed policies, and fought tirelessly to address the negative impacts of climate change. Despite this, a particular group of people has often been forgotten in these discussions. Climate catastrophes, such as heatwaves, storms, and floods, have a two- to fourfold higher mortality and injury rate for people with disabilities, according to Harvard University research. This implies that people with disabilities are two to four times more likely to be affected by the unfortunate realities of our climate than those without disabilities. Yet, the voices and rights of those with disabilities are disregarded and unrepresented in discussions of climate action.

As a Guyanese with a disability and a disability rights activist, I've seen first-hand the ways the disability community has been excluded in discussions about climate change mitigation and disaster prevention. In Guyana, the involvement of individuals with disabilities in climate action, climate crisis risk reduction, and resilience to natural disasters has been minimal to non-existent. Furthermore, due to inaccessible infrastructure and information, preparedness plans and emergency response programmes frequently exclude individuals with disabilities, including women. For example, warnings of impending floods are never provided in a manner that people with hearing loss, visual impairments, or intellectual disabilities can access and comprehend on their own. 

Drought in Guyana has significantly impaired the country's agricultural sector, leading to a decline in food production and posing a challenge to ensuring food security for those with disabilities. The disability community has always had a significant challenge in terms of limited financial resources. Due to the escalating living expenses, particularly concerning food, there will be a twofold increase in the need for financial resources. One aspect of heatwaves that is sometimes underestimated is the irritation and mental weariness they bring. The absence of employment prospects for people with disabilities makes it difficult for them to find solutions to cope with the persistent heat in Guyana.  Overall, climate change has affected every facet of the lives of those with disabilities. 

People with disabilities should participate in climate action just like everyone else. As part of the proceedings of the 2nd National Youth with Disabilities Conference, held on November 24th and 25th, 2023 at the University of Guyana (UG) Turkeyen Campus, the participants engaged in a thorough discussion on climate action. A group of about fifty-four (54) young individuals with disabilities from various parts of Guyana declared that individuals with disabilities should be considered and needs included in all disaster planning and response policies and plans. This should include measures specifically designed for the evacuation of disabled individuals. 

Furthermore, additional research is required in the field of climate change and its effects on those with disabilities. The Guyana Council of Organisations for Persons with Disabilities (GCOPD), in collaboration with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), organized the second edition of this conference. Individuals with disabilities are not immune to the effects of climate change in our contemporary society. Therefore, it is imperative that we are represented and included in all aspects of climate action.

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