The Sunday Mail
Dr Christine Peta
DISABILITY was thrust into the limelight at the just ended 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), hosted by the United Kingdom in Glasgow (October 31-November 12, 2021).
But: how could disability feature prominently at a UN World Conference whose focus was on climate change? Can disability really be found in climate change?
The answer is yes! Disability is in “everything and disability is everywhere.” Climate change affects both persons with and without disabilities, but due to the historic marginalisation of persons with disabilities, their experience of climate change may be different and more intense, hence they may need different kinds of support.
Climate change may also impact human beings in ways that may cause additional people (beyond the current UN measure of 15 percent of world population) to acquire disabilities. However, the focus of this article is on the subject of accessibility by persons with disabilities at the just COP26 summit on Climate Change.
On November 1, this year, there were media reports that the Israeli Energy Minister, Karine Elharrar (a wheelchair user who has muscular dystrophy), had been excluded from attending the COP26 on Climate Change due to challenges surrounding access to the venue.
In what appears to be criminalisation of disability, police officers at a checkpoint did not allow her to enter the venue in the vehicle in which she had arrived.
She said: “The only way they said I could come in was to walk on foot for almost a kilometre, or to board a shuttle that was not wheelchair accessible.”
Yet, through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (UNCRPD) , the UN seeks to harmonise the action of nations with regards to disability.
So what does it all mean when the vehicle of a delegate with disability is barred for two hours, from approaching a UN world conference venue? What does it all mean when thereafter, the delegate is offered a ride on a shuttle which is not wheelchair accessible, thus forcing her to return to her hotel 80km away?
Elharrar later wrote on Twitter: “It’s sad that the UN, which advances accessibility for people with disabilities, in 2021, doesn’t see to accessibility at its events.”
Indeed, we are in 2021 and furthermore it is 15 years after the enactment of the UNCRPD . In addition, the world is also in an era in which the principle of the SDGs-Agenda 2030 “of leaving no one behind” has become widely known. Elharrar was only able to attend the UN Climate Change Conference on the second day, when challenges surrounding issues of access to the venue by her as a wheelchair user had been resolved.
At its beginning, the conference was ill-prepared to receive delegates with different kinds of impairments, including those with physical impairment (wheelchair users), who could not walk independently to the venue or use the mainstream shuttle service with wheelchairs.
Yes! British Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally apologised to Elharrar for the incident, but the scenario brings to the fore the widespread marginalisation of persons with disabilities in many countries across the world.
There is also evidence of a serious violation of the human rights of persons with disabilities, in scenarios where different identity markers that include gender and disability intersect to frame their oppression, including in the arena of access to the physical environment.
Article 9 of the UNCRPD  is dedicated to the subject of accessibility and among other things, it clearly directs State Parties to: “enable persons with disabilities . . . to participate fully in all aspects of life . . . [and to] ensure [that] persons with disabilities [have] access on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment . . .”
The failure of COP26 on Climate Change organisers to provide reasonable accommodation to Elharrar as directed in the UNCRPD , may be misinterpreted to mean that persons with disabilities are regarded as “damaged goods” that have no place at the tables of international dialogue on climate change.
Nonetheless, this commentary is not meant to be a call for pity on Elharrar, or an attack on the UN or organisers of COP26 on Climate, but the article brings forth an example of the realities of how persons with disabilities live at the intersection of identity markers and systems that frame their oppression, in contexts where they have to constantly make daily decisions to either comply or to resist systems of social injustice in order to survive and to have their needs met.
In a tweet addressed to the conference organisers, Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, said:
“You cannot be concerned about the future, climate and sustainability if you aren’t concerned first of all to people accessibility, and people with disabilities.”
But one can also argue that we cannot expect people to do things that they do not understand. It is therefore not surprising that Article 9 (c) of the UNCRPD , directs States Parties to: “provide training for stakeholders on accessibility issues facing persons with disabilities.”
Elharrar’s experience illuminates the need to develop and publicly share international guidelines for disability competence training of stakeholders across sectors, including security personnel such as police officers so that they do not among other things, misinterpret certain requests or behaviour of persons with disabilities as non-compliance or disrespect, albeit without compromising on security.
Referring to the experience of accessibility of Elharaar, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett summed it all up by saying: “It’s a learning opportunity for all of us on the importance of disability for all.” Let us all come together to push forward the national and world agenda on disability across sectors.
Dr Christine Peta is a disability, policy, international development and research expert who is the National Director of Disability Affairs in Zimbabwe. She can be contacted on: [email protected]