Just a stone’s throw from Susan McKinstery’s flat, the helicopter whirs and the bustle of COP26 starts once again, as throngs of delegates snake down the street to queue outside the Clydeside venue. But, say McKinstery and other disability campaigners, the voices of disabled people in these vital environmental negotiations are not being heard.
Though she is living in the exclusion zone – the no-go zone around the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) where climate talks are taking place – the frantic activity does not touch her.
Instead, she says, the closed roads all around her mean she’s planning to stay at home for the next two weeks. Her major worry is that – as a disabled woman with a disabled wife – the carers the couple rely on will not be able to access the flat due to COP26-related disruption.
Claims have been made by the COP26 Coalition that this is one of the most exclusionary events ever, with delegates from poorer countries denied visas, unable to access required Covid-19 vaccines or eye-wateringly expensive accommodation and being forced instead to join remotely, if at all.
As the conference got underway it became clear there were also other kinds of exclusion. On the first official day of business Israeli minister Karine Elharrar was unable to access COP26 in her wheelchair. Inside, others have pointed out the lack of a sign language interpreter on the main stage.
McKinstery, speaking to The Ferret via zoom, along with fellow members of Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA), says disabled people feel excluded not only from the main event, but also from moving around the city with confidence due to road closures and protests.
Also on the call is Marianne Scobie, deputy director of GDA and passionate advocate of the need for disabled people’s voices to be heard in the wider climate debate. She is angry that COP26 organisers do not share her enthusiasm.
Scobie, who has a mobility impairment, had worked with national disability charity Inclusion Scotland, to request passes for the conference’s Blue Zone. But only three of the five passes requested were granted, with no additional spaces for personal assistants that many disabled people need. “It unfairly discriminates against disabled staff members or disabled delegates,” says Scobie, who was unable to attend without support.
“I would have loved to have been part of the delegation this week. If I’d been able to trust that my basic access needs would have been met, I would have been there. When disabled people are not visible and included, decisions are taken without consideration of our needs.”
She and others on this call are not surprised by problems faced by the Isreali delegate. “While they were heralding that the buses were an all electric fleet, it seems that they’ve not considered that they need to be wheelchair accessible,” says Scobie.
Most members feel they’ve been forgotten at COP26. They say the UK Government, Glasgow City Council and the UN have failed to consider how restrictions and road closures would impact their daily lives.
McKinstery had to put blood tests on hold as her GP, also in the exclusion zone, sent a text a few days ago to advise that it they could only offer emergency access. Her neighbours in the same supported housing block claim their carers have sometimes struggled to get to work. And – following the “brutal” overnight complete cut to care she suffered during the first lockdown – McKinstry feels anxious that might happen to her.
Kirsty Birkner is also concerned: “Just a few days ago they [carers] phoned up and said that the care was going to be late because they couldn’t get through traffic. I can be a bit flexible, but there is a concern that there are people who need medication at certain times.”
They all agree that disabled people should have been provided with better information to help them plan. “Until the end of last week, we didn’t know what was happening with the trains,” says 26-year-old Luke Murphy, who has a complex range of needs. It meant his carer would have struggled to get to his home.
“It’s really frustrating when you’ve already fought and juggled to have the support in place for it to be knocked out of whack for something that there’s been very little communication over,” he says.
“I’ve struggled to make sense of the information online,” says Paul Cunningham, who has a visual impairment. “I mean, I don’t tend to think of roads in that way so it means that I’m just avoiding the city centre altogether just now.”
Scobie says there have been problems for some people accessing the information online. “We have had lots of disabled people contact us because they were concerned about their care or their care workers not being able to get to them on time,” she explains.
Glasgow City Council meanwhile claims it “reached out to citizens including disability groups to raise awareness using a variety of means including newsletters, letter drops and in-person events”.
The Get Ready Glasgow website was launched in May, it says and highlights a variety of ways that people can get in touch, with key information on routes and road closures available in a wide range of formats.
But this has not been the experience of the group. GDA says that given the erosion of trust caused by the “abruptness and the brutality of services being withdrawn during Covid-19” disabled organisations should have been at the heart of planning.
“Glasgow should be proud of the fact that GDA is the largest disabled people’s organisation in Europe and should have capitalised on that as part of the planning,” adds Scobie. “I know the council and the Scottish Government have also been at the margins of the planning – it’s the UN and it’s the UK Government. But they could have pushed harder.”
Meanwhile GDA are being contacted as emergency consultants, by COP26 delegates who can’t find accessible accommodation in the city and by organisers and environmental organisations who suddenly realise they need to do more to make their events accessible.
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“How can we possibly just magic that all up,” Scobie shrugs, frustrated.
But having disabled people in the room matters, says Susie Fitton, senior policy officer of Inclusion Scotland. On Friday she’ll present the findings of a new report – It’s Our Planet Too – which highlights the way disabled people are disproportionately affected by climate change – to COP26 delegates.
Working in partnership with McGill University, Canada, the International Disability Alliance based in New York, and other international partners, she’s managed to pull off a global coup. The event will be the first time in the 30-year history of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a blue-zone side event is focused on disabled people and climate action.
But the UNFCCC can do much better, she says. It is time, she and others claim, for disabled people’s organisations to be recognised as a constituent group, meaning they must be involved in the negotiations they currently shut out of. And the voices of disabled Scots must be heard locally too, she insists.
“Disabled Scots are not only disproportionately likely to be affected by climate change, living in single level housing with ground floor access makes you more vulnerable to floods and rising levels of rivers for example,” she adds. “But they are also more likely to be living in poverty so less likely to be able to afford insurance. They are also less likely to be involved in community planning so it’s likely their needs will not be met.
“We saw with Katrina [New Orlean’s hurricane that killed 1,800 in 2005] that disabled people died when they were not able to be evacuated and that evacuation centres were not accessible. Disabled people are looking at that. And they are looking at the way Scotland responded to Covid-19 and they are seeing an alarming pattern. People are wondering: “In a climate emergency, are my needs going to be met?”
It’s a haunting issue for several of GDA’s members. Cunningham says: “When you hear of weather driven natural disasters you see people on their roofs [on TV]. And I’m thinking I bet you in some of those houses there are disabled people. They’ll be left behind.”
In response he “always has a plan B” that includes batteries, candles, bottled water. “It might sound daft but if there’s a road closed and I struggle to get to shops at least I have the basics,” he says.
Luke too thinks about the impact of climate change, noticing the way the weather affects his symptoms and levels of independence. “When it snows I can’t get out in my powered wheelchair. Cold, damp rain gives me more pain in my joints too. I also live in a ground floor property so if there is flooding, that is a worry.”
Fitton points out hearing disabled voices that can help drive more inclusive net-zero policies. She and Scobie are currently involved in the Scottish Government’s working group on the plastic straw ban, ensuring that disabled people who need them to be able to drink can access a medical exemption.
Active travel is another area where ecoablism – the failure by non-disabled environmental activists to recognise that many of the climate actions they’re promoting make life difficult for disabled people – needs to be challenged, they say.
Cunningham claims the lack of disability-awareness planning in the drive to create more space for people and bikes in city centres through the Spaces for People scheme bought in after the pandemic is problematic. “They are putting cycle lanes with no delineation,” he explains. “There’s no separate kerbs, not even little bumps.” It makes it hard to navigate with a guide dog.
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Glasgow City Council says it is in the process of establishing a design forum to engage with disabled people on live project designs but many of the “temporary” changes are now permanent.
As long as investment has not been made in ensuring public transport is properly accessible, she says it’s wrong that city centre accessible parking spaces have been removed stopped disabled people from accessing parts of the city. Glasgow City Council says it “took steps to ensure there was no net loss of disabled parking bays in the city centre”.
“Ecoablism is very upsetting for disabled people,” adds Scobie. “We can be attacked as if we were the sole cause of global warming because we have to drive cars or use plastic straw.”
But there are solutions, this group claims, that work for all people and the planet. Help us use public transport,” says McKinstery. “Make it accessible, give us alternatives.
“Think about issues like social care too,” she added. “If you don’t have access to that social care you are far more likely to have to rely on single use plastics – continence products for example. If you don’t have someone coming in to help you prepare a meal, you’re more likely to have to rely on ready meals or take aways.
“It’s not that disabled people care less about cutting emissions but often we are not always left with so much choice. In other words, it’s about making this all join up.” And as we face up to the realities of our climate emergency that, claim GDA members, should not be beyond us.
Cover image by Dean Calma/IAEA, CC BY 2.0
If you’d like to share your experience of accessibility at COP26, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Good article. Due to a “slipped disc” and sciatic pain, I am experiencing a prolonged but hopefully temporary period of restricted mobility. I am using a walking stick and can only walk for a few minutes due to pain. I have now become one of those car drivers whose car is essential and I need to park very close to where I am going. Public transport is not an option; too much walking and standing. So, my “View” of the world has changed and now I “get it” when I read of how some folks have been left behind. It was awful to see the Israeli Minister excluded on day one. She made a really vital point about “the importance of details” in actualising access rights. Closing down roads and walkways, whether by Police Scotland or Extinction Rebellion, is discriminatory if there is no consultation with those likely to be affected. Yes, there are lots of ways in which society and individuals, need to do better to make full participation a reality for everyone.