Disability Rights (and Wrongs)

Disability Rights (and Wrongs)

The Turkish earthquakes set me off, and sent me off also, into rage. Because rural women in Turkey live their entire lives under virtual house arrest. Hijab, “properly observed religious ways,” requires among other things that women stay at home, unless accompanied by a male relative — so think about it: following the first small shock, the men rushed out of their homes for safety in the open air, but the women couldn’t. When the real quakes hit, it was the women and children that they buried.The men had got away. News reports said that over 2000 people had died. Or was it 2000 women and children?

And what in hell did they do if they were disabled? Oh my god what in the hell did they do,? Buried alive, they died.

This drove me to borrow an excellent piece written by my colleague here at the Women’s Media Center, journalist Lauren Wolfe, who heads the Climate Desk and who has summed up that situation more clearly that I could.

JANUARY 27, 2023 | Climate | ENVIRONMENT
Left Behind: Disabled People and Natural Disasters
by Lauren Wolfe

Natural disasters can and do cause deaths, but the disabled community suffers disproportionately, with researchers estimating that people with disabilities are up to four times more likely to die in floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and other climate-related events.

There are a number of reasons behind this, but first consider that none of the 192 signatories to the Paris Agreement even mention people with disabilities in their climate mitigation plans. And when a disaster hits, there is little to no infrastructure to support people with increased needs.

With no specific planning for people who may be in wheelchairs or dependent on medications when disasters hit, many people face a crisis on top of a crisis. Federal and state instructions may not be signed for the deaf, for example, leaving people at a loss as to what to do and at a greater risk of injury or death. Also, the federal government reports that disabled people are impoverished at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities, which means they often live in shabbily built affordable housing units that are usually on less desirable flood- and heat-prone lands.

The U.S. National Council on Disability wrote in 2021 that “history has repeatedly shown that people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in emergencies are frequently overlooked or have their needs minimized, despite the urgency that surrounds the need to account for people with disabilities in all phases of emergency management, including mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.”

During evacuations, transportation and shelters may not be wheelchair accessible, and mental and other health services become less available. This has led to people being hospitalized or institutionalized during natural disasters. A 2019 study from the council found that people with disabilities are “frequently institutionalized during and after disasters due to conflicting federal guidance; a lack of equal access to emergency and disaster-related programs and services; and a lack of compliance with federal law.”

The report continued: “As a result of unnecessary institutionalizations during and after disasters, people with disabilities often go unaccounted for, families are separated from loved ones, working individuals with disabilities often become unemployed, and students with disabilities are often excluded from returning to school with their peers.”.

Alice Wong, a writer and activist who recently spent a month in an intensive care unit, required a feeding machine and a ventilator upon returning home. She writes that power outages in the San Francisco area now have her frightened.

“The stakes for potential harm during a power outage have exponentially increased,” she said in an article for High Country News. “My anxiety, vulnerability and fear are real.”

“Living in California — in the middle of a climate crisis — we are all bombarded by advice and information,” she said. “Much of it, however, is not feasible or even possible for poor disabled and older people to follow. People cannot stock up on medications if they are uninsured or underinsured. And recommended mitigation efforts — such as unplugging all appliances during an outage and purchasing equipment like generators — are out of reach financially and physically for many of us.”

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy recommends that all emergency preparedness or disaster information be reviewed for accessibility, and to ensure that shelters are safe spaces for people with disabilities. The International Disability Alliance recommends that all signers of the Paris Agreement “adopt and implement disability-inclusive climate change adaptation policies that enhance the resilience of persons with disabilities to different climate impacts.” There is also a need to get the people actually affected at the planning table.

“A vital part of effective planning is an understanding of the diverse populations that make up the community, including their strengths and their weaknesses,” said the National Council on Disability.

While recommendations abound, real change has not yet materialized. Wong writes that, meanwhile, “disabled and older people continue to die — and the state is complicit in their deaths.”


And here is something of my own, this week’s poem–one on the subject of disability– from my new book,Harvesting Darkness, just published by Spinifex Press.

The Ringmaster’s Desertion

I must lie down where all the ladders start
in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart
–“The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” William Butler Yeats

My body gnarls around me now
as I excrete myself
calcifying to an exoskeleton,
a womb, home, shell, trap, carapace,
sanctuary, chrysalis, coffin. Why
the drive, then, to send these messages?

Does the snail long to be seen for itself?
Does the crustacean rattle
I am alive inside here? A rag
is ripped from some larger cloth. A bone
is a fragment of scaffold. A heart is just a muscle.
But my muscles have minds of their own:

I must hunch to gain perspective.
Only then, stooping high, dare I recognize
a creature arrayed in rag and bone who scuttles
across this intersection as the light
turns red, weaving, while laughing at the pain,
through the gridlocked traffic in my brain.