By Sarah Kim
On this year’s International Women’s Day, which is celebrating with the theme of Climate Justice and Sustainability, I look back on a major climate event that could’ve very possibly derailed my journey to independence.
During my senior year of high school, Hurricane Sandy struck my hometown. My classmates celebrated the fact that school had been canceled for ten days. But as a young woman with a disability, I couldn’t sit still.
The storm knocked down a power line directly connected to my house and it took nearly a month for it to be fully restored. I had to prolong my absence from school because I had no way of charging my power wheelchair, which was my only way to get around school. I was also fast approaching deadlines for SATs and college applications and had no power to turn on my computer.
As a woman of color with cerebral palsy, I knew that a world-class higher education could be my ticket to economic freedom and upward mobility in society. But during Sandy and its long aftermath, I felt so defeated — all the hard work I put in to ensure my spot at a top institution was hanging by a thinning thread. All because of a catastrophic climate disaster, which I had no control over.
Even at 17, I was familiar with the unique disempowerment that comes with being a woman of color with a disability. Simple bodily movements like raising my hand or speaking did not come out as I imagined in my mind — my muscles rebelled against me and executed movements far different than I wanted. Although some people can unproblematically depend on their bodily autonomy, I did not have this certainty.
But being able to even have the chance to pursue a higher education, even with all the barriers I faced as a woman of color with a disability was still a privilege. What happens to the vast majority of disabled women of color who live in poverty and are ignored, neglected, or die during a disaster?
Climate justice is disability justice
In particular, women of color with disabilities face unique challenges in climate crises. The effects of climate change are already greater for the economically disadvantaged since they’re much more likely to have limited access to life-saving resources and sound housing infrastructures. And disabled women of color in the U.S. are the most likely to live in poverty, according to American Progress.
Women reported rampant sexual violence during Hurricane Katrina, and 80% of people displaced by climate change are women of color, according to the United Nations. Moreover, women of color with disabilities are more likely to contract more illnesses due to standing water or unsanitary feminine products.
On top of this, disability discrimination exists at evacuation sites because of physical barriers that make them inaccessible. This could leave a person with a disability stranded during a natural disaster, completely forgotten about or dead. Worst of all, climate migrants are often forced to settle in low-income areas where climate risks already have disproportionate impacts.
To ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind during evacuation procedures, there must be people with disabilities in the disaster risk reduction committees.
We are in the age of climate change, and we have likely passed the point of no return. This does not mean we should give up the possibility of a deus ex machina in the future. Scientists are working hard to develop novel solutions to these existential threats. Despite this, we cannot reasonably expect the world to go back to how it was a century ago.
Resilience and inclusion are key
From my experience of living with a disability, the one thing I’m certain of is that life doesn’t come to you with ready-made solutions. Instead, you must face challenges with adaptability and resilience, even though the onus to inclusion should be on society and not us as individuals. Nevertheless, the old adage about getting back up when you fall might seem like a clichè to a person who doesn’t have to live it several times a day.
As a disabled woman of color, I claim resilience. This trait has carried me through a terrain where getting a cup of coffee in the morning is an obstacle course. If things do not change, many people’s lives will become full of obstacles like crop failure and ecosystem collapse. Climate change is happening, sea levels are rising and species are going extinct.
For decades, people with disabilities have continued to be left behind before, during and after disasters. Claiming climate resilience means knowing your rights and practicing emergency and disaster preparedness so we don’t end up as casualties when local, state and regional governments fail to include us.
About ten years ago in the midst of a hurricane, I fought for my future. Without my wheelchair, I was forced to go to school using my walker and complete my SATs by hand, without the assisted technologies and computer assistance that was the norm for me. While I never should have had to do that, I look back with pride on the immense effort that I exerted because it did pay off as I now have two Columbia degrees and a bright career path.
But most impoverished women of color with disabilities will never have the opportunity to pursue this path unless multiply marginalized people are prioritized across the disaster cycle. We must prioritize disability-inclusive emergency preparedness and disaster resilience to avoid the deadly outcomes that multiply marginalized people with disabilities too often face.
There can never be true climate justice without the most affected folks being a significant part of disaster risk reduction and sustainability initiatives.
Published: March 8, 2022
Sarah Kim is a freelance writer for WID.