Op-Ed: We Need Fairer Policies to Save People's Lives

December 04, 2023

When a ship is sinking, who remains on board?

We live in an increasingly dangerous world: wildfires, wars, heatwaves. Can you survive? If you are able-bodied, the chances are much higher. But if you are living with a disability (visible, non-visible or both), the chances of surviving are much lower. And it is not because people with disabilities don’t know how or where to seek help. It’s because they simply cannot escape the “sinking ship.”

This is one of the untold stories of Russia’s war in Ukraine: it has put people with disabilities on a death route. They cannot get out from their homes and hide in a bomb shelter. First, because most buildings in Ukraine still have old, inaccessible elevators. And second, even if an elevator is accessible and operational, the closest bomb shelter might be kilometers away.

Who can escape the sinking ship in a wheelchair? Nobody. People with disabilities are trapped in Gaza, Sudan, Myanmar, and other regions, yet waiting to be mentioned in the news. Families of children with disabilities in the armed-conflict areas stay on board and pray for survival. Someone may think that this is the third-world problem. But it is not. The negligence of people with disabilities is systemic and does not require a visa to cross borders.

Closer to home, when a heat wave hit Canadians in the summer of 2021, elders with disabilities were affected the most. While the BC Coroners Service encouraged British Columbians to visit cooling centers and air-conditioned community spaces for essential respite from the effects of severe heat, people with disabilities living alone remained in their poorly ventilated homes. They waited hours for an emergency team to arrive.

We also observed negligence south of the border when in 2021 people with disabilities struggled to evacuate from wildfires in Northern California. But things get even worst when a person with a disability is also Black, Indigenous or a Person of Color (BIPOC). Research has shown that racism and ableism are not just alive but thriving in our communities. The outcomes of COVID-19 have demonstrated the disproportionate impact on disabled, BIPOC communities. In Toronto alone, racialized communities made up over 80% of cases.

In times of crisis, the demand is high, and resources are limited. However, if we are truly committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), we must walk the EDI walk.

Providing an accessible elevator is not enough. Having on time emergency response is not enough. To build a just future and prevent deaths, we must disrupt ableist and racist negligence of disabled, BIPOC communities. In designing policies, the questions “who benefits” and “how?” are crucial. Equity-based policy making acknowledges the experiences, needs, and strengths of historically marginalized groups. If we invest in developing systems that have the capacities to produce intersectional responses for multiply marginalized communities – people with disabilities who are also BIPOC – we can avoid the next crisis and save lives.