There is a high risk that in rushing to address the climate crisis many measures will have to be reversed because they do not comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters has been warned.
Disabled people recognised the need for urgency in responding to a global crisis, but changes to shared spaces such as cycling lanes under active travel initiatives were often dangerous and introduced following lack of consultation, said Damien Walshe, chief executive of Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI).
Addressing the committee on Thursday, he said recommendations from disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs) were frequently unheeded.
Mr Walshe added: “Investment in sustainable housing and effective and efficient transportation systems are key to moving from environmental disaster to a more sustainable future. However, there is an urgent need to engage with DPOs to ensure any public investment is fully inclusive and ensure exchequer funds are designed to meet the needs of everyone.”
Climate change and environmentalism were just as much about social justice as correcting damage done to the planet, he said, “but disabled people are often disregarded in discourses ... We are frequently seen as an afterthought or an energy burden rather than being part of a whole societal transformative effect for our shared future.”
The Government’s climate plan had a solitary reference to disabled people in relation to minimum levels of disabled persons’ parking, which indicated the “systematic invisibility of disabled people in climate planning”.
“We are concerned that failure to treat climate change as a global emergency will have even greater consequences for people who are pushed to the edges of society, and precisely the lives of disabled people nationally and internationally,” Mr Walshe said.
ILMI recognised the need to reduce reliance on cars in towns and cities but, due to lack of engagement with DPOs, some measures had unintended consequences, he said.
Hard-fought gains by disabled people over decades in terms of the safety of pedestrian areas and parking spaces have been steadily eroded over the past two years including new allowances permitted for unregulated external dining, he said. Temporary changes to public areas made during Covid-19 “are now translating into sometimes unwelcome permanency”.
Disabled parking spaces were being removed to new locations, impairing the ability of disabled people to access the centres of towns and cities, while promotion of floating bus stops was hampering the ability to move with accustomed ease.
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ILMI’s Onside project manager Peter Kearns highlighted the example of plastic straws. Many disabled people “are everyday environmentalists and are passionate about combating damaging effects on our environment. However, banning plastic straws will have a huge negative impact on some disabled people’s lives,” he said.
He added: “Straws were one of the first examples of universal design. They were made for use in hospitals. Once disabled people achieved greater independence to live in non-medical facilities, we promoted plastic straws as an access tool. As a result, any disabled person can go in to any bar or restaurant and get a drink. Being able to get a hot or cold drink in Irish social settings is important for all disabled people.”
Supposedly biodegradable plastic straws “melt in our coffees and teas” and were not biodegraded in compost heaps. “None of the current alternatives work right – some are even highly dangerous. Some disabled people need something that is affordable, flexible, high-temperature safe, with a low choking and injury risk,” Mr Kearns said.
Sinn Féin TD Pauline Tully said a range of climate measures were obviously not cognisant of impacts on a significant proportion of the population. Many new cycle lanes were “very, very dangerous”, she said, while other users were not very nice when issues were raised with them about heightened risk of incidents.
On the issue of consulting DPOs, Robert Mooney of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications said it reached out to organisations after the national dialogue on climate action was launched in 2022, but he accepted this was not as comprehensive as it might have been. It would work with DPOs this year in an effort to improve engagement, he confirmed.