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Including people with disabilities in Maryland’s climate agenda

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Including people with disabilities in Maryland’s climate agenda

Jun 05, 2024 | 10:44 pm ET
By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
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Including people with disabilities in Maryland’s climate agenda
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Unsplash.com photo by Markus Spiske.

This week, Gov. Wes Moore signed a groundbreaking executive order aimed at protecting us from climate change while fostering an inclusive economy. The order directs every agency to develop solutions and consider Justice40 goals, initiatives and funding to advance environmental justice comprehensively.

However, while many policymakers and practitioners recognize the roles of race and place in determining who is overburdened and underserved, Maryland’s 719,000 residents with disabilities, including 350,000 of working age, are often overlooked.

Climate change poses unique challenges for people with disabilities, exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new risks. Extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, storms and poor air quality can be life-threatening for individuals with disabilities who may have mobility issues, rely on electrical medical devices, or require specialized transportation or housing. Moreover, disaster response and recovery efforts often lack necessary accommodations, leaving people with disabilities more vulnerable during and after these events.

Marylanders of all abilities can benefit from — and also contribute to — our state’s vital climate work. This includes individuals from diverse backgrounds.

People who live near coal and other plants, or in structures with lead paint or water, are at higher risks of disabilities. Often, due to historical marginalization, those are people of color. Poverty causes disability and disability can lead to more poverty. For example, among 227,000 African American Marylanders with disabilities, only 28.3% (64,000) are employed, and 27.3% live in poverty compared to 11.1% of African Americans without disabilities. Among 50,000 Latinx individuals with disabilities in our state, only 37.4% (19,000) are employed, and 17.1% live in poverty compared to 12.2% of Latinx people without disabilities.”

Early in Gov. Moore’s campaign, he outlined his bold goals for ensuring that Maryland leaves no one behind, including Marylanders with disabilities. However, achieving these goals is easier said than done.

Marylanders with disabilities often face significant barriers that prevent them from participating in climate solutions, including:

  1. Lack of accessible infrastructure and marketing: Many public and community spaces and outreach efforts, including those used for climate-action initiatives, are not fully accessible. This limits the ability of individuals to engage in community-driven environmental activities and public consultations.
  2. Information accessibility for emergencies: Climate information and emergency alerts are often not disseminated in accessible formats, such as text-to-speech or captioning, braille, sign language or plain language. This makes it difficult for people with disabilities to stay informed and take necessary precautions or actions.
  3. Transitioning to clean energy and full participation: Lack of accessibility means that many disabled Marylanders are denied access to information about heat pumps, insulation, sustainable food and other key elements of decarbonization.

As the only member of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change who publicly identifies as part of the disability community, I offer the following recommendations to ensure that the climate movement benefits from the talents and perspectives of people with disabilities:

  1. Work with people with disabilities: Include self and community advocates with apparent and non-apparent disabilities in decision-making processes. Invite them to join your team/workgroups. Their lived experiences provide critical insights into effective climate action. Aim to affirmatively answer the following:
    • We serve people with disabilities.
    • We employ individuals who have disabilities.
    • People who publicly identify as having disabilities serve on our teams.
  2. Private accommodation requests: Establish a process where people with disabilities can privately request necessary accommodations to succeed in their roles.
  3. Training for inclusivity: Train key personnel on how to welcome and respect people with disabilities equally.
  4. Accessible digital content: Ensure that people who are blind or have low vision can access materials on the web by setting up your website for screen readers. Ensure that all video content, including Zoom meetings, has captions for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Use simple text that people with learning disabilities can understand.
  5. Use inclusive design: We can enable participation without requiring disclosure of disabilities. For example, put captions on screens for all public events and in hearing rooms at the state capital so people who are deaf, have learning disabilities or are English language learners can fully participate without having to make special arrangements.
  6. Event accessibility: Hold events in physically accessible spaces with accessible parking and transportation options. Public events should enable people with disabilities to request accommodations such as sign language interpreters, captioning or dietary considerations on registration forms. Additionally, provide sensory-friendly areas and ensure that emergency/evacuation plans consider disabilities.
  7. Dedicated accessibility roles: Establish a disability advisory committee or inclusion/diversity committee and assign someone to oversee these efforts.
  8. Accessible offices: Ensure your offices are accessible to people with physical disabilities.
  9. Virtual participation: Enable people to work and/or participate virtually/online, increasing accessibility for those who cannot be physically present.

By implementing these recommendations, we can ensure that Maryland’s climate policies are inclusive and equitable, reflecting our commitment to protecting all residents. Addressing the needs of Maryland’s residents with disabilities is not just a legal obligation—it strengthens our communities and enhances our resilience.