Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Q&A: How climate change affects people with disabilities, according to this Paralympic gold medalist

Climate change severely impacts people with disabilities as they face extra barriers during climate emergencies such as floods, drought or heatwaves.

Climate change severely impacts people with disabilities as they face extra barriers during climate emergencies such as floods, drought or heatwaves. Image: Susie Rodgers

Laura Beltran
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Since retiring as an athlete, Susie Rodgers MBE has dedicated her life to advocating for climate and disability inclusion.
  • Climate change severely impacts people with disabilities as they face extra barriers during climate emergencies such as floods, drought or heatwaves. They're very often excluded from the solution-finding process too.
  • Rodgers works tirelessly to embed disability inclusion into global aid and development projects.

It's no secret that changes to the Earth's climate are being felt differently in various parts of the world. While some regions suffer from heavy rains and flooding, others are being ravaged by regular heatwaves and drought. Climate change, meanwhile, is also widening the gender gap and putting the lives of children and other vulnerable groups at risk.

But a less well-known side-effect of the global environmental emergency is the impact it is having on people with disabilities. Susie Rodgers, gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, water and ocean advocate, and expert advisor on inclusion and the climate action agenda, spoke to us recently about this crucial topic, and the urgent need for innovative, inclusive solutions.

Q: Tell us about your achievements as a Paralympic swimmer

Susie Rodgers: I competed at the top level of sport, at the top level of swimming at European, World and Paralympic levels. And my classification was S7; that's the classification system used for people to be classified in terms of their disability in order to compete. I've got a missing arm and leg on the left side, so I wear prosthetic limbs and orthotics, and my main events were freestyle and butterfly. In total I won 30 international medals, 17 of them gold. I competed at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and won a gold and five bronze medals across both those Games.

Q: What shaped your interest in the climate change agenda and why did you decide to become an advocate for the ocean and water?

Susie Rodgers: I learnt to swim in Egypt, which is ironic because where COP27 took place in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt this year, that is actually where I learnt to swim as a child, because my family lived there. My earliest memories when I was six years old were of Sharm El Sheikh and swimming in the Red Sea. And I remember that I was just so overwhelmed by this big expansive blue, but also all of these marine life that I saw in the water.

For me, there's an almost spiritual connection with water. It's something that I feel at home in. We drink water to keep hydrated as athletes. But also, it's where I feel most comfortable and free as a woman with a disability. Because when I swim, I don't wear my prosthetic limbs. So, I am completely and utterly myself in the water.

Susie Rodgers learnt to swim as a child in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where COP27 took place this year.
Susie Rodgers learnt to swim as a child in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where COP27 took place this year. Image: Susie Rodgers

So when I became an athlete and beyond my time as an athlete, I felt it was important for me to work in this space and to do what I could to volunteer and to raise awareness. I reached out to the Marine Conservation Society in the UK and offered to help them and I became one of their ocean ambassadors. But first and foremost, I just love being in the sea and ocean, and I'll do all I can to raise awareness of the importance of them.

Q: You are also an advisor on inclusion for the UK Government, assessing a large portfolio of funding for global projects on climate change, including water security and many other topics. What does your job entail?

Susie Rodgers: I work primarily on global programmes at The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, our international affairs government department. And my role is to advise on disability inclusion. I am on contract for a year and in that time I do all I can to incorporate, or embed, or mainstream inclusion into broader programmes. This could be in various areas. For example, it could be around protecting oceans, it could be around forests, it could be around freshwater, water security or food security. So all those aspects of climate change that we're very aware of, making sure that we're thinking about the impacts on people who are the most marginalised in the world. Then there's also looking at our global policies and strategies, making sure that we're thinking about who we're reaching and then also working with staff to upskill them on what it is to bring inclusion, disability inclusion specifically into their work on a daily basis. Those are the areas that I focus on primarily.

Q: Could you give us specific examples of how people with disabilities are affected by climate change?

Susie Rodgers: When you're looking at disaster risk management and you're looking at mass displacement of populations as a result of flooding or droughts. Very often, people who are left behind are the ones who may encounter barriers to their participation in society, and those people are frequently people with disabilities. Very often, the impacts of climate change are more likely to impact people with disabilities, more so than people without disabilities. Things like extreme heat can affect medications. It can also impact people like myself. For example, when I wear a prosthetic limb, I'm already very warm from the fact that my limbs are encased in plastic and I can't lose heat as easily. So there's automatically going to be more impact because of so many more barriers that you're having to face as an individual in society and climate change amplifies those pre-existing barriers.

The other thing to note is that people frequently exclude people with disabilities from solution-finding. And by our very nature, we are solving problems, we are resilient because we have to overcome barriers in a world that isn't designed for us. So the idea is that if you bring people with disabilities into the conversation, you're likely to find better solutions that are going to be more helpful to everybody. And so that's why it's really important.

Q: How about water scarcity and water insecurity? What kind of impacts can we find there?

Susie Rodgers: For example, if you're in a situation where there's a limited supply of food, or there's a limited supply of water. And you have agencies like the UN and others who might be on the ground delivering emergency supplies in a humanitarian situation. Then you will have a location or a designated space where people will have to come to access the essential items they need. And that is where the barriers may exist, because people with disabilities certainly cannot run or compete with others to get to those resources. They will inevitably be left behind for mobility reasons, but also communication barriers if they're not aware of how to find out where they can access essential supplies. So that's one element. But then, if you look at pollution in water supplies, if you're already someone who is immunocompromised or maybe has an underlying health condition, it's more likely to negatively on impact you or possibly cause disability or exacerbate pre-existing conditions as I mentioned. And if you think about water supplies in some countries where you have to walk a long way to get your supplies, again, accessible water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for people with disabilities. So there are lots of different ways of looking at this.

Q: Can you give us some examples of solutions that have disability inclusion at their core?

Susie Rodgers: There are lots of disability development NGOs, but also Organisations of Persons with Disabilities around the world who are coming up with solutions and lobbying governments at ground level to bring disability inclusion into things like nationally determined contributions and also national adaptation plans.

In terms of the areas I've worked on at government level, the one thing I'm really pleased to have worked on is the UK's development finance institution called British International Investment. A couple of years ago, before I worked on climate change, I worked with their team to create a guidance note on disability inclusion, which is for investors to use when they are investing in projects around the world. It's embedded in their investors' ESG toolkit online. That was first of its kind, making sure that investments are reaching people with disabilities in terms of employment, anti-discrimination and so on. It was great to see that published last year.

Q: What is your message to people working on climate solutions?

In the climate change space, people frequently come at it from a science angle. My message would be to also bring in that human dimension when you're coming up with solutionS. Think about the people you're trying to reach. Think about diverse elements of the population and what those diverse needs are. And look to reach out to those populations, and speak to them, and ask them what would be useful for them, including people with disabilities. Because if you bring people into the design at the earliest stage of an idea or concept or incubation phases, it's more likely to lead to better results down the line and it will widen your impact.

Susie Rodgers is also an expert reviewer of the Global Freshwater Challenge, a global competition launched by UpLink and HCL Group to source the most innovative solutions protecting and restoring the world’s freshwater ecosystems, improving water quality, building climate change resilience, and helping enhance freshwater decision-making.

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