Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Fighting climate change in an urban context: Toward a disability inclusive approach

Mars 2024

Sébastien Jodoin, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Human Rights, Health and the Environment, McGill University, and Naomi Gupta, Research Assistant at the Canada Research Chair in Human Rights, Health and the Environment, and Bachelor of Political Science student, McGill University.


Cities worldwide face the challenge of embarking on a major economic, political, technological, and social transition toward decarbonization and climate resilience (Bulkeley & Betsill, 2005; Fuhr et al., 2018). With control over urban planning, transportation, waste management, infrastructure, building codes, and green spaces, cities have a key role to play in the development and implementation of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies (Beermann et al., 2016; Schreurs, 2008). These kinds of ambitious urban transformation programs have major implications in terms of equality and social justice, given their role in shaping access to employment, housing, and transportation for certain segments of the population (Agyeman et al., 2002; Büchs et al., 2011; McKendry, 2016). Although the literature has already addressed the impacts of urban climate action on racial and socio-economic disparities, researchers have shown relatively little interest in the implications for disabled people (Langemeyer & Connolly, 2020; Salkeld, 2019).[1] And yet, not only do people with disabilities account for about 22% of the Canadian population, they also represent one of the country’s most marginalized groups (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2022, par. 1). This knowledge gap is also problematic given the emerging body of evidence that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts have the potential to either remove or reinforce social, economic, and physical barriers facing disabled people (Jodoin et al., 2020; Stein et Stein, 2022).

The Human Rights of People with Disabilities and the Key Components of Disability-Inclusive Climate Governance

This article approaches the concept of disability from a human rights perspective (Degener, 2016), and with specific reference to the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (Mégret, 2008). It draws on multiple currents of thought and notions of identity present in the field of disability studies. To begin with, like the social model of disability, a human rights-based approach understands disability not as the result of individual impairments but as the consequence of how society is organized. For instance, it draws attention to negative attitudes, inaccessible physical infrastructure, discriminatory policies and legislation, and the lack of support services for disabled people (Oliver, 1990). Furthermore, this approach recognizes disability as an integral part of the human experience, rather than something inherently negative or oppressive (Barnes, 2016). Accordingly, Article 1 of the CRPD defines “persons with disabilities” as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” This definition reflects the idea that disabled people constitute a minority group with its own identity. And like other minority groups, it is entitled to human rights, including the right to equality (Degener, 2016; Mégret, 2008).

A human rights-based understanding of disability holds states responsible for eliminating not only discrimination against disabled people but also any physical, social, economic, or institutional barriers to the full enjoyment of their rights and to achieving substantive equality with their fellow citizens (Stein & Stein, 2006). Ultimately, what oppresses disabled people is ableism: a system of ideas, attitudes, and practices that construct the notion of a “normal” human being and that stigmatize and exclude those who do not conform to this notion (Grenier & Fougeyrollas, 2020). Moreover, the human rights model is intersectional. In other words, it recognizes that some disabled people face multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or socio-economic status (Deneger, 2006). Finally, a human rights-based approach emphasizes participatory justice (Stein & Lord, 2007) by recognizing that disabled people possess knowledge gained through lived experience and need to be recognized as agents of change in efforts to build more accessible and inclusive communities (Dokumaci, 2023).

Working within this model of disability, we can point to three key components of disability-inclusive urban climate governance (Jodoin et al., 2020, pp. 73–116). First of all, cities need to make respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the human rights of disabled people an integral part of their climate policies. And cities should ensure that such policies themselves do not violate the rights of disabled people, such as by building new green infrastructure that is not accessible. Cities should also develop climate policies in a way that help eliminate existing barriers facing people with disabilities. For example, the implementation of a program designed to make buildings more energy efficient or climate resilient could also serve as an opportunity to improve building accessibility.

Second, cities need to assess and mitigate the distinct and diverse impacts of climate change on disabled people by taking an intersectional approach. As noted above, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis due to the barriers they face in society. The situation is exacerbated for those disabled people who face other forms of systemic discrimination, including women, children, and racialized individuals with disabilities (Eriksen et al., 2021, pp. 929–939).

Third, cities need to make information on climate change accessible to disabled people, give them a larger role in climate change decision-making (especially when their interests are directly at stake), and ensure that they have access to effective remedies in situations where they suffer harm due to climate action or inaction. Given the knowledge, resources, and communities developed by people with disabilities, it is vital to recognize and support their role as experts and decision makers in matters of climate governance. Ensuring the full participation of disabled people in urban climate action will support the development of disability-inclusive climate solutions, including programs and policies that benefit a broader range of people. For example, creating an accessible transit network will not solely benefit people with reduced mobility. It will also have positive impacts on other groups, such as the elderly, parents who use strollers, and children. In this context, working toward universal accessibility means not only making physical and institutional spaces more accessible, but also establishing processes that promote the full participation of disabled people in urban climate governance (Fougeyrollas et al., 2019).

State of the Academic Literature

A growing body of literature has shown that people with disabilities are often overlooked in the field of environmental action, including in matters of urban climate governance. This is particularly true in two areas: greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and climate change adaptation. Indeed, the disability community has been systematically excluded from efforts to reduce carbon emissions, whether at a local, national, or international level (Jodoin et al., 2020; Stein & Stein, 2022). For instance, studies have shown that issues of accessibility and the inclusion of people with disabilities have generally been ignored when developing and implementing sustainability initiatives related to public transportation, housing, green communities and neighbourhoods, cycling, and parks and natural spaces (Heylighen, 2008; Imrie, 2000; Aldred & Woodcock, 2008; Andrews et al., & 2018; Landorf et al., 2008; Bhakta, & Pickerill, 2016; Corazon et al., 2019; Grisé & El-Geneidy, 2018; Inckle, 2020).

The literature has also highlighted how climate change disproportionately impacts disabled people (Belser, 2020; Engelman et al., 2022; Eriksen et al., 2021; Gomes et al., 2022; Kosanic et al., 2022; Lindsay et al., 2022). For example, people with disabilities have higher rates of death and morbidity in the context of severe weather events associated with climate change, such as cyclones, floods, and heat waves (Abbott & Porter, 2013; Belser, 2015; Hemingway & Priestley, 2014; Peek & Stough, 2010; Stough et al., 2016; Van Kraayenoord, 2008). To some extent, physical, cognitive, and sensory impairments make disabled people more susceptible to the adverse effects of certain climate change impacts (Jodoin et al., 2020; Lindsay et al., 2022). However, the main reason for increased climate vulnerability among disabled people is the discrimination they face in society (Jodoin et al., 2020; Stein & Stein, 2022). The economic, institutional, and social marginalization of people with disabilities reduces their capacity for adaptation by limiting their access to the resources, knowledge, programs, services, and relationships required for resilience in the face of different climate impacts (Gaskin et al., 2017). Furthermore, disabled people are generally excluded from disaster management and climate adaptation efforts (Bell et al., 2020; Lindsay et al., 2022; Wolbring, 2009; Wolbring & Leopatra, 2012).

Case, Methods, and Original Research Data

To better understand issues surrounding the inclusion of disabled people in climate change policies adopted by Canadian cities, we set about collecting and analyzing policy documents from the following ten urban areas: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa-Gatineau, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton, and Kitchener. We began by identifying and downloading all policies that directly address climate change and that were available on these cities’ websites as of June 1, 2023. We collected 19 documents in total. Next, we identified potential references to disabled people in these policies by searching for the following keywords: disability, disable, disabled, accessibility, special needs, differently abled, handicap, universal, impairment, impediment, illness, vulnerable, vulnerability, cognitive, mental, psychological, physical, and chronic. In the case of French-language policies, we searched for handicap, handicapé, accessibilité, besoins spéciaux, universel, déficience, maladie, vulnérable, vulnérabilité, cognitif, mental, psychologique, physique, and chronique.[2] We went on to analyze these textual references with a view to determining if, how, and to what extent each policy document (1) considers people with disabilities and (2) respects, protects, and fulfills their human rights in the context of climate action (Jodoin et al., 2020).


Overall, the results of our analysis show that the climate policies of Canada’s ten largest cities fail to adequately address the rights of people with disabilities. Among the nine policy documents that focus on climate adaptation, only five contain at least one reference to disabled people. For example, the Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the Montréal Urban Agglomeration 2015–2020 recognizes the danger that intense heat poses to the health of vulnerable groups, including seniors and people with chronic conditions (Ville de Montréal, 2017). Likewise, Toronto’s First Resilience Strategy stresses the importance of prioritizing measures for the city’s most vulnerable residents, and identifies “persons with disabilities” as an “equity-seeking group” in this context (City of Toronto, 2019, p. 23). However, even when existing urban adaptation policies acknowledge disabled people and their increased vulnerability to climate change impacts, they offer little in the way of concrete information on how to better support this population. In fact, only one such policy explicitly proposes a concrete measure for increasing climate resilience among people with disabilities: Toronto intends to develop an action plan for ensuring that various groups, including “persons with disabilities,” can access “affordable and supportive housing options” (City of Toronto, 2019, p. 71). We would therefore argue that Canadian cities have been ignoring the disability community in their adaptation policies, even when the policies in question acknowledge the increased climate vulnerability of disabled people.

Mortality rates for disabled people during extreme climate events highlight the adverse effects of failing to consider people with disabilities in the context of urban climate adaptation. For example, Montreal suffered a heat wave in 2018, during which 66 people died. People with schizophrenia accounted for 25.8% of these deaths, despite representing only 0.6% of the city’s population (Lamothe et al., 2019, p. 12). Three years later, a heat wave in British Columbia killed 619 people. Roughly 91% of these victims had at least one chronic illness, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, heart failure, or Parkinson’s disease (British Columbia Coroners Service, 2022, p. 14). From a medical standpoint, heat waves pose a threat to such individuals due to the nature of their impairment or the effects of their medication, which can increase vulnerability to extreme heat or interfere with the body’s response to it. But ultimately, the disproportionately high mortality rate for disabled people during extreme heat events is primarily due to ableist factors that increase vulnerability. People with disabilities often find themselves isolated from community and family supports. Widespread poverty reduces their access to air conditioning during heat waves. And, last but not least, planning and response efforts by health agencies and emergency services in the cities concerned typically fall short (Lamothe et al., 2019, pp. 11–12, 24, 38; Yumagulova, 2022, pp. 7–12, 14–15, 34).
Our sample also included 10 general climate or GHG reduction policies. Only three of these documents contain at least one reference to disabled people. For example, Winnipeg’s Climate Action Plan mentions that providing “convenient access to public transit” can help meet the needs of “those living with disabilities” (City of Winnipeg, 2018, p. 24). Meanwhile, in A Climate Justice Charter for Vancouver, the city’s Climate Equity Working Group provides a detailed definition of “disability” and discusses its importance as a factor in climate preparedness and adaptation (City of Vancouver, 2022). Finally, the TransformTO Net Zero Strategy notes the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable groups (City of Toronto, 2021).

Examples from the transportation sector help illustrate the tangible consequences of excluding people with disabilities from GHG reduction efforts. Although public transit systems have been expanded with the aim of reducing carbon emissions, they often remain inaccessible to people with reduced mobility. Currently, only 25 of the Montreal Metro’s 68 stations are equipped with elevators (Société de transport, n.d., par. 6). And in Toronto, only 45 of 75 subway stations are accessible to wheelchair users. By contrast, Vancouver’s SkyTrain offers universal accessibility, giving people with reduced mobility the option of using any station (Dutil, 2023). In many cities, measures to limit the use of fossil fuel-powered automobiles have clearly been adopted without fully accounting for the diverse and distinct needs of residents with reduced mobility, or considering the physical and financial accessibility of low-carbon alternatives (such as public transit). In a context where public transit is not accessible to people with disabilities, climate policies rooted in ablelist understandings of the individual simply reinforce forms of social inequality that negatively affect disabled people.

The Table 1 summarizes the various cities’ poor performance, with respect to the inclusion of disabled people in climate action. Most of the urban climate policies we analyzed make no mention of people with disabilities, and only three of them list concrete measures for including people with disabilities in climate action. None of the policy documents in our sample mention the rights of people with disabilities. The lack of attention to disabled people is undoubtedly connected to a lack of appreciation for their leadership and knowledge. Only one of the documents—A Climate Justice Charter for Vancouver—recognizes the importance of ensuring the full and effective participation of disabled people in climate action, and only two of them note that people with disabilities were consulted on policy development. And yet, excluding the disability community from urban climate governance not only undermines its members’ rights and dignity, but limits the range of people who could potentially contribute to and benefit from the process.

Table 1: Analysis of the inclusion of people with disabilities in Canada’s urban climate policies.

Reference: Original data as of June 1, 2023.


Our analysis exposes a lack of concern on the part of Canadian cities for fully integrating disabled people, their rights, and their knowledge into the climate action process. The exclusion of people with disabilities from urban climate governance in Canada only serves to reinforce existing social disparities while exposing disabled people to the adverse effects of both climate change and measures taken to fight it. The cities involved have also missed an opportunity. The fight against climate change could provide a framework for eliminating the physical and financial barriers facing disabled people in urban contexts. And yet, cities are failing to seize this moment for making themselves more disability-inclusive through decarbonization initiatives as well as efforts to make society, urban infrastructure, the built environment, and the transportation system more resilient. Furthermore, by failing to include disabled people in their climate policies, cities are limiting the range of individuals who can contribute to the transition toward low-carbon communities that are resilient in the face of climate change. The situation is all the more problematic at a time when cities are struggling to meet the needs of an ageing urban population that will include a growing number of disabled people.

Cities must therefore implement processes and mechanisms for understanding and meeting the needs of people with disabilities as part of their response to the climate crisis. They also need to ensure the full participation of disabled people as experts, decision makers, and participants in climate action. More broadly, it is important for the climate movement to connect with the disability community and adopt more inclusive messages and tactics (Butler et al., 2022; Fenney, 2017; Salvatore & Wolbring, 2022).

[1] This article uses the terms “disabled people” and “people with disabilities” interchangeably. Both expressions are widely used within the disability community (Wooldridge, 2023). We use equivalent terms, including “persons with disabilities,” in reference to specific documents. Deaf and neurodivergent people tend to prefer identity-first language that emphasizes their distinctiveness and pride as a cultural minority. Other individuals insist on the role played by society in the production of disability, and therefore prefer person-first language.

[2] To better understand if and how cities referred to disabled people in their climate policies, we searched for a wide range of keywords beyond those terms commonly used in the field of disability studies.

To cite this article

Jodoin, S. et Gupta, Naomi. (2024).Fighting climate change in an urban context: Toward a disability inclusive approach. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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