Marsha Saxton—International Liberation Reference Person for People with Disabilities

People with Disabilities

The United Nations Convention on the Human Rights of People with Disabilities is an international treaty signed by over 160 countries. It has brought global attention to protecting human rights and increasing services for disabled people and to having greater representation of disabled people in government and the media. However, wealthier countries, including Britain and the United States, are attempting to roll back human rights laws. They are scapegoating people with disabilities as burdensome drains on their economies.

I am particularly proud of the international disabled women’s movement. It has created a strong network of leaders who are writing, convening conferences, and generating services across borders. Their priorities are issues of poverty, abuse, health care, unemployment, and reproductive rights.


I’ve begun to work on the connections between disability rights and climate change. When I mention “climate change and disability,” people look puzzled. However, people with disabilities (ten to fifteen percent of the global population, a percentage that will increase with climate change) are uniquely affected.

In any natural disaster or refugee situation, people with disabilities are typically neglected and left to die. During Hurricane Katrina in the southeast United States in 2005, shocking photos showed people dead in their wheelchairs as crowds of other displaced people streamed by. Preparedness leaders had not planned for people trapped in flooded nursing homes. Responders struggled to help people with unique needs but often with no training or resources that would enable them to rescue them or keep them alive. People with disabilities are more vulnerable whenever there are storms, floods, or times of extreme heat. They are more susceptible to disease. They face complex challenges during relocation.

We must pay attention to the higher rates of disability in low-income and rural populations; to how disability intersects with racism, ageism, sexism, and so on; and to the different categories of disability, which include impaired physical mobility, vision or hearing impairment, cognitive disability, chronic illness, “mental illness,” and age-related impairments. Calling needs “special” or adding people with “special needs” to lists of “vulnerable populations” won’t begin to encompass the planning and resource required. In the face of climate change, we need specific and accurate approaches to immediate assistance and long-range survival. I am raising these issues with the United Nations and in city and regional resilience planning in the United States.


I’ve enjoyed leading RC disability liberation workshops in Britain and Japan as well as locally. Strong leaders are emerging. Our constituency has worked hard and well on internalized oppression and has gained confidence.

Hearing assistive devices are being used more often at larger workshops. This has made it easier for people with hearing loss to attend.

Many wonderful allies are supporting our work.

Still, people with disabilities are marginalized in RC. Oppression-related confusion about needs makes improving wheelchair access and accommodating disability in other ways seem unattractive and unimportant. People with chronic illness are sometimes blamed for their distresses. There is often little awareness of the role that privilege and luck play in the incidence of physical struggles and disabilities. People are sometimes told to “go counsel on it,” yet the quality of counseling available on physical issues is still lacking.

We all need to work on early struggles about our bodies. We all need to discharge on “independence,” and to reach for interdependence as we age and as we face the huge challenges in our world.

Marsha Saxton

International Liberation Reference Person for People with Disabilities

El Cerrito, California, USA

(Present Time 188, July 2017)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00