‘It’s a degrading experience’: campaigner’s anger at COP26 exclusion of Israeli minister in wheelchair

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and COP26 representatives have apologised to Israel’s Energy Minister, Karine Elharrar, after she was not able to access the climate summit in her wheelchair.

A disability advocate has called for more to be done to make spaces accessible, after Israel’s Energy Minister, Karine Elharrar, was turned away from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Elharrar, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, was forced to return to her hotel after discovering the venue at Glasgow’s SEC Campus was inaccessible.

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At a glance: five key points

  • Elharrar was not able to attend opening day of the COP26 summit in Glasgow due to accessibility issues and was forced to go back to her hotel after waiting two hours to gain entry.
  • She was told that she would only be able to walk or use a provided shuttle service, which was not accessible to wheelchair users, to attend the event.
  • Elharrar said that the United Nations, who run the COP26 event, was promoting disability while failing to “provide accessibility to their events”.
  • The incident has caused outrage, with Britain’s Middle East minister, James Cleverly, saying, “I am deeply disappointed and frustrated that Minister Elharrar could not access COP.”
  • Elharrar was able to attend from today [2 November] and received an apology for the incident from Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a meeting with him.  
Iraeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson after not being given access to the COP26 venue due to disabled access issues. (Credit: Getty).

What has been said about the incident?

Tweeting about her experience, Minister Elharrar said: “I came to COP26 to meet with my counterparts around the world and promote a common struggle in the climate crisis. It is sad that the UN, which promotes accessibility for people with disabilities, in 2021, does not provide accessibility to its events. Hopefully the lessons learned will be learned so that tomorrow green energy promotion, removal of barriers and energy efficiency will be the things I will deal with.”

The exclusion of Elharrar on day one of the event has caused anger within the disabled community, with calls for changes to be made to ensure that more venues are accessible in the first place for wheelchair users and those with other disabilities.

Lucy Webster, a disability advocate and journalist who covers disability, told NationalWorld: “Instead of fixing the issue after the fact, there should be preemptive action to make sure that everyone can access a building.

“It’s a degrading experience for disabled people to not be welcomed at venues - the burden is always on disabled people to make sure a venue is accessible before visiting rather than organisers making sure that it is accessible for everyone in the first place.

“I wish I could say I was surprised by her story but I’m not. At big events, this usually happens when there has been no input from disability consultants or there is nobody with a disability on the planning team.

“How many disabled people were on the planning team for COP26? My guess would be none.”

Minister Elharrar received an apology from both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and COP26 organisers for what they describe as a “genuine mistake”. (Credit: Getty)

Lucy told NationalWorld that the exclusion of the Israeli minister on opening day of COP26 is a symbol of just how inaccessible the green movement is for disabled people.

She said: “It is a symbol of disabled people being shut out of the event. The green movement itself is inaccessible, with things like plastic straws being banned.

“I have to use plastic straws and I know loads of other people who have to too and it is getting harder and harder to get them. Why has that been targeted when action on harmful packaging by companies hasn’t been taken?”

COP26 organisers have apologised for the exclusion of Elharrar on opening day of the summit, saying: “Regarding minister Elharrar’s experience at the entry point yesterday, this was a genuine mistake and we have apologised for that.

“We are pleased to see her in attendance at COP26 today [2 November]. COP26 must be inclusive and accessible to all and the venue is designed to facilitate that.”

How can venues make themselves more accessible?

Lucy says that the burden of checking whether a venue is something which every disabled person goes through.

She said: “As a disabled person, you can’t have a spontaneous day out to the pub, to a cafe or shops. You always have to phone in advance and ask if the building is accessible for your needs and you can spend half your day finding accessible venues.

“There is legislation to say that venues need to be accessible but again, the burden is on the disabled person to sue the venue if it’s not. It’s just not enforceable - are we supposed to sue every individual venue?

“Pubs, shops, restaurants and big venues like at COP26 need to include more disabled people in the planning to make sure that the burden of accessibility is taken off of disabled people.”

This sentiment has been echoed by Disability Alliance Scotland, who said: “This is why it is vital that accessibility is built in from the start of the design process through meaningful engagement with disabled people and Access Panels.”

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