Drishtikon: Climate Change, Disability, and the Capability Approach

The Sangyan
6 min readFeb 19, 2022

This article discusses the intersectionality between Climate Change and Disability from the Capability Approach perspective.

A. Capability Approach

The Capability Approach is a theoretical framework for human welfare that involves two normative assertions: first, that the freedom (“substantive freedoms”) to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance and, second, that well-being should be understood in terms of people’s capabilities and functionings.[1] The Capability Approach is primarily concerned with the real capabilities of a person to realize their well-being and quality of life rather than their fictional rights and freedoms created by the law and political system. The Capability Approach is a framework for assessing states of affairs (evaluation of the social arrangements). It is neither a social theory nor a theory of justice.[2]

Amartya Sen, a chief proponent of the Capability Approach, identifies five distinct but often interrelated types of freedom that are instrumental in advancing the general capabilities of a person, namely, (1) political freedoms, (2) economic facilities, (3) social opportunities, (4) transparency guarantees, and {5) protective security.[3]

Sen further argued for five components in assessing the capabilities of a person[4]:

1. The importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage.

2. Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities.

3. The multi-variate nature of activities gives rise to happiness.

4. A balance of materialistic and non-materialistic factors in evaluating human welfare.

5. Concern for the distribution of opportunities within society.

B. Disability as Capability Deprivation

With respect to the disability discourse, the Capability Approach provides a very insightful perspective with practical implications. For instance, in India, just like any other citizen, every ‘Person with Disability’ enjoys the same Fundamental Right to Movement[5] (in theory), however, for all practical purposes, the enjoyment of this fundamental right, hugely depends upon the capabilities, both individual and physical in nature.

Like in the case of a person with a locomotive disability, whether, it’s the unavailability of the universally accessible mode of transport or lack of wheel-chair, irrespective of having the very right to freedom of movement, the person with a disability wouldn’t be able to enjoy properly because of the capabilities (or rather lack of it).

To further illustrate the Capability Approach in respect to the disability discourse, Amartya Sen asks us to think of two persons with the same set of resources. Although, one person suffers from a disability which makes the person with disability substantively unequal as compared to the person without a disability in two aspects, which can’t be understood from the vantage point of mere resources.[6]

Firstly, the person with a disability is unequal in terms of what she can do or be with her available resources as compared with the person without a disability. The person with disabilities may, for instance, be confined to a wheelchair and ergo, restricted to places that are wheelchair-accessible which isn’t the case for a person without a disability. Secondly, the person with disabilities would probably even be additionally worse-off because she merely receives or enjoys the same amount of resources (procedural equality) even though she has more expenses in order to correct for her disability.

That is, because the disabled person needs to spend a considerable amount of her resources on a wheelchair merely to move around, she has fewer resources available to pursue other goals than the able-bodied person who can spend all her resources on pursuing her valued ends. Thus, in order to evaluate people’s well-being, we need to not only consider the resources quantitively that they have but also qualitatively as in what they are able to do and be with those resources.

Disability leads to an increase in the cost of living and thus consequently, in income deprivations. Income deprivation and capability deprivations often have considerable correlational linkages resulting in making people with disabilities worse-off in their enjoyment of rights and freedoms and thus, living life with dignity.

The Capability Approach allows the researchers and advocates to analyze (a) disability at the capability level; (b) potential disability; and, at the functioning level, (c) actual disability.[7] The Capability Approach framework further helps us to illustrate how disability probably results from three different types of factors: (1) the individual’s personal characteristics (e.g., impairment, age, race, gender, et al), the individual’s resources, and the individual’s environment (physical, social, economic, and political).[8]

Different people conceptualize the phenomenon of disability differently. People with Disabilities are still looked at from the old lens of the Religious or Moral Model, Medical Model, Charity Model, Social Model, and Economic Model which lacks a comprehensive approach.[9] Even the dominant Rights-based or Human Rights Model[10] falls short as it merely advocates for procedural equality i.e. regarding equality of people with disabilities among other communities of the society. The need of the hour is to go beyond procedural equality and justice (Paper Rights and Freedoms) and thrive for more of the Substantive Justice.[11]

Ergo, we need to move forward with the “Capability Model” as a tool to conceptually deal with disability. In respect to disability lawmaking, policymaking, and analysis, the disability must be looked at from the perspective of capability.

C. Climate Change Crisis as Capability Deprivation

Climate Change Crisis — the red code for humanity[12], especially, the Climate Change Crisis induced Natural Disasters begins a cascading effect on people with disabilities. It not merely worsen-off the people with disabilities from the socio-economic angle but also results in making many individuals a ‘person with disability’. Even when the Climate Change Crisis doesn’t lead to disability, it certainly worsens the experience of existing people with disabilities.

Similar to Disability, adverse impacts of the Climate Change Crisis also increase the cost of living and furthermore, for people with disabilities. Climate Change has a cascading effect on people with disabilities in this respect among many others, for instance, health and poverty.

A logical conclusion to this conundrum would be the Rawlsian ‘Difference Principle’[13] that allows inequalities in the distribution of the resources if and when those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society.[14] Rawls being a proponent of Distributive Justice argues that inequality is acceptable only if and when it is to the advantage of those who are worst-off.[15]

People with Disabilities are among the worst affected part of the society from the Climate Change Crisis (including the Climate Change induced Natural Disasters) and thus consequently left with diminished capabilities, ergo, lawmakers and policymakers should frame laws, policies, and strategies while keeping this very important factor in mind and take measures to make ‘substantive justice’ a reality.

[1] Ingrid Robeyns and Morten Fibieger Byskov, The Capability Approach, Available at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/capability-approach/> Accessed on 28th January 2022.

[2] Sabina Alkire and Séverine Deneulin, Introducing the Human Development and Capability Approach, Available at <https://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/ssAlkire-Deneulin_Ch2.pdf> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[3] Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom, Oxford University Press, Page no. 10.

[4] Safikul Islam, Amarta Sen’s Capability Approach, Available at <https://www.studocu.com/in/document/rabindra-bharati-university/ma-in-political-science/amarta-sens-capability-approach/5942883> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[5] The Consititution of India, Article 19 (1) (d).

[6] Amartya Sen, Equality of What?”, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Stanford University, May 22, 1979.

[7] Sophie Mitra, The Capability Approach and Disability, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, Sage Journals, Available at <https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10442073060160040501> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[8] Sophie Mitra, The Capability Approach and Disability, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, Sage Journals, Available at <https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10442073060160040501> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[9] Dr. Dilip Kumar Upadhayay, Models for person with disability in India, Available at <https://madhavuniversity.edu.in/models-for-person-with-disability.html> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[10] Anna Lawson, The social and human rights models of disability: towards a complementarity thesis, The International Journal of Human Rights, Volume 25, 2021 — Issue 2, Available at <https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2020.1783533> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[11] David Miller, Justice, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Available at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice/> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[12] IPCC report: ‘Code red’ for human driven global heating, warns UN chief, UN News, Available at <https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/08/1097362> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[13] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press; 2nd edition, 8th September 1999.

[14] Difference Principle, Philosophy, Britannica, Available at <https://www.britannica.com/topic/difference-principle> Accessed on 20th February 2022.

[15] Julian Lamont and Christi Favor, Distributive Justice, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Available at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-distributive/#Rel> Accessed on 19th February 2022.

Abhishek Kumar, NCPEDP-Javed Abidi Fellow on Disability.
The author can be reached at: abhishek.ncpedp@gmail.com



The Sangyan

Law. Environment. Disability | Curator ~ Adv. Abhishek Kumar | Working on the 'Impact of Climate Change on Persons with Disabilities' | thesangyan.in | 🇮🇳 |