Climate change disasters are a disability rights issue. Here's why.

·8 min read
A man in a wheelchair at his home while surrounded by floodwaters.
Floodwaters surround a man's home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. As climate emergencies increase, say activists, disabled folks are more at risk than the general population. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Across the globe, wildfires are increasing at an alarming rate, while droughts, heat waves, floods and inclement weather are all occurring more frequently. Climate scientists are warning that immediate, radical changes must be made by corporations, governments and individuals if there is hope for the places we all call home to remain livable.

And multiple experts have argued that, due to uneven distribution of the impacts of climate change, we are not all, in fact, sinking on the same type of ship. Within the U.S., just for starters, climate breakdown is affecting some places, and those who live there, more dramatically than others. Indeed, for groups who are already marginalized, through intertwined systems including racism, misogyny and poverty, climate change stands to emphasize their existing vulnerabilities.

But while race and income have been commonly used as factors in predicting climate change vulnerability, there is another specific form of risk that's vital to recognize, too: that of disabled people.

It's a point that SustainedAbility, a global disability-led climate change network, has worked hard to focus attention to ever since speaking up, through its Disability and Climate Network, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP23) — the first time a disability caucus was part of the official agenda. It's also a topic that more and more disability activists are increasingly addressing on social media.

But what's the connection?

Why climate change puts disabled people at risk

Professor Michael Stein, director of the Harvard Law School project of disability explains to Yahoo Life why disabled people are more vulnerable than the general population. "Climate change is directly and disproportionately threatening the right to health of people with disabilities due to higher ambient temperatures, elevated air pollutants and increasing exposure to extreme weather events including heat waves, floods, hurricanes and wildfires," he says.

Disabled people are also more likely to be poor. And, as Stein notes, “Living in inaccessible environments without access to transport, education, employment, services” are all factors that create further risk for a disabled person during climate disasters. In particular, he stresses that “poverty, which impacts the disabled to a greater extent than nearly any other identity group, is a cross-cutting issue that impairs all marginalized populations.”

Alexia Leclercq, a disabled climate activist based in Texas, spoke to Yahoo Life about the importance of considering how disability and race are related in conversations surrounding the implications of climate change.

“For many people of color living in frontline communities, [climate change] is a daily reality and pollution is literally killing them," she says. "For disabled people, it can be a constant fear of not knowing what to do in the case of a climate crisis.” Leclercq emphasizes the need for those who are working to create change within government, as well as people who are organizing within their towns and cities, to listen to and acknowledge that disabled people, those of color especially, face exceptional risk in situations relating to climate disaster.

What are common issues a disabled person faces during a climate crisis event?

First, Stein asks everyone to recognize that disability is not a monolith, as it manifests “in different ways across different disability types."

So, for example, a deaf/hard-of-hearing person might require accessible early warning, and a mobility-impaired individual might require accessible transportation. That's why “a one-size-fits-all mentality [in climate disaster planning] that points to disability as the exception vastly oversimplifies these issues," he says, going on to describe the many issues that may affect a disabled person during a climate event such as a hurricane or wildfire. “Everything [including] lack of accessible information, early warning systems, transportation, shelters, access to health services, being separated from family and other supporters, loss of adaptive equipment and medication," he explains. "The list is long."

Elizabeth Harrington, a climate change researcher based in the U.K., provided some further examples that make disabled people more susceptible to harm during climate-related events. “Individuals with mobility issues must have access, at all times, to devices such as wheelchairs to help preserve their independence; people who use assistance animals to help them with sight or hearing issues should not be separated from these animals," she tells Yahoo Life.

"Yet," she adds, "evacuation procedures can fail to take the needs of disabled individuals into account. For example, [there is] an absence of wheelchair chairlifts on many evacuation transport systems."

A firefighter is seen from behind as smoke erupts from a hillside fire.
A firefighter, pictured in early September, watches as smoke erupts from the rapidly spreading Fairview Fire in California. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

It is this lack of planning for disabled people within communities that contributes to the concerning statistic in recent research by the United Nations — that the global mortality rate of people with disabilities in natural disasters is as much as four times higher than for people without disabilities.

Relatedly, once a person is evacuated during a climate disaster, they are often housed in shelters or emergency accommodations. Many disabled and chronically ill people take medication that must be stored at specific temperatures in refrigerators. Others rely on equipment such as stair lifts and ventilators. All of these fail to work without power, and many such aids are immovable from the homes they were installed in, presenting potentially life-threatening issues during climate change-related disaster events.

Harrington observes that improvements to disaster planning to include access needs for disabled members of a community will in fact help everyone in that community, too. “When you accommodate for disabled people, you accommodate a larger swath of society than often anticipated. For example," she explains, "accessible emergency transport will also be useful for those with temporary injuries, elderly people, parents or guardians with [children in strollers]. We all win when designs are inclusive.”

Other concerns

Alongside extreme weather events that require evacuation and shelter, there are ongoing concerns for disabled people living in areas with rising temperatures.

Ellie (who requested only her first name be used due to privacy concerns) lives in Oregon, a state regularly hit by wildfires and heat waves. She lives with multiple illnesses, including PoTs (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), which, among other symptoms, can create an extreme intolerance to heat.

“When the temperature rises above about 85, I cannot be outdoors for more than a few minutes at a time. My apartment building, like nearly all older buildings in my city, doesn’t have central air conditioning, despite the fact that Oregon has always had relatively hot summers," she tells Yahoo Life. Through her community, Ellie was able to get an air-conditioning unit, but that presents its own issues. “I’m aware that AC contributes to the climate crisis," she says, "but what are people like me supposed to do? It’s a catch-22.”

However, accessible housing is already notoriously hard to find, particularly if you are a disabled person in receipt of any government payments, so moving homes to a place with air conditioning or with cooler climate isn’t necessarily a solution. Stein reiterates the intersection between disability and poverty, which is a key reason disabled people have less choice in their life decisions, including relocation.“Relative to the population of individuals without disabilities in the U.S., people with disabilities are disproportionately poorer, have fewer employment opportunities, are faced with ableism. They often depend on family and friends for support. Moving to another location is not a simple option."

So, what needs to change?

This may all seem a little hopeless, as the larger climate change conversation often can. However, as more areas of the country continue to face climate disasters such as wildfires, heatwaves, flooding and droughts, prioritizing forward planning within individual communities can help.

Alexia (who requested her last name not be used for privacy reasons), a disabled climate organizer, has a key suggestion: “Center accessibility for folks with mental, cognitive and physical disabilities when creating work structures, events, campaigns. Also, pay disabled people to help lead and implement them. That’s crucial.”

Collective action is one of the best ways to organize around climate change generally, and specifically, in preparing for future disaster events. Asking questions about accessible evacuations and provision of power for mobility aids — even if you are not a person using them yourself — will highlight to local government officials the range of needs that must be considered during the process.

No one knows a disabled person's specific needs better than they do, so ensuring their voices are amplified from the start of a planning process is an essential element.

“Disabled people meet with and overcome access issues on a daily basis," Harrington explains. "They have developed the capacities and skills to negotiate these repeatedly unacknowledged exclusions so can offer distinct perspectives on their coping mechanisms and adaptive strategies. Offering details of direct experience of navigating a world with numerous obstacles can feed into future disaster risk management planning.”

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