This is a really interesting article, written by Charlie, who is one of our Young Trustees. It discusses a really important, but often forgotten impact of climate change on disabled people.
Climate change is an ever-escalating global crisis that affects every environment, economy and society on a significant level. Since 1880 the average global temperature has increased by 1.1° C, with the majority of the warming occurring after 1975. These abnormal global temperature shifts have had a serious impact on the way that our planet functions, leading to such a vast scale of effects. Whilst the majority of these effects have become public knowledge, the way that climate change is disproportionately affecting minority groups has been offered less thought by both the public and governing bodies. This piece will be a brief overview of some of the ways that disabled people are affected more by climate change than their able-bodied counterparts.
Whilst natural disasters and weather events are not an abnormal occurrence, climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of these events and a primary challenge that disabled people face is the lack of inclusive emergency evacuation and response plans for these. This is especially relevant to those with disabilities affecting their mobility. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a quadriplegic named Benilda Caixetta died in her apartment in New Orleans after her area’s evacuation programme failed to take account of the fact that those with limited mobility may not be able to follow their evacuation protocols. The issue with a lack of accessible housing for disabled people under normal conditions is also exacerbated during these responses to climate disasters. Whilst inaccessible housing creates hardship for disabled people on a day-to-day basis, often the inaccessibility of the infrastructure they’re forced to live in presents a need for a modified evacuation plan, which may not have been necessary if the housing was more accessible. The lack of correct provision for disabled people in emergency shelters, such as no ramps at entrances or emergency power supplies for medical equipment, also places these individuals in a position of increased danger in the aftermath of a climate disaster.
As previously mentioned, climate change has increased the severity of weather events. In many of these events, such as heatwaves, disabled people are at an increased risk of severe health implications. This is another difficulty disabled people face in the context of climate change. During the heatwave that took place in Montreal in 2018, 61 people died as a direct result of the weather event. A quarter of those who died had schizophrenia, a mental health condition classed as a disability. This was at a death rate of 500 times the average for the population of Quebec. Part of the reason that so many people with this particular disability died was a result of the medication they were being prescribed to treat the disorder. High temperatures, combined with low hydration levels had a much more detrimental impact on their health. However, another factor to consider here is the fact that prior to the tragedies, the local governing body did not realise that people with this disability would need to be a protected group in heat wave strategies. The fact that healthcare services are also overwhelmed and disrupted in the aftermath of a disaster also means that disabled people who are regularly in contact with these services under normal conditions, may not be able to access correct care to maintain their health even if the weather event has not caused harm directly.
It is evident in both cases discussed here that the difficulties a disabled person faces places them at increased risk due to climate change. Moreover, when governing bodies fail to take this into account, the risk climate change poses to disabled individuals increases.
Disabled people are also more likely to face increased financial difficulties in the context of climate change than non-disabled people. In terms of employment, a disabled person may be at an increased risk of unemployment if the changes in climate have worsened their pre-existing disability. This is a particularly crucial factor to consider given that disabled people are already likely to face more unemployment than their able-bodied counterparts, with unemployment rates for disabled people in the UK being almost double the rate for non-disabled people. The fact that disabled people are more likely to be struggling financially under normal conditions has also led to a higher proportion of disabled people living in communities facing environmental injustice. These areas are often on floodplains and therefore experience the physical effects of weather events more than other areas. There are also costs associated with the adaptation to the impacts of climate change, such as the reinstallation of medical equipment in homes where it was previously damaged due to disaster. These financial burdens are exclusive to disabled individuals in the context of climate change. However, this does also raise the fact that those from low-income backgrounds are also facing increased challenges in the face of the climate crisis.
To conclude, disabled individuals face the impacts of climate change disproportionately to their able-bodied counterparts globally. This is partially due to their pre-existing vulnerabilities in society and increased risk of poor health. However, a common theme within this overview is that the lack of awareness by governing bodies, and those working to reduce the impacts of climate change, of these vulnerabilities have increased the disparities disabled people face.