Climate Change Disproportionately Impacts People with Disabilities

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Planet Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, due to human-related actions such as deforestation, transportation, and high carbon emissions. This increase in global temperature has caused severe storms, health risks, poverty, mental trauma, expensive insurance, loss of energy, and much more—impacting the health and safety of the general human population. However, although climate change affects everyone, it disproportionately affects people with disabilities.

One billion people around the world, 15% of the world’s population, struggle from some form of disability. Around 13.7% of adults struggle with mobility and around 10.8% of adults have serious difficulties with memory, cognition, and decision-making. Many individuals are born with disabilities while many acquire them later on in their life. For example, around 1 in 2,500 males and 1 in 7,000 females are born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition causing intellectual weakness and slow development.

Because of their inherent vulnerabilities and limited understanding of their surroundings, disabled communities are more susceptible to damage caused by climate change than others. For example, Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive hurricanes, impacted 155,000 individuals with physical impairments or learning disabilities, who lived in the three cities hardest hit by the hurricane. Additionally, during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the mortality rate of people with disabilities was double that of the general public because the disabled communities were not reached on time by the early warning systems that alert the public of such natural disasters.

Many disabled are often not prepared for climate emergencies, which leads to their higher mortality rate during natural disasters. A 2004 survey conducted by the National Organization on Disability found that 17% of the disabled population was unprepared for a natural disaster. Furthermore, in a survey conducted by the UN of 5,450 disabled people who have lived through a natural disaster, 71% of the respondents did not have an individual preparedness plan and 69% did not have someone planned to rescue them from such emergencies.

Lack of Resources

One way that disabled communities are disproportionately affected by climate change is due to the lack of healthcare they receive. As of 2017, a survey by the World Health Organization showed that 35-50% of people with serious mental disorders in developed countries and 76%-85% in developing countries received little to no health care. In Zimbabwe, Zambia, and other African countries, as many as 95% of disabled people had no healthcare in 2011. Additionally, Alabama’s Emergency Operations Plan refused to offer mechanical ventilators to people with “severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury” due to the number of coronavirus patients. Without healthcare, people with disabilities will be unprotected from injuries they face during a climate emergency.

Not only do these groups lack proper health resources, but they also lack educational resources. As of 2018, 2.8% of schools were meant specifically for students with disabilities. Furthermore, disabled children are 10 times less likely to attend school than other children. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of disabled children who live in developing countries do not go to school. If disabled communities lack educational resources, then they will be uninformed about the consequences of a climate emergency.

Many people with disabilities struggle with the lack of healthcare and educational resources because they live in poverty, a direct effect of climate change; because of all the natural disasters and food and water scarcity caused by climate change, many people lose their homes, food and water sources, money, and other belongings.

As of 2017, people with disabilities lived in poverty at more than twice the rate of non-disabled people. In fact, around 45% of people experiencing homelessness were either disabled or diagnosed with a mental illness in 2014. Moreover, 26% of disabled Americans struggled with poverty in 2018. Therefore, given the high rate of people with disabilities living in poverty and no healthcare, they may be limited in their ability to prepare appropriately or escape without being injured during a climate emergency, considering their lack of a home, supplies, medicines, emergency kits, and more. Poverty also prevents many disabled from pursuing any form of education due to its high expenses.

Other detriments of climate change that worsen the lack of resources for disabled communities are food and water insecurity, extreme weather conditions, and more.

Lack of Immunity to Illness

Disabled communities are more susceptible to illness than the general public. For example, disabled adults are three times more likely to have heart diseases, strokes, diabetes, or cancer than non-disabled adults. Hence, disabled people can be more likely to receive an illness due to climate change than the general public. For example, in a study of people hit by the earthquake in Spain, researchers found that a major predictor for developing a mental illness after the earthquake was a prior mental disorder.

Studies show that by 2050 120-180 million people can have zinc and protein deficiencies due to higher carbon dioxide concentrations. Plus, it is estimated that 600 million children will be living in areas with high water stress by 2040 because of rising temperatures. Food and water insecurity is associated with an increase in coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, kidney disease, and many more. Since disabled communities are less immune to illness, health risks caused by low food and water insecurity rates are more likely to harm the disabled than the general public.

Other consequences of climate change that exacerbate illness for the disabled are poverty, high air pollution, wildfires, and extreme storms.

Struggle to Migrate

The disabled community also faces many difficulties during forced migrations and evacuations resulting from climate emergencies. Because climate change causes severe storms, many peoples’ homes and belongings are destroyed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, climate change causes severe drought and heat, which leads to limited food and water and high air pollution. Therefore, people are forced to relocate to avoid injuries from storms, gain better access to food and water, and stay away from polluted areas to keep away from illness.

Around 3.5 to 5 million of those who are displaced from disasters, including climate emergencies, are disabled people. People with physical disorders can be highly impacted by migration during a natural disaster. For example, 250,000 people in the U.S. have dystonia, a neurological movement disorder where patients experience involuntary muscle contractions and severe cramping. Because of their uncontrollable movements and pain, dystonia patients might react slowly to a natural emergency evacuation, which could put their health at risk. Other common movement disorders are Essential tremor, Parkinson’s disease, and Ataxia.

People with mental disorders can also be affected by forced evacuations during a natural crisis. For example, in 2018, 1 in 59 students has been identified with autism, a development disorder.. Some people with autism experience slow brain responses. Therefore, in case of a natural disaster, people with autism might have a delayed reaction to an emergency evacuation, which can put their lives in danger because the disaster can cause harm at any time.

Programs Addressing The Issue

Many programs have taken the initiative to help disabled communities survive the consequences of climate change. One such program is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Its mission is to provide aid, support, and safety to the citizens of America in their ability to survive disasters. FEMA has a subsection called the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination to help people with disabilities before, during, and after disasters such as climate emergencies. This office provides the government and non-profit organizations with tools, resources, and training to help people with disabilities in case of an emergency. Additionally, the subsection ensures special care for the elderly struggling with disabilities.

Another program that has created an emergency plan specifically for the disabled is the American National Red Cross, an organization that provides assistance, relief, and disaster education in case of an emergency. Red Cross assists people who struggle with mobility, hearing, learning, and vision by providing them with survival kits and emergency plans.

Overall, climate change has a large impact on disabled communities, due to their susceptibility to illness, lack of proper health and educational resources, and inability to react quickly during climate emergencies.

Through Teen Lenses: What do you know about climate change? How do you think it impacts disabled communities?

“Climate change is a rapidly progressing problem that affects the daily lives of nearly everyone in the world. It disproportionately impacts the lower class, which often includes those who are disabled. Those who are disabled often do not have access to treatment that they need due to their socioeconomic status and face oppression from able-bodied people, resulting in an ableist society that alienates anyone with a disability. The negative impacts of climate change like drought and frequent natural disasters further put disabled people at a disadvantage by decreasing the availability of resources to them.” Kelly Ji, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“Unfortunately I don’t know much about its impact on the disabled. I haven’t seen much media cover it, but I assume climate change affects the disabled more than abled people. Ableism prevents them from access to better jobs that would allow them to move if their houses are in danger of sea-level rise. Also in many cases like floods and forest fires, which are caused by rising temperatures, they are less able to evacuate and find safety.” Martin Li, 18, Freshman at Emory University, Rockville, MD
“Climate change has devastating facts on individuals worldwide. Because of improper management of our resources, our environment is facing detrimental issues that cannot be resolved unless acted upon immediately. Climate change has a terrible impact on abled-persons and an even worse effect on disabled people. In the short term, these environmental changes only have lesser impacts such as air pollution, which can easily be avoided by avoiding cities and metropolitan areas. However, in the long term, climate change can bring infectious diseases, service loss, and extreme climate events, all of which cannot be avoided easily. Additionally, the simple fact that these individuals are disabled puts them at a disadvantage in terms of access to resources such as food. In conclusion, when addressing issues like climate change, environmentalists and policymakers must take special notice of disabled people because of the intensive care that is required to maintain their mental and physical health.” Roshni Arun, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, North Potomac, MD

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