Invisible Victims: Why Climate Change Is a Disability Issue

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

In an ideal world, we might believe that society has become truly inclusive, embracing the needs of people with disabilities. However, the harsh reality is that many individuals with disabilities face distinct hurdles and heightened risks during extreme heat events. For many who rely on assistive devices for temperature regulation, these devices are not always readily available or affordable. 

Now more than ever, it is widely acknowledged that people with disabilities are more susceptible to adverse health effects during extreme heat events. Their disabilities, coupled with social disadvantages, significantly amplify the risks they face. Those with pre-existing health conditions, limited mobility, or sensory impairments experience even greater vulnerability, leading to heightened risks of heat-related illnesses, dehydration, and respiratory problems.

Studies have also shown that heat waves can have extreme effects on people with certain conditions. For instance, individuals with schizophrenia have been revealed to experience mortality rates up to 50 times higher during heat waves due to their medication’s sensitivity to temperature changes. When we factor in the intersectionality of multiple disabilities, the effects become greater, further compromising well-being.

Disparities in climate policies

Among the issues that continue to place disabled people on the backburner is the design and infrastructure of urban areas. Recently, the comprehensive review of countries’ nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement revealed that only a fraction of nations references disabled individuals in their climate commitments

Urban planning and infrastructure play pivotal roles in shaping the experiences of people with disabilities. Factors such as the inadequate provision of shade, cooling centres, and accessible transportation make it even more challenging for individuals to adapt to rapidly changing weather events.

Major economies such as the US, UK, China, and Japan are a few of the nations that due to their urban planning have failed to acknowledge the rights and needs of disabled people altogether. For instance, a recent report from Human Rights Watch revealed the disproportionate impact of unprecedented heat extremes on people with disabilities in Spain and other European countries. Similar concerns apply to other nations across Europe, which scientists have already identified as the fastest-warming continent. The report also noted a lack of representation in developing heatwave emergency plans leads to the exclusion of people with disabilities-silencing their voices even more.

On a positive note, some developed countries, such as Germany and South Korea have included references to disabled individuals in their adaptation plans. However, this is still marred by superficial changes without meaningful mechanisms for consultation to ensure the rights of disadvantaged individuals.

The importance of raising awareness

As more intense and frequent heatwaves loom over us, we must learn from past mistakes and the record-breaking heatwaves of recent years. Conversations that emphasise the importance of advocating for inclusive emergency planning are needed. The devastating toll of heatwaves, which led to nearly 16,000 excess deaths in Europe last year alone, highlights the urgency for change.

First and foremost, governments must recognise the severity of the situation before it spirals out of control. With many disabled people rarely seeking assistance in fear of being marginalised, investments are needed in accessible early warning systems. Alongside this, disability perspectives need to be included in disaster reduction strategies, and disability-inclusive measures should be incorporated into climate change adaptation plans.

A key aspect of these changes also needs to include collaboration with disabled organisations, such as the Disabled People's Organisations (DPOs), to ensure that disability perspectives are considered in climate change discussions to move closer towards positive outcomes. This collaboration should also include emergency management agencies and healthcare providers who are used to dealing with the needs of disabled people. 

Progressing towards an inclusive future

It may be tempting to assume that when disaster strikes, everyone will be protected. However, the truth is that not all of us will be. The policy changes mentioned here are necessary to protect the rights and well-being of people with disabilities during extreme events. When change does begin to happen, and hopefully it will, it must involve incorporating the needs of disabled people into urban planning, infrastructure development, and public health initiatives.

It is not enough for us to merely accept the effects of climate change. Interventions are necessary to lessen the worst effects on marginalised people. Only when those in power confront such issues, rather than handing over responsibility and leaving vulnerable communities to fend for themselves in scorching or freezing conditions, can we begin to live in an inclusive world.