Disabled people, who are already among the most adversely affected by climate change, are facing new risks from climate mitigation efforts.
Advocates are sounding the alarm after July flooding in Germany killed 12 residents of a group home for disabled people in the town of Sinzig that was unable to evacuate in time. Almost exactly a year before, flooding killed 14 nursing home residents in Kuma, Japan.
“As more and more extreme weather events occur due to changing climate conditions, this risk becomes greater,” said Mary Keogh, author of a 2020 paper that found disabled people are among the five groups most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Comparatively, 10 to 15 percent of all people are estimated to be disabled in some way — making disabled people disproportionately at risk from climate change.
Those figures build on earlier research showing that disabled Americans are two to four times more likely to sustain critical injuries during disasters.
Anna Landre, a wheelchair user and fellow at the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, said those disparities were on full display in the New Jersey area during flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
“[New Jersey residents] are also in a place where a lot of transportation and evacuation methods are not accessible to disabled folks,” Landre told The Hill.
However, despite these disproportionate impacts, efforts to combat climate change or mitigate its effects are frequently inaccessible or counterproductive for disabled people.
“[M]any climate friendly plans or products are not inclusive or accessible for them. For example, many persons with disabilities are not able to join the campaign to use public transportation due to the inaccessibility of public transportation,” Elham Youssefian, an adviser to the International Disability Alliance, told The Hill in an email.
Keogh added that at the national level, “[w]here policymakers have failed so far is in the lack of consultation with persons with disabilities.”
Numerous countries’ national climate plans, she said, were developed without consultation from disabled people, which has resulted in plans with dubious accessibility.
And much like the impacts of climate change, inaccessible climate solutions can manifest in small, day-to-day ways as well. Gabi Serrato Marks, a geochemist and science writer who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, pointed to bans on plastic straws in some localities, such as Washington, D.C., and Seattle.
“Straws are medically necessary for many people and alternatives don't always work,” she said in an email interview. “I also see fellow scientists trying to provide information about climate change or sustainability, but their digital communication efforts are rarely accessible. We can't be publishing podcasts without transcripts, videos without captions, and images without image descriptions, then say that we want everyone's help to address the climate crisis.”
Disabled people are at greater risk from the day-to-day effects of climate change as well as extreme events. A 2016 fact sheet from the Environmental Protection Agency said they are twice as likely to be unemployed as abled people, and thus less likely to have reliable electricity or air conditioning during periods of extreme heat.
“Zooming out beyond the specifics of disaster, we can basically think about the way that climate change makes everyday life harder,” Julia Watts Belser, senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, told The Hill. “People have to travel further for clean and safe water, or pay more for food. Climate change is a major driver of conflict, which leads to migration and refugee situations — and disability makes all of these situations harder and riskier.”
The common practice or relocating to avoid the effects of climate change or extreme weather can also prove challenging.
“For slow onset events which allow time for relocation, persons with disabilities are very often left out of planning and not able to access vital information because of accessibility barriers — for example, public warning methods such as TV broadcasts not including sign language interpretation,” Keogh said.
Experts emphasized that if these problems are to be solved, the disparities faced by disabled people must be understood as avoidable.
“Too often, the way we think about [climate change] is, ‘people are going to die, and disabled people are vulnerable, and they’re the most likely to die, and that’s just it, and that’s too bad.’ But the reality is that these deaths are avoidable, that they’re the result of structural barriers that disabled people face every day,” Landre said.
Those barriers, she said, can range from inaccessible transportation to lack of plain-language information.
“In instances of climate change, those everyday barriers become deadly,” Landre added, “and instead of looking to repair those, too often people view them as a given, as something that cannot be changed. So I think we have to take a critical look at these everyday structural barriers.”
Only at that point, she said, “will we really be able to include disabled people in planning for climate change.”