The climate crisis and disability: issues and approaches to solutions
How climate change affects people with disabilities the most ?
The global climate crisis is leading to more and more heatwaves, droughts, stronger storms and floods, which affected more than 35 million people in 2018 and forced two million to flee their homes. These natural disasters often lead to social disasters, such as the destruction of farmland and refugee movements. More than a billion people with disabilities around the world suffer even more from these consequences, as relief efforts often lack inclusion measures. This target group and organizations of people with disabilities are not sufficiently included in disaster prevention.
Climate change particularly affects the most vulnerable: people with disabilities and their families cannot escape danger as easily because they are restricted in their movements. They are also more affected by poverty and unemployment, especially in the countries of the South. In addition, information about the climate crisis and its impact on their immediate environment is often not accessible. As a result, they have far fewer opportunities to prepare for impending disasters, to insure themselves financially or to avoid them, even if they were informed. This also leads to a higher mortality rate, which is actually avoidable.
Although disabled people are particularly affected by the consequences of climate change, they are systematically ignored by climate policy. They should be better protected and more directly involved. Accessible information, direct communication and more research could improve the situation.
There are several reasons why disabled people are particularly affected by climate change. In emergency situations, which could become more frequent in the future due to extreme weather events, rescuers often need special knowledge or technical aids to evacuate people with disabilities. However, these special requirements are often not taken into account in emergency plans and evacuation concepts. In extreme cases, this can lead to tragedies such as the flooding in the Ahr Valley, where twelve disabled people drowned in an assisted-living facility.
Depending on their type of disability, they also suffer particularly from heatwaves, lack of water and other health risks exacerbated by climate change, such as allergic asthma due to increased pollen counts. In addition, due to structural discrimination, disabled people often have fewer resources to deal with the potentially negative consequences of climate change – moving to a different environment, for example, would mean greater financial and organizational obstacles for them.
Disabled people are more affected by climate change
Disasters such as heat, fires and floods hit them harder, as their ability to react is limited. In Sinzig, twelve residents of an assisted living home drowned in the flood because they had not been evacuated in time. And in the United States, people have died because fire and flooding caused a power cut – and with it vital breathing apparatus or air conditioning systems. People with heart problems, lung disease, diabetes or mental health problems are at greater risk of death when temperatures rise. The impact of natural disasters on disabled people can be summarized in the following three stages:
1) Before the disaster: no warning systems or accessible reports, so that disabled people are not aware of the situation. During hurricane Katrina, for example, the sign language interpretation on television was not clearly visible and therefore incomprehensible.
2) During the disaster: evacuation and barrier-free accommodation are often non-existent. In the emergency shelters during Hurricane Katrina, there were no accessible toilets or beds, or none at all.
3) After the disaster: Difficult access to new housing, food, water and healthcare. After Hurricane Katrina, many families with children with disabilities lacked important documentation of their disability, making it difficult for them to access compensation for educational disadvantages, because they no longer received assistance.
It is therefore particularly important to promote greater access to education for disabled people throughout the world, in order to better prepare them for natural disasters. This is a major problem, particularly for disabled girls, as in some countries they also have less access to basic education than disabled boys. They don’t know what’s going on and are therefore unable to react appropriately when a natural disaster strikes.
The world lacks inclusion in climate protection
In fact, all States are obliged to protect human rights and take account of disabled people in their policies. An academic study compared national climate protection contributions (NDCs) on this basis. The analysis shows that only 37 of the 192 NDCs mention people with disabilities in the context of adapting to the consequences of climate change, and 14 of them cite concrete measures. People with disabilities are “systematically ignored” by global policy, the authors conclude.
In international comparison, Germany is only at the beginning of the debate on the inclusion of disabled people in the field of climate change. Even in international comparison, Germany is not doing well, despite being a rich industrialized nation – the German NDCs do not even mention people with disabilities, unlike the plans of Zimbabwe or Panama, for example. How could this situation be improved?
1) Make information on climate change and disaster protection easily accessible in simple language – to people with disabilities and involve those affected.
Access to education and information is only a precondition for political and social participation. People with disabilities should be more involved in the issue of climate justice – fixed places for disabled people on political bodies that decide on new measures or the creation of an organization that does political lobbying could be useful, for example. This would help to anchor the issue in the mainstream, so that disabled people are taken into account in future policy measures. An international exchange would also be useful, especially with more affected disabled people in the Global South or indigenous communities.
2) More research into specific needs is needed.
It is impossible to plan measures for all people with disabilities as there is a wide range of different disabilities. We need more knowledge about how the consequences of climate change can affect different types of disabilities, how extreme weather events affect people with different disabilities, and where they are particularly vulnerable.
3) Disabled people also have a weak lobby in the scientific system
They are generally not involved in the development of plans and decisions. This must change: they should be involved as experts. Local organizations and interest groups, in particular, are very good at identifying and bringing together the needs of their members, but to turn this into effective policy, there needs to be good coordination in designing new measures for climate protection so that they reduce rather than increase discrimination against disabled people in everyday life. This is the only way to avoid discrimination when measures are planned by non-disabled people. Otherwise, they can suddenly make life considerably more difficult for them – for example, the ban on plastic straws without exception was a big problem for many of those affected.
Since July 2021, straws and disposable tableware and cutlery have been banned in the European Union. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned activism overlooks the fact that many disabled people are dependent on these aids. Some cannot do without plastic straws. They are painfully removed from the noses of sea turtles, for example. They decompose slowly in the water, poisoning the environment. But they also belong to the so-called assistive devices – just like glasses, crutches or a wheelchair. A straw is not a luxury, but rather a means of transferring liquid from a container to the mouth. The current alternatives, made of metal, paper or wood, are still impractical because they cannot be folded, cause allergies, do not dry out and often pose hygiene problems. So far, there is little sign of these problems being alleviated, and disabled people are either ignored or exploited, an experience that is not new. Once again, we see that environmental protection and the fight against climate change are also much less inclusive than some would like to believe.Of course, we have to fight against plastic waste. And we’re sure that there will soon be a technical and ecological solution for eating and drinking aids. But in the meantime, we mustn’t forget that eating is a human right that disabled people are increasingly deprived of; when they can’t order coffee without a straw, or when they can’t wash their plates at home and have to resort to disposable crockery. Genuine environmental protection takes many perspectives into account, not just those of people living without disabilities.
Instead, we should be tackling the big issues: the amount of CO₂ in the air from coal-fired electricity, petrol-powered cars and cruise ships; all of these are more important than straws and packaged food.
4) It is not only in the scientific world that there is a gap in awareness that climate justice is also an issue for people with disabilities.
In the large networks of the climate movement, such as Fridays For Future, there are far fewer disabled activists, and there is often a lack of knowledge about accessibility on the part of the networks to interest and reach disabled people in working with their organizations. There are few networks for disabled climate activists. The motto of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities therefore also applies to the issue of climate justice: “Nothing about us without us”.
Unfortunately, in the history of the environmental movement, there are not an excessive number of people with disabilities who have become or are becoming involved, mostly because of the lack of accessibility of the forms of action as well as the premises. To achieve this, we need more activists with such experiences. They can enrich perspectives and point out a fundamental problem in Germany: Non-disabled people are often denied the chance to live together with disabled people, to work together and to fight together politically. It is also up to disabled people to become more involved in the environmental movement and to demand freedom and accessibility.
by Dr Amina Tall, as part of the AVOUALI project ”Inclusion in times of climate crisis” initiated by MeineWelt e.V. with financial support from Aktion MENSCH