Climate Change Solutions Must Include People with Disabilities

When natural disasters and other emergencies hit, resources become scarce, and, too often, people with disabilities cannot access them. As global warming continues to drive up temperatures and sea levels around the world, discussions of climate resilience and adaptation must do better to include these communities.

The United Nations estimates that people with disabilities constitute about 15 percent of the world’s population, or roughly 1 billion individuals. According to the U.N.’s Environment Programme, people with disabilities:

  • May not have adequate access to resources and services to adapt to environmental challenges.
  • May suffer from health conditions that exacerbate their vulnerability to extreme climate events, ecosystem losses, or infectious diseases. For example, a new study by Holly Elser, of the Stanford University School of Medicine, found that rising temperatures could cause people with multiple sclerosis to feel more fatigue and pain, sending them to the hospital more often.
  • Are more likely to have difficulties during required evacuations or migrations. Inconsistent electricity can hinder critical health equipment and emergency shelters may not be ADA compliant.

In 2005, the devastation of the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita provided a striking example of how climate change harms people with disabilities. A report published by the National Council on Disability stated that in the aftermath of Katrina, an estimated 155,000 people over the age of five were living with a physical, visual, or learning disability in the three cities hardest hit by the Hurricane: Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans. The American Association of Retired Persons concluded: “Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Hurricane Katrina-related deaths in the New Orleans area were among persons aged 60 and over, although they comprised only 15 percent of the population in New Orleans.” Most of them had underlying medical conditions and functional or sensory disabilities.

In Katrina’s case, the problems with disaster preparedness were most clear when it came to evacuation plans and the sharing of information. The National Council on Disability’s report mentioned that most buses that were used to evacuate people did not have wheelchair lifts. Secondly, people with visual and hearing disabilities did not have the relevant safety information because communication channels did not comply with federal laws, featuring closed captioning or sign language interpretations. Lastly, even when relying on text messages, broken emergency systems prevented people with hearing disabilities from receiving information, because power outages or damaged cell phone towers.

The National Council on Disability predicted that “when America embraces the twin principles of inclusion and accessibility for everyday programs, policies, and infrastructure, Americans with disabilities surely will be counted among the survivors of the next disasters.”

With this in mind, some communities across the globe are trying innovative solutions to build disability-inclusive climate resilience. Take the Gaibandha model in Bangladesh, which was implemented by the Christian Blind Mission (CBM) organization in partnership with local NGOs.

This model was implemented in the Gaibandha District in northern Bangladesh as it is one of the most disaster-prone regions, affected by floods due to the monsoon season. In 2004, an earthquake caused a tsunami that devastated this region as well as other countries, which caused over 270,000 fatalities and displaced over 1 million people.

This model helped build a disability-inclusive risk-reduction program for flood-affected communities. The model uses five interventions to create resilient and inclusive communities:

  • It empowers people with disabilities and their representative groups by including them in decision making and preparedness plans.
  • It advocates with the local government for inclusive disaster-risk management.
  • It builds accessible disaster-risk management infrastructure at the community level.
  • It strengthens household-level, disaster-risk awareness and preparedness, in collaboration with schools.
  • And it promotes and supports sustainable, resilient livelihoods.

Another example of this is the Disability Inclusive Community Based Disaster Risk Management Toolkit in South Asia. This toolkit created in 2012, provides examples like vulnerability and capacity assessments that include essential facts and measures for improving disaster-risk management, as well as inclusive Early Warning Systems (EWS). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) program, has been supporting and developing EWS  across Africa, Asia, and the Pacific to continue to save lives, enhance infrastructure and be more sustainable. In Uganda, the UNDP has improved inadequate infrastructure in order to create and distribute information and because of EWS, farmers in Cambodia now have access to climate bulletins to better prepare for climate-related disasters.

In order to make those systems more inclusive, response teams need to ensure that people with disabilities are included in preparation and planning, have persons with disabilities take leadership roles when monitoring risks, have a comprehensive communication and dissemination strategy, preparedness training, and reviewing the effectiveness of the EWS. The World Institute on Disability, located in Berkeley, California, has developed a New Earth Disability team to work with NGOs and governmental agencies to incorporate disability and climate-related efforts across the board. On January 27, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, in which he calls on the secretary of Health and Human Services to establish an interagency working group to decrease the risk of climate to people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations as well biennial Health Care System Readiness Advisory Council. The U.S. Climate and Resilience Toolkit would be a good start to incorporate strategies and tools that promote disability-inclusive climate solutions.

To build more disability-inclusive climate solutions like these, people with disabilities need stronger representation in disaster planning and preparedness, ideally in positions of leadership. Comprehensive tools to disseminate information have proven to be a vital resource to ensure people are aware of emergencies. Early planning and risk assessments will enable communities to meet the diverse needs of all their residents. This multifaceted approach will not only allow us to be prepared for the next environmental challenge, but also empower communities and ultimately save lives.

Image: Brad Matheney offers help to a man in a wheelchair in a flooded street while Hurricane Henry passes through Texas August 26, 2017 in Galveston, Texas. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

 

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About the Author(s)

Brian Mateo

Brian Mateo (@brianmateo) serves as Associate Dean of Civic Engagement and Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program at Bard College, and is a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a trained Climate Reality Leader under former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.