How Climate Change Disproportionately Affects Disabled People

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Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

By Claire Robinson.

In the summer, I love spending as much time outdoors as I possibly can. But in recent years, climate change has increased the frequency and severity of wildfires such that their smoke sometimes spreads even to states far away. This is how I found that wildfire smoke gives me migraines so serious that I have to stay inside. I am far from the only one whose disability is exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Krystal Vasquez, who has a chronic illness, similarly says that wildfire smoke makes her feel “really fatigued, really achy, really sore.”

For disabled people, the consequences of climate change are numerous and can sometimes be severe or even fatal. Indeed, disabled people are two to four times more likely to die in climate emergencies. People with limited or no mobility may not be able to evacuate from an area quickly or at all, which could make a wildfire or flood deadly for them. Even disabled people who do evacuate may lack access to vital medical equipment or medications at emergency shelters. 

Disabled people are also much more likely to be low-income and thus to face issues like food insecurity, issues that are worsened by climate change. Worldwide, 80% of disabled people live in low-and middle-income countries, meaning that these people are likely not just to be low-income but also to live in places that are especially affected by climate change.

These are just a few of the means through which disabled people are uniquely affected by climate change; there are many other ways as well. For example, immunocompromised people are particularly at risk from mosquito-borne illnesses, illnesses which will affect people in more locations as the earth warms, and people with mental health-related disabilities are three times more likely to die during heatwaves.

Disabled people are the world’s largest minority group: over a billion people worldwide are disabled. When the risks or impacts of climate change are calculated, though, disabled people often are not considered. Recently, human rights organizations have called for governments to include disabled participants when creating climate plans and policies, and scientists have stated that climate change research should include disabled people. Still, much of that work is yet to be done.

A note on identity-first language: In this post, I chose to refer to“disabled people,” not “people with disabilities.” Nowadays, this identity-first language is preferred by many, though not all, people in the disabled community. I personally prefer the term “disabled person” to “person with a disability” because my disability is inextricably part of me.

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