Climate change poses unique dangers and challenges for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, despite wide recognition of the vulnerabilities of people with disabilities to climate change, disability perspectives and needs remain largely excluded from climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. Effective and inclusive climate action planning is essential to protecting the 26% of Americans who experience a disability from the most dangerous aspects of climate change.
Individuals with disabilities are especially vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change. For those with heat sensitivity (e.g., people with spinal cord injuries, who often have a lower ability to sweat to cool their body temperature), extreme heat can be especially deadly. People with disabilities are disproportionately susceptible to climate-related invasive diseases. They face unique challenges and devastating consequences related to mobility and accessibility in response to increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters in an age of climate migration.
In a natural disaster, the mortality rate among people with disabilities tends to be two to four times higher than the overall rate. During Hurricane Katrina, institutional neglect for the needs of people with disabilities had devastating results. Evacuation buses were inaccessible for many with disabilities, often lacking wheelchair lifts and requiring multi-hour waits in extreme heat. Furthermore, many individuals with visual and hearing disabilities were unable to access information about the oncoming hurricane and could not prepare adequately.
In Japan, people with disabilities impacted by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami faced similar challenges, resulting in people with disabilities accounting for 24.6 percent of total “disaster-related deaths” in Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures, far above their 7 percent representation among the population as a whole. Of additional concern is the fact that climate change will cause more people to develop disabilities. Increasingly frequent natural disasters, climate-related invasive diseases, and climate-related conflict will leave many otherwise able-bodied individuals with disabilities.
Noting the above, climate action planners in the United States need to proactively prioritize the needs of people with disabilities. In particular, localities need to take the lead in protecting their disabled populations from the worst impacts of climate change by designing resilient and accessible climate action plans.
Unfortunately, local plans tend to fall short of expectations. Of the 25 largest cities in the United States, three cities lack published climate action plans altogether, and 11 have published plans that do not discuss disability. Just 11 cities’ plans explicitly discuss the relationship of climate to disability, and only about one-half of those plans outline provisions specifically intended to mitigate people with disabilities’ unique climate vulnerabilities. For experts on the intersections of climate and disability, this will not come as a surprise. An emerging body of research suggests that the needs of people with disabilities are often neglected when constructing sustainable plans and programs, resulting in policies that fail to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
Scholars attribute this neglect to, among other things, a lack of representation and participation of people with disabilities in climate action planning processes. This research confirms what many disability activists have understood for decades: to ensure that people with disabilities are resilient in the face of climate change, they must play a prominent role in the climate action planning process. One of the rallying cries of the disability movement, “Nothing about us, without us,” captures this point. How can people with disabilities be resilient in the face of climate change if their perspectives are not factored into mitigation and adaptation planning processes?
International case studies show that including individuals with disabilities in the climate action planning process is achievable and leads to improved outcomes. For example, disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) have taken leadership roles in Indonesian disaster preparedness programs, leading to improved outcomes. In Bangladesh, the Gaibandha Model for Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction uses lessons learned from past disasters to increase inclusion of people with disabilities in disaster planning, resulting in the active participation of people with disabilities in “all stages” of disaster response at a local level.
In Tunisia, disability advocacy organizations partnered with the government to promote green jobs as an opportunity to ensure the social and economic inclusion of people with disabilities, enabling them to play direct roles in environmental governance. More modest moves, like the Finnish government’s move to publish climate-related materials in plain language and sign language videos, can also make a difference.
These programs, among others, have improved climate and disaster resilience by placing people with disabilities in leadership roles and giving disability advocacy organizations agency in the planning process. To enable this type of active participation, governments should take measures to support and include people with disabilities before and throughout the climate action planning process, identifying and addressing barriers to participation and working with disability advocacy organizations.
Some U.S. planners are taking steps similar to those detailed above, leading the country’s efforts on disability inclusion. San Francisco’s Hazards and Climate Resilience Plan contains valuable provisions on the topic of disability. The city’s Disability Council was part of the planning team, and the plan documents a meeting between planners and a group of disability stakeholders, who identified some of the disability community’s “unique needs.” The city has also published an Age and Disability Action Plan, a relatively robust plan that notes the importance of the participation of people with disabilities in resiliency and adaptation efforts.
Austin’s Climate Equity Plan sets out a number of provisions toward disability inclusion, including policies to involve people with disabilities on affordable housing investment committees, and redesigning public transportation with disability issues in mind. Looking to the federal government, the Biden Administration recently took a significant step in establishing an Interagency Working Group to Decrease Risk of Climate Change to Children, the Elderly, People With Disabilities, and the Vulnerable via an Executive Order. Depending on the Working Group’s findings, the federal government might take the lead on building a more disability-inclusive climate regime.
In order to protect people with disabilities from the worst impacts of climate change, local planners must build disability-inclusive climate action plans that draw upon lessons learned domestically from previous natural disasters and from abroad. They must take decisive steps to ensure the active participation of people with disabilities in the climate action planning process. If carried out effectively, these actions will save lives.