How does climate change impact people with disabilities?

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The impacts of climate change are predicted to worsen and while we are already feeling the effects, people with disabilities may feel them more severely.

Key points:

  • Climate change has made impacts that could affect people living with disabilities
  • Social disadvantages, extreme changes in weather and poor planning for people with all kinds of disabilities has made this group more vulnerable as the country experiences rising temperatures and sea levels
  • Australia identified people living with disabilities as an at risk group in research in a Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction plan

People with disabilities were among the most vulnerable to climate impacts, mainly due to the nature of their disabilities and other social disadvantages, like a lack of appropriate funds to adapt their lives to accommodate climate changes.

It is anticipated that climate change will cause increasing hardship for people with disabilities and their quality of life is likely to deteriorate, according to scientists and researchers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Climate change is also likely to cause an increase in the incidence and prevalence of many disabling impairments and poses a threat to accessing necessities like good food, clean water and appropriate healthcare.

So what facets of climate change will impact people living with disability?

Difficulties exacerbated by poverty

Not only do people with disabilities experience a higher level of poverty, being poor increases a person’s chances of having a disability and reduces their access to vital services. Disability can be a cause of poverty as well as a consequence of poverty.

This puts people with disabilities at higher risk, as the world’s poorest people continue to experience the most severe impacts of climate change through lost income, displacement, hunger, and adverse impacts on health.

Accessing money may also dictate whether you can move away from areas experiencing direct effects of climate change, like bushfires in regional areas and flooding near locations by the water.

Avoiding climate change affected areas

From 1910 to 2020, Australian land areas have warmed by around 1.4°C as heat extremes have increased and cold extremes have decreased.

In the last 110 years, Australia’s relative sea level rose at a rate higher than the global average in recent decades and shorelines have retreated in many locations, contributing to increased coastal flooding.

These factors are some of the main reasons people have moved away from these areas in recent years, an ability which can often rely on finances, resources and mobility.

If you live with a disability, especially one that affects your physical mobility, you might be unable to easily travel or move somewhere else, meaning you may be forced to stay in environments without appropriate housing, employment, support networks, or healthcare services.

As well as being put in danger during catastrophic weather events, you can learn more planning for these events in our article, ‘Creating a plan in the case of emergency‘.

Impacts to accessing healthcare and disability supports

Radical weather due to climate change can have an impact on the delivery of disability support and accessing healthcare for people with disability.

As our climate changes, it is predicted more emergency events will occur, like bushfires and other global medical events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the country’s healthcare system and resources to be stretched thin.

In some environmental or medical disasters, a community may experience a shortage of certain medications and basic hygiene supplies.

Researchers say when developing disaster plans for events related to climate change, there should be an inclusive practice in all relief operations to make sure that response and service delivery is not inconsistent and accommodates all people, including those with a disability.

To effectively maintain healthcare services in a disaster, it is important for people with disabilities to have access to:

  • A comprehensive database of public and private medical centres in the area
  • A space where they can be triaged and receive aid if they have been harmed
  • Well-equipped ambulances to be transported to appropriate locations
  • Masks and gloves to avoid coming in contact with contaminants that may be present
  • Clean drinking water and imperishable foods such as canned beans and rice
  • Psychological support after the event to prevent immediate psychological distress and long term mental health problems

Weather and psychotropic medication

While people with physical disabilities are most at risk of problems arising from climate change, other types of less noticeable disabilities can also pose risk factors.

People who take psychotropic medication for disorders like schizophrenia or depression tend to show a much higher mortality rate during hot weather than the general population, as these medications make you more sensitive to changes in temperature and can result in a person overheating more easily.

Psychotropic medications are drugs that affect the mind, emotions, and behaviours and are prescribed for a variety of mental illness disorders.

As the world’s weather patterns continue to change rapidly due to climate change, it is important people who take these medications understand the risks they are exposed to and when to take precautions.

During hot periods, you should stay hydrated, stay out of the sun and rest frequently in shaded areas if you take these medications.

Signs of overheating can include having a temperature and your skin becoming red and hot, or pale and grey toned.

You may also experience headaches, nausea, dizziness, or a change in your level of consciousness.

Inclusive climate change policy

Countries have historically not made appropriate and adequate provisions for the needs of people with disabilities when making climate action policies and disaster action plans.

A 2020 United Nation (UN) report highlighted the impacts of climate change on people with disabilities and stipulated that UN countries need to uphold the rights of people with disabilities by involving their participation when developing climate policies.

The University of Sydney has been working on building a roadmap for inclusive disaster risk reduction in Australian communities since this UN report.

This participatory research shares Australia’s progress on developing and advancing its Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction (DIDRR) at all levels of the community.

It brought emergency managers together with people with disability and the community-based support services where data was collected, analysed and interpreted to work out how to change and implement new strategies.

From there, a roadmap and guiding tools were formulated, showing what direction to emergency managers, defining roles and responsibilities for people with disability and the services that support them, and building ‘cross sector mechanisms’ for sharing responsibility.

Some of the recommendations made to make disaster planning for climate change more inclusive include:

  • Involving people with disability and their support networks in emergency planning
  • Developing local solutions in collaboration with disability and community organisations
  • Having plans that support the health and well-being of people with disability and the people who support them in emergencies

There are things you can do, as someone with a disability, to prepare yourself such as:

  • Self-assess your risk and support needs to be prepared in emergencies
  • Support other people living with disability in your community by making emergency plans tailored to individual support needs in emergencies
  • Have a leadership role for helping others to be prepared
  • Connect with local emergency managers to make sure everyone in the community is prepared

For information about preparing for catastrophic weather events, read our article ‘Planning to stay safe during flooding‘ or ‘Top tips to prepare you for a bushfire‘.

Has climate change impacted where or how you live? Let us know in the comments below.

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Related content:
Creating a plan in the case of emergency
Planning to stay safe during flooding
Top tips to prepare you for a bushfire