What is Climate Change and How Does It Affect People with Disabilities?


According to the United Nations (UN), climate change “refers to long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns.” These changes in temperature and weather patterns may be natural. The shifts in weather patterns and temperature may also be man-made. These changes may lead to more floods, droughts, intense rain, and frequent and intense heat waves, all of which can affect community health and safety. How does climate change affect people with disabilities? The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that people with disabilities and people with chronic conditions “may be more vulnerable to climate change than the general population”. There are various reasons for this, including:

  1. Policy and decisionmakers may not consider people with disabilities in their planning. Learn about the research and development activities from the NIDILRR Community on inclusive planning.
  2. Emergency warnings and other important messages may not be designed with accessibility in mind. Learn about the research from the NIDILRR Community on inclusive emergency alerts.
  3. According to the EPA, people with disabilities or chronic health conditions who need ongoing medical care or personal assistance services may experience disruptions in their care before, during and after natural disasters or extreme weather.
  4. Poverty, unemployment, and other social and economic risk factors (PDF) may put people with disabilities at greater risk, according to the EPA. People with disabilities may also be part of other groups that are vulnerable to climate change, such as racial and ethnic minorities or pregnant people, which may put them at greater risk.
  5. The health of people with disabilities may be threatened by climate change. The EPA lists  potential health impacts including heat illnesses, water-related illnesses, and mental health effects, among others.

People with disabilities, their families, friends, service providers, and caregivers may take steps to reduce the health impacts of climate change. These steps may include any or all the following:

  • Create a support network to stay connected with loved ones and the community before, during, and after an extreme weather event. When possible, reach out to family, friends, caregivers, or neighbors to let them know where you are ahead of time and during an extreme event. Also, check in with friends and family, including checking in with staff in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, if a loved one lives in one.
  • People with disabilities and their loved ones may prepare for a weather-related emergencies by having an emergency plan ready, along with a kit that includes medications, food, water, first-aid supplies, and copies of medical records. Kits should include any food or medications for service animals, as well as preparing assistive devices for emergencies.
  • Many local emergency management offices have disability registries and may assist during an extreme weather event, including coordinating transportation in the case of evacuation.
  • Stay informed about air quality and your local weather to make informed choices about outdoor activities and possible health impacts. AirNow from the EPA gives current information on local air pollution levels.
  • NARIC’s Spotlight Blog has a series of posts about emergency preparedness in English and Spanish to assist people with disabilities plan ahead for emergencies of any kind, including extreme weather events.

Contact NARIC’s information specialists to learn more about climate change, its effects on people with disabilities, people with chronic conditions, and other at-risk groups, and resources and research about this topic.

About mpgarcia

I'm the Bilingual Information/Media Specialist at NARIC.
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