Climate change and those with special needs

Every day, clearer pictures of an Earth devastated by climate change emerge: extreme bouts of heat, rising sea levels and an increase in natural disasters are just some of the challenges we will face. The World Institute on Disability (WID), based in Berkeley, California, is now prioritising research into how environmental change does and will affect people with disabilities (PWDs).

PWDs are generally defined as people suffering from chronic health problems with functional impairments, such as people who are blind, deaf or use wheelchairs, canes, walkers, crutches and service animals, as well as those with mental health needs. After Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf coast in 2005, the definition was expanded to include disadvantaged children, children with special needs, the infirm and elderly and those living in extreme poverty. Alex Ghenis is a policy and research specialist at WID. On his New Earth Disability blog (see: https://wid.org/2015/ 11/13/ned/), Ghenis lists three major concerns for PWDs:

1. Severe storms: Ghenis notes that preparation for violent storms often ignores PWDs when it comes to evacuation, shelter accessibility, and general medical care and personal support.

2. Heatwaves: Extreme heat events are becoming more common across the world. These events will have a particularly severe impact on PWDs. For one, explains Ghenis, “people with high-level spinal cord injuries have a lower ability to sweat when their bodies get warm, so they overheat easily.”

3. Migration: As ice melts and seas rise, millions of people will become displaced from their homes. Scientists call these people “climate migrants”, and some estimate that by 2050 their numbers will soar. PWDs will face problems with transportation and accessibility, a loss of shelter, the inability to keep or re-enrol in healthcare/social services, a loss of personal support networks, or simply being turned away at borders because of their disability, notes Ghenis.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, has stated that PWDs must be included in disaster preparation plans through “national or regional strategies, as well as practical steps taken at the community level or by individuals”. 

Category: Winter 2017

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