What to Watch: How climate change impacts people with disabilities 

By Sophie Roback, Alliance Intern from Colorado College ‘24

As a result of climate change, natural disasters are becoming more frequent, and people with disabilities are being disproportionately affected. A recent video from PBS Newshour focuses on the story of Lynne Bitzinger, a woman with disabilities living in Fort Myers, FL whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Lynne’s story is not uncommon as research shows us that most people with disabilities never return to their homes after a disaster and are up to four times more likely to die in disasters than the general population. 

Justice Shorter, a Washington DC-based blind disability activist, says, “People with disabilities are still not meaningfully included in every phase of disaster management and planning, and there has to be a fundamental shift in how that process works.” Shorter is fighting to be included in the climate mitigation and adaptation conversation which has historically excluded addressing the issues faced by people with disabilities. 

On a global scale, we are seeing governments ignoring people with disabilities in their climate adaptation and mitigation planning according to a recent study from McGill University. This study reported that less than a third of countries who signed the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement even mentioned people with disabilities in their long-term plans.” 

Sherman Gillums, Jr., the Disability Coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), discusses the importance of proactive planning rather than focusing on a response model. He has been working to improve the inclusivity of FEMA’s work, though still receives considerable criticism. In response, Gillums says, “I accept that criticism because we want to make sure that nobody comes out of a disaster feeling that way. I don’t listen for good news. I’m listening for the areas where we may not get a do-over, but we can a do-better.” 

Shorter reminds us of the harmful effects of exclusionary language: “When we say we can’t save everybody, when we say that every disaster is going to bring about a number of acceptable losses, when we use phrases like that, what we are truly saying is, individuals with disabilities will die, and we just have to deal with it.

People want to feel like they are being listened to and supported, and disaster management planners need to make sure that they are creating a space for all voices to be heard.

An October 20 “Blackout Activation” scenario exercise led by Tricia Wachtendorf, Director, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, at the Future Forum Conference on Crisis to Resilience in New York underscored the importance for this. Lights were turned out and the exercise was conducted by candlelight.

Participants were asked to imagine what it would be like to be in the upper stories of a tall apartment building when all of the sudden the power went out amidst heavily polluted air from Canadian wildfires. The elevators would not be working and breathing outdoor air would be like smoking a package of cigarettes. How would they respond as they tried to deal with their children, as well as their elderly neighbors and friends with disabilities?

The top disaster planners who led this exercise are planning for situations just like this. They are encouraging a focus on building local resiliency by creating a web of neighborhood relationships.This is essential because they acknowledge natural disasters overwhelm the capacity of government to help. One positive step that we can all take is to consider having a neighborhood meeting to discuss how to respond in the event of a natural disaster

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